Expert Comment: Will the return of the firing squad reduce executions?Tuesday 24 March 2015
As Utah announce that they are to resume the firing squad for executions, Head of Social Science and Professor of Criminal Justice, Professor George Mair, discusses what it means for capital punishment in the USA.
The announcement that Utah is to resume using the firing squad for executions is probably, to most people, an unwelcome development. Capital punishment is, by any measure, a brutal response to crime for any so-called civilized country. It is unjustified and indefensible in any circumstances. Utah, however, has form in the use of the firing squad. On January 17, 1977 Gary Gilmore was executed in Utah by firing squad at his own request. Gilmore’s was the first execution in the USA for 10 years and opened the door for more state-sanctioned executions.
The majority of states in the USA retain the death penalty, as does the federal jurisdiction. In all, 18 states in the USA as well as the District of Columbia do not have capital punishment and the majority of those states which retain it only resort to it occasionally. Public support for capital punishment in the US has been declining as the public has begun to understand how arbitrary and discriminatory it is. The use of life imprisonment has been increasing and this has led to decreasing use of the death penalty. In 1999, there were 98 executions; in 2006 there were 53; and in 2013, only 39 executions took place in nine states (Texas accounted for 41% of these). So in 2013, 23 states with capital punishment did not execute anyone and Utah is included in this group.
It is possible that Utah’s decision to bring back the firing squad will contribute to the decline in use of the capital punishment. The reason for its return is that many European countries will no longer supply the chemicals for lethal injections to the USA. And while it is difficult to see any civilized and acceptable way of a state killing one of its own citizens, the use of a firing squad is particularly barbaric. Ironically, Utah’s decision may lead to greater revulsion with regard to the death penalty and bring about its demise sooner rather than later.