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With only a single vote to spare, the House passed a controversial bill Friday that would reinstate the firing squad as a means of carrying out the death penalty in Utah. HB11 now goes to the Senate.
"This bill, first of all, is not a debate on whether or not to have the death penalty," bill sponsor Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said in the beginning of the floor debate. "The state of Utah has adopted the death penalty, and in doing so we have to have a means of carrying it out."
HB11 would amend Utah law to allow the firing squad as a means to carry out the death penalty if the drug cocktail necessary for lethal injection was unavailable.
After the presentation and arguments for and against the bill, the vote sat deadlocked at 35-35 as lawmakers and a full gallery of spectators waited the return of three representatives who had walked out before the vote.
When they did cast their votes, the final tally stood at 39-34. A minimum of 38 votes is required for a bill to pass the House.
The firing squad was legal in Utah until 2004 when the law was changed to make lethal injection the primary means of execution. Current Utah law only allows a return to the firing squad if lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional.
"Back in 2004, we had no idea that at some time we would not have the drug cocktail available to carry out the death penalty," Ray said. "So this bill just goes one step, a very small step."
States such as Oklahoma, Arizona and Ohio have botched executions by trying to mix their own chemical compounds to take the place of the drug cocktail that is currently difficult to obtain and, at times, unavailable. In one case, it took nearly two hours for the inmate to die.
"We are facing a situation where we are going to have to go to court, and it's going to cost millions of dollars for the state of Utah to defend what we're doing," Ray said.
Despite his insistence that the bill is not about the morality of the death penalty, that inevitably became a topic of the debate.
"The death penalty disproportionately affects my community," said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, the first female African-American elected to the Utah House. "The death penalty also is not fairly given across socioeconomic status, racial or gender lines. …I refuse to vote yes on a bill that gives a tool to carry out the death penalty."
Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, rebutted Ray's assertion that the bill would be more cost-effective for the state, arguing that a death penalty case costs nearly twice as one in which a convicted killer is sentenced to life in prison. He also said states with capital punishment actually have higher murder rates.
"This is not just a conversation about different ways of the state putting people to death," King said. "It's a question about moral and fiscal responsibility and whether the state of Utah chooses, or not, to be a moral and fiscal leader on such a controversial topic."
He proceeded with a two-minute graphic description of the exact process of death by firing squad, calling it a "cold-blooded execution."
"We decided back in 2004 that using a firing squad to murder individuals was barbaric, it's not something we could afford to do," he said. "Why are we bringing it back? Don't we care about how Utah is perceived in the country and in this world in terms of how it deals with heinous crimes?"
Others were also concerned about the state's reputation if the bill were to pass.
"If we do this, if you think that we have problems with air quality and other things with the image of the state of Utah, to bring back the firing squad would be going down that path," said Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton.
Ray said other options to carry out the death penalty are electrocution, gassing and hanging, but he repeated his previously aired view that execution by firing squad is the most humane.
It is estimated, Ray said, that Utah is two to four years away from its next execution.
"What I'm hoping is by that time, in the United States, we will have found a new drug cocktail that gets approved and we will continue on. That's more than likely what's going to happen," he said. "But we need to have a backup, just in case, so that we don't end up in court spending a lot of taxpayer dollars to defend what we could have taken care of today."
Gov. Gary Herbert's spokesman Marty Carpenter told The Salt Lake Tribune that the governor discussed the issue with Ray in August and recognized that the bill addresses a potential need that may arise.
"While he recognized that there may be some need for the state to be able to carry out executions in the absence of the lethal-injection chemicals currently used, he has not said he would sign the bill," Carpenter said.
After the House vote, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, voiced his opposition to the firing squad and the death penalty in general, saying, "If we do [execute convicted killers], let's stream it live, get it out there."
House Speaker Greg Hughes said he has discussed the issue with Dabakis and agrees with him on the point that the public needs to be more aware of what is going on.
"It takes some context to explain that. If you were to say that we should just live stream this…people miss what you're saying. They think you're advocating the most brutal form or that you're celebrating this," he said. "[But] I think there should be an awareness by the public of what we are doing."
Hughes said he was surprised the vote in the House was as close as it was because it was about the method of execution, not the legality of it. He noted he voted in 2004 against doing away with the firing squad. "I think if we want to have a debate on whether a state has capital punishment, I could see that vote being like the one we saw on the floor today. But it escapes me that we're having such a prolonged debate on the niceties of, or what doesn't offend our senses, about capital punishment."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said he isn't sure how the bill will fare in the Senate.
"I think it's a little early to predict what [the prospect] is, whether it will pass the Senate or not," he said. "Now we'll get serious about the bill, have a [Republican] caucus meeting about it and see what the will of the Senate is."
Robert Gehrke contributed to this report
Utah's death row
Currently there are eight inmates on death row. Four of them face execution by lethal injection; three selected the firing squad before that choice was eliminated in 2004; one inmate doesn't have a specified method of execution.
The state currently does not have any lethal injection drugs on hand.
Following are the death row inmates:
Michael Anthony Archuleta, sentenced Dec. 21, 1989, lethal injection.
Douglas Stewart Carter, sentenced Dec. 27, 1985, lethal injection.
Taberon Dave Honie, sentenced May 20, 1999, unspecified.
Troy Michael Kell, sentenced Aug. 8, 1996, firing squad.
Ronald Watson Lafferty, resentenced April 23, 1996, firing squad.
Floyd Eugene Maestas, sentenced Feb. 1, 2008, lethal injection.
Ralph Leroy Menzies, sentenced March 23, 1988, firing squad
Von Lester Taylor, sentenced May 24, 1991, lethal injection.
Source: Utah Department of Corrections