Why Utah’s decision to bring back firing squads might be a good thing for the anti-death penalty movement

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Marc Hyden considers Utah’s reintroduction of the firing squad as an “act of desperation" — turning to a method more barbaric at a time when support for the death penalty is dwindling.

“They’re running out of ways to kill people properly, and they’re running to something that was used pretty long ago,” Hyden, the national coordinator of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, told Fusion on Thursday.

Hyden, whose group aims to frame opposition to the death penalty in a conservative light, has a point.


It’s getting more and more difficult to execute a person in the United States. The European Union has banned exports of common lethal-injection drugs to the United States. The resulting decline in supply has pushed states toward compounding pharmacies to obtain small doses of the drugs.

But that source, too, might dry up. The International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists, which boasts more than 4,000 members, officially discouraged its members this week from “participating in the preparation, dispensing, or distribution of compounded medications for use in legally authorized executions.”

“It is important to first understand the origin of this issue: states are turning to compounded preparations for this purpose because the companies that manufacture the products traditionally used have unilaterally decided to stop selling them for use in executions,” the group’s board of directors said.

This development, combined with a general shift in sentiment among the American public, has anti-death penalty advocates wondering if the other side is getting desperate. Lethal injections, the preferred “humane” method of execution, is on the verge of going extinct.


Texas, which is responsible for almost one-third of U.S. executions since the mid-1970s, has only one dose left of its preferred lethal drug, according to The Wall Street Journal. A spokesman for the state’s department of criminal justice said the state is exploring other possible drug options.

But some of those options aren’t working so well for other states. One sedative that has been used in recent injections has taken far longer than expected to work in multiple cases, prompting increased scrutiny and challenges — one of which is heading to the Supreme Court this term — over whether use of the drug in lethal injections violates the U.S. Constitution.


“What we’re seeing is a lot of states experimenting with brand new experimental drug combinations that are untested,” Hyden said.

That experimentation has been supplanted with alternate roads — some of which border on the extreme. Last year, Tennessee became the first state to mandate use of the electric chair in executions if lethal drugs are unavailable. Then came Utah and the firing squad.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

In a firing squad, five anonymous officers stand about 25 feet from the person set to be executed. One of the officers’ rifles is loaded with blanks so none of them know which one killed the inmate.


Contra the lethal injection, both the electric chair and the firing squad conjure up images that reveal the more brutal side of the death penalty. So though anti-death penalty groups view Utah’s move as a quick step backward, they believe it could drive the conversation in a different direction.

“The spectacle of the firing squad forces the public to confront something they’ve been able to avoid,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.


“They’ve not had to think much about the death penalty. It’s not something that touches a lot of people until now. There will be a lot of thought about how do I square my values about equal rights under the law with the fact that we could be engaging in fire squads.”

Combine that with a growing shift among the American public. Since 1996, according to the Pew Research Center, the gap between those who support the death penalty and those who oppose it has narrowed from 60 points to just 18 points.


Republican support is on the decline, too. Hyden points to movement in conservative Nebraska, which is considering a repeal of the state’s death penalty with support from Republican lawmakers. Delaware is also moving closer to repeal, though a final vote still faces significant hurdles.

The anti-death penalty movement as a whole also faces even bigger hurdles. But overall, even with the re-introduction of firing squads, that movement became more optimistic this week.


“I do think that it is also evidence of…as it becomes rarer and rarer, how extreme it could become in the fewer and fewer places that use it,”  Rust-Tierney said. “That is really what gives us some hope. As these states become more extreme in their methods of execution, the more the public is confronted with how unworkable and how consistent it is not with our values.”

Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.

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