Six years ago, a man on death row in Nevada, Scott Dozier, said he wanted to give up his legal fight and be executed, but there was a problem. Prison officials could not find any lethal injection drugs. Amid the ensuing legal turmoil, Dozier pitched his own solution, telling me in an interview, “I would have been just as happy if they had taken me back and shot me. .”
Dozier’s death in 2019 was ruled a suicide, but now his words seem prescient. On Thursday, South Carolina scheduled the execution of Richard Moore – convicted of murder in a 2001 robbery – for April 29. Because state officials say they cannot secure lethal injection drugs, they will give him the choice between the electric chair and the firing squad. Authorities spent $53,000, by their own estimate, to renovate part of a prison to allow a three-person firing squad to carry out executions, including adding bulletproof glass to protect witnesses.
South Carolina is not alone: Oklahoma and Mississippi have also officially adopted the firing squad, although Utah remains the only state to have actually used the method in the last century. The US Supreme Court has told death row inmates that if they want to fight lethal injection in court, they must offer an alternative. Following dozens of botched and obviously painful lethal injections in recent years, prisoners from at least 10 states have made a surreal argument: they prefer the firing squad.
So, are we really about to start shooting prisoners? Although the method seems cruel and archaic, conversations with scholars and a review of history suggest that we should also ask ourselves why we have so consistently avoid the firing squad. The answers suggest that it is more than just a method of execution. The firing squad unearths some of the fundamental contradictions at the heart of American capital punishment.
“It’s almost instantaneous death, it’s the cheapest, it’s the easiest, it has the lowest ‘botch’ rate,” said University of Richmond law professor Corinna Lain. . (Federal judges have done similar points.) At the same time, it’s “more honest,” she says. Lain and other scholars have argued that Americans have long wanted — not always consciously — to disguise the violence of capital punishment. “We don’t want a mess” wrote Douglas B. Kamerow, former Assistant Surgeon General, in The BMJ, a medical journal published by the British Medical Association. “We want these evil people gone, dead, but most of us don’t want to feel bad about how they died.”
There was a time when Americans didn’t seem to feel so bad about the firing squad. Many men were executed this way during the Civil War, and soon after the Supreme Court approved of the method. In the 1930s, a Utah prisoner named John Deering allowed a doctor to hook him up to an EKG while facing gunfire, and his heart stopped in 15.6 seconds. (Even when nothing goes wrong in a lethal injection, the process takes minutes.)
But the method fell out of favor, as heads of state came to prefer executions that looked technologically “modern” and did not invite public spectacle. In the early 20th century, hangings – which to many looked too much like illegal lynchings – were moved from courthouse plazas behind prison walls, and eventually replaced by the electric chair. “We’ve gone from stoning to crucifixion, to rendering, to burning, to hanging,” Texas lawmaker Ben Z. Grant told his colleagues in 1977, asking them to abandon the electric chair, which ” has become a circus”. sideshow” and “has a way of making the punished heroes”.
Instead, Grant proposed lethal injection, which created in Texas in 1982 and has become the dominant method nationwide. But around 2010, big pharma started saying they didn’t want their products used to kill and cut off the supply of drugs. Some prison officials began buying drugs in secret, using cash and hiding the names of their new suppliers. Some experimented with new drugs, including fentanyl. Tennessee has returned to the electric chair, while Alabama and Arizona have built and renovated gas chambers, which they have yet to use.
In many states, prisoners have gone to court, arguing that various drug combinations violate the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” And they had evidence: men were panting and choking on the stretcher. In 2014, an Oklahoma prisoner named Clayton Lockett writhed, moaned and convulsed for more than 40 minutes after being injected with lethal injection drugs. His peers sued, but the Supreme Court spoke out against themstating that “some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution” and “while most humans wish to die a painless death, many are not so fortunate”.
But the court went further, issuing what Judge Sonia Sotomayor called a “macabre challenge”: if prisoners want to fight against a method of execution, they must offer a “known and available” alternative in court. In Oklahoma, the state asked death row inmates to indicate their choice on a paper form. Some refused to commit. “Suggesting a method of how the state would kill me would make me an accomplice to my own death,” Julius Jones (who, separately, claim his innocence) stated in an affidavit.
Defense attorneys, tasked with trying to save the lives of death row clients, must now advise these clients on the way to die they should fight for. “I’ve spoken to many lawyers in this position, and it’s dark, dark, dark,” said Laura Porter, an attorney who leads the 8th Amendment Anti-Death Penalty Project. “What the Supreme Court has asked people seems impossible.”
Across the country, prisoners are proposing the firing squad as a better alternative to lethal injection. To make that point, they enlisted James Williams, a Texas ER doctor and firearms instructor who regularly appears in courtrooms as an “expert in firing squad protocols.” Williams, who declined an interview for this story, testified on behalf of a Nevada prisoner at a court hearing last November.
According to a transcript, Williams said he studied protocols from Utah, the US military and several other countries. He spoke to gunshot victims, and at age 18 he was shot in the chest. All of this led him to conclude that getting shot is “relatively painless compared to virtually every other means of execution that we have historically used over the past four centuries”.
Nevada lawyers countered that some executions by firing squad did not go as planned and were likely painful. They discussed the data on the subject, which is scarce and disputed. Williams explained that in one case from Utah, it appeared “that the execution team deliberately did not aim for the target for reasons that are not clear to me, perhaps to cause further pain to the ‘individual”. In one of the strangest moments of the hearing, Williams went so far as to tell the court that there is a way to use a firearm that is even less prone to error: “a nice bullet silent in the back of the head, aiming for the brainstem and death.”
This brings us back to the question of why Americans have not returned to the firing squad until now. Lawmakers have used words like “medieval”, “archaic” and “barbaric” to describe it. “I think there’s a deep need to differentiate state killing from the actions of the person being killed,” said Lain, a law professor. “The firing squad is so explicitly violent…The state does what murderers do.”
As the only state to use the firing squad in the last century, Utah is a place to look for ideas, though the method’s use there is idiosyncratic, tied to Mormon beliefs about the need for blood be literally shed. On three occasions since 1977, the state has placed a hood over a prisoner’s head and tied him to a chair amidst sandbags. Five shooters stood about 20 feet away and aimed at a round white target above his heart; one had a non-lethal bullet, based on an old tradition allowing every shooter to retain some sort of denial. Utah lawmakers have often expressed concern that the method reflects badly on the state and pays too much attention to convicts.
In the last firing squad, in 2010, more than 150 journalists showed up and, according to Fordham law professor Deborah Denno, many people around the world volunteered to shoot the guns. “It showed a side of the death penalty that is a bit sadistic, people who claim to be an executioner,” she said, making it harder to separate state executions from the public frenzy that accompanied lynchings until the 20th century. “People think of a lethal injection and they think of a flu shot. It’s so violent to have a bullet in the head.
In South Carolina, the new protocol also involves a hood and a target above the heart, but shooters will be only 15 feet away. The prisoners and their lawyers are ask state courts to stay any enforcement until the plan has undergone further legal review, calling him “barbarian”. (They also challenge the electric chair and other elements of the state’s Methods of Execution Act, passed last year.) They focus on the fact that, unlike Utah, the state plans to use only three shooters and did not disclose the caliber of the rifle, “thereby increasing the risk of error”. In response, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Corrections pointed to documents filed by the agency in State court, claiming the method is “fast,” has a long history in the United States and won the endorsement of various federal judges.
Ultimately, Denno and others said the death penalty remains popular, but not if it’s bloody. Judging from the Utah experience, if an execution by firing squad takes place this year, it will tap into public ambivalence and spark a public debate about executions as a whole. Federal Judge Alex Kozinski written in 2014“If we as a society cannot bear the splash of an execution carried out by firing squad, then we should not carry out executions at all.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the status of the Arizona gas chamber, which the state used until 1999 and recently renovated.