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SCOTUS Ruling on Death Penalty Has Utah Links

Thomas Hawk
Flickr Creative Commons
Utah leaders opted to make the firing squad a backup for executions if lethal injection drugs are not available. Three death row inmates had already chosen to die by firing squad a decade ago, before a change in state law.

The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for Death Row prisoners to continue being executed by lethal injection. It’s a case that’s been watched in Utah, where the use of firing squads is a backup method of execution.

The court majority cited a Utah firing squad case from 1879 in its  5-4 decision. Asst. Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker says the ruling means less legal wrangling over death penalty methods.

“Having that requirement that [death-row convicts] have to identify an alternative method will largely shut down that litigation,” he says.

Utah has eight people on death row. Three have asked to die by firing squad, and Utah lawmakers have anticipated trouble with lethal injection drugs even before the ruling. They passed legislation in the 2015 session to allow firing squad executions if the lethal injection drugs are not available.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, sponsored that bill. He said Monday that, even with the court’s ruling on lethal injection, more states are already thinking about adding the firing squad to their options.

“I think lethal injection, as we know it, is gone,” he says.

The reason is that execution drugs have become harder to obtain from European manufacturers as well as American pharmaceutical companies.

Ray says: “The most efficient way and -- if you want to call it humane -- to me is the firing squad because the time of death is about five seconds versus anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes with the lethal injection -- even when it’s working right.”

The Utah lawmaker says he agrees with Justice Breyer, who said in his dissenting opinion that it’s a good time to begin a broader discussion about the death penalty.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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