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SALT LAKE CITY — Bullets may replace needles in Utah death row executions now that a House committee closely passed a controversial bill Wednesday that would reinstate the firing squad.
The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee voted 5-4 in favor of HB11, which would legalize firing squad executions in Utah if drugs needed for lethal injections aren’t available 30 days more before the date of the death warrant.
Now the bill will go to the House floor for additional debate.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is sponsoring the bill in wake of recent botched executions. He said prisons may need a “backup” method to lethal injections.
“This is just kind of a worse-case scenario,” Ray said. “If we don’t figure something out, this is what we can revert back to. … The fact is we have (the death penalty) on the books; we’re responsible to carry that out, so we have to have the ability to do that.”
Ray said because the European pharmaceutical companies that sell lethal injection drugs oppose the death penalty and refuse to sell to U.S. prisons, the drugs have become difficult to obtain, and several states including Oklahoma have attempted to find new sources of execution drugs.
Ray said incidents of erred executions carried out by those new state drugs have flared debate about whether states have the ability to administer lethal injections while still meeting the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that punishment may be neither cruel or unusual.
That’s why Ray said he is pushing HB11 — to ensure Utah’s ability to carry out the death penalty while avoiding what could be “a very costly legal battle,” similar to the case Oklahoma currently faces with the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
Acknowledging representatives of groups who oppose his bill because of their general opposition to the death penalty, Ray said HB11 “isn’t really as big as it’s being played up to be,” because it would reinstate the firing squad as a secondary execution method, leaving lethal injection as the primary method.
“We would say it is in fact a big deal,” said Anna Brower, public policy advocate with American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. “It’s a big missed opportunity to do something better than to just keep finding different ways for the government to kill people.”
Brower and other anti-death penalty group representatives urged the committee to consider using legislative time to dismantle the Utah death penalty altogether rather than “engaging in an ultimately doomed effort to decide on a decent way” to carry out the death penalty.
“If we can no longer kill people with lethal injection, which has become over time the least horrible way for the government to kill people, perhaps it’s time that we simply acknowledge that there is no right way to execute people and give up on this failed experiment,” Brower said.
“I think that’s a legitimate discussion to have at some point as to whether or not to keep the death penalty,” Ray said, adding that HB11, however, would give the state “breathing room” depending on the availability of lethal injection drugs or the court costs that may result in a continued pursuit of using the drugs.
“It’s a tough situation,” Ray said. “There’s no humane way to take a life, but given what’s on the table as far as our options, I think this is a good option to have as a backup.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org