Utah Death Penalty – Ronnie Lee Gardner
Three men have died by firing squad since capital punishment was reinstated in Utah after a decade-long break. One of them, Ronnie Lee Gardner, chose firing squad over lethal injection.
Gardner’s attorneys are challenging the state’s new firing squad protocol, calling it “barbaric.” It involves strapping an inmate into a chair and putting a hood over his head, with a target over his heart.
The last time Utah used the firing squad, Ronnie Lee Gardner sat in a chair with sandbags around him and a target pinned over his heart. Five prison staffers lined up, and each fired a bullet from 25 feet away at his chest. One of the bullets, however, was a blank. That’s to prevent later resentment by those bothered that they may not have killed the inmate.
Many states have dropped the electric chair and firing squad in favor of lethal injection, largely because it takes less time. But Idaho’s governor recently signed a bill that would allow the state to use the firing squad if it can’t get the drugs necessary for lethal injection.
Proponents say firing squads are more humane than lethal injection. They’re quicker and more accurate, and a shot to the heart should cause a quick death. Sonia Sotomayor, a Supreme Court justice, wrote in 2017 that firing squads “may well be the most humane method of execution.” It’s an assertion some legal scholars agree with.
In the days of military discipline, the firing squad was standard punishment for soldiers who committed traitorous acts or refused to fight. In a Utah prison in 2010, Ronnie Lee Gardner sat in a chair with sandbags around him and a target pinned over his heart while five prison staffers fired from about 25 feet away. He was pronounced dead two minutes later.
The state has remodeled its death chamber, installing bullet-resistant glass between the room and witnesses, and a metal firing squad chair into which the condemned will be strapped. A rectangular opening in the wall 15 feet from the chair — positioned so that the shooters’ rifles and the open portal are not visible to witnesses — will allow prisoners to make a final statement before they are strapped into the seat and a hood is placed over their heads.
One commenter argued that the change implements an existing statutory provision and does not expand federal capabilities or increase liability for prison workers. The Department disagrees.
In modern firing squads, the condemned are often blindfolded or hooded to avoid emotional trauma. One rifle is loaded with a blank round, and it’s not known which member of the team holds it, to prevent tampering or identification of the shooter.
The Utah Department of Corrections denied MuckRock’s request for any training documents related to the firing squad, claiming that the records contain “security plans, codes, combinations, security procedures, etc.” and are exempt from public disclosure under state law.
Many scholars, politicians, and prisoners who have been condemned to death argue that firing squads are among the quickest and least painful methods of execution available. In 2017, liberal Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a fiery dissent that defended firing squads after an Alabama inmate elected to be executed this way over fears of a botched lethal injection.
After the prisoner is hooded and strapped to the chair, he is faced with five marksmen who train their rifles through a rectangular opening in the wall 15ft away. They fire blanks while keeping their faces hidden, an ancient tradition that allows each shooter to retain some level of deniability.
It’s a method that hasn’t been widely used since the Supreme Court lifted its ban on executions in 1976, with just three firing squad executions taking place – the first of which was Ronnie Lee Gardner in Utah. But the technique could soon make a comeback, after South Carolina passed a law in 2021 allowing it to be used if lethal injection isn’t available.
Some opponents of the death penalty, such as Sonia Sotomayor in 2017, have argued that it might be the most humane way to die. But that assertion has been disputed by many other experts. It’s also been difficult for prison officials to obtain the lethal drugs they need to execute prisoners, with drug companies refusing to supply them.