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The Utah Legislature moved a step closer Wednesday to returning the firing squad to the state as a means of executing death-row criminals.
House Bill 11, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, would restore the firing squad as an option for executions if the state can't get the chemical cocktail used in lethal injections a problem encountered in Oklahoma and elsewhere.
Condemned prisoners in Utah were allowed to choose either lethal injection or firing squad until 2004 when the Legislature did away with the firing squad as an option, except for those who had already selected it as their preferred method. The last person executed in Utah, Ronnie Lee Gardner, was killed by firing squad in 2010.
Ray told members of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee that the debate is not about the death penalty but about having a practical backup plan in case the state is unable to get the drugs for lethal injection.
The bill has the support of several law-enforcement groups, Ray said, and Gov. Gary Herbert has told him that he supports it and would sign it into law if it passes.
"It seems like, as a state, if we really wanted to look at this seriously we could come up with a more humane way [to conduct executions] than shooting somebody," said Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, who is a doctor.
The state could come up with another cocktail of drugs, Ray said, but it makes sense to have a backup and he urged legislators not to get too caught up in minimizing the pain of the condemned killer.
"These people are being put to death for a reason," he said. "Their victims didn't get to die in a less excruciating manner."
Previously, Ray has argued that death by firing squad is probably the most humane manner of execution.
"It's an instant death," Ray said during an interim committee hearing last year. "To be honest with you a lot of people are dead before they hear the guns. ... It's actually very humane, a lot more humane than the electric chair, hanging or lethal injection, quite honestly."
Anna Brower of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said the barbaric nature of the firing squad has already meant unfavorable publicity for the state, and called the shortage of lethal drugs "a big missed opportunity to do something better than to keep finding ways for the government to kill people."
If the preferred method of lethal injection is no longer an option, she said, "perhaps it's time we simply acknowledged there is no right way to execute people." She called the death penalty a "failed experiment."
And Jean Hill of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City said there is no urgency to deal with the issue now, with Utah's next execution likely three to four years away.
The committee voted by a narrow 5-4 margin to advance the bill to the full House for consideration.
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