Asked to name current execution methods in the U.S., most citizens will cite either the electric chair or lethal injection. But a few states have turned to Door C–death by firing squad. And to no one’s surprise, death penalty opponents characterize this third method as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Should the old-time execution method of a firing squad be given a shot?
The question has come to a head in South Carolina where a death warrant for 57-year-old Richard Moore was issued. The set execution date of April 29th is on hold with the South Carolina Supreme Court approving a temporary stay of execution. Should the execution go forward in the intended manner, Moore would become the first inmate to be put to death by firing squad in that state. The proposed manner of his execution has become the target (pun intended) of death penalty protestors who’ve labeled this method as unconstitutional.
What does the Constitution have to do with executions, you ask? Six words in the Eighth Amendment, a part of the Bill of Rights which was ratified in 1791, come into play: “nor cruel or unusual punishments inflicted.” Firing squad opponents hang their arguments on these words to shoot down this execution method.
Unfortunately, the Founding Fathers didn’t provide a glossary behind the Constitution and its amendments, so it’s impossible to know exactly what they meant by either “cruel” or “unusual.” But whipping, stocks, and branding with a hot iron were in use during their time. The drafters of the Eight Amendment wanting to avoid the public shame and pain such punishments brought is a reasonable assumption with their use of the terms “cruel” and “unusual.”
Death by firing squad has been an accepted method for executions for quite some time, particularly for the military. It was deemed a fitting punishment for the offenses of treason, desertion, and mutiny, among others. Numerous soldiers were executed in this way during the Civil War. According to historians, 433 of the 573 soldiers executed in that time faced a firing squad. (Would this historical evidence be characterized as a “smoking gun?”)
The term “squad” is appropriate because more than one shooter is utilized, and all shooters fire simultaneously. Traditionally, not all the shooters are given live rounds, allowing them to preserve deniability for the death. In South Carolina, three shooters are used to execute the condemned, but all are provided weapons having live ammo. Squad members are volunteers from the Department of Corrections trained in the use of weapons. (Translate: Trained marksmen = less chance of botched execution.)
Forget the dramatic scenes from movies where the condemned stands in a field, is shot, and falls to the ground or in a pit or grave behind him which has already been dug. In South Carolina, the condemned is strapped into a metal firing squad chair in the “death chamber.” A metal chair sounds stark, but comfort really isn’t a concern at that point. A hood is placed over the condemned’s head, and a small “aim point” (perhaps an “X?”) is placed over his heart. The firing squad stands 15′ away behind a wall of the chamber and fire rifles through an aperture in that wall. Bulletproof glass in the chamber protects those witnessing the execution in an adjoining area.
Using a firing squad is cheaper than maintaining an electric chair or purchasing lethal drugs, but is this method “cruel?” Legal debates rage, but one U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer seems favorable to the method. She wrote in a 2017 opinion that “In addition to being more instant, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless.” Using “Old Sparky,” the nickname given most electric chairs, in contrast might be more painful with electricity surging through the condemned’s body.
Undoubtedly, the firing squad method reduces the time for suffering, assuming any occurs. The gunshot is delivered to a vital organ, i.e., the heart, bringing quick death. A doctor’s experiment during an execution of a Utah inmate in the 1930’s supports this conclusion. The prisoner allowed the doctor to hook him up to an electrocardiogram as he faced the firing squad. The device registered 15.6 seconds before his heart stopped after being shot. (NOTE: This is a fine example of multitasking–execution and science experiment rolled into one.)
A lethal injection, in contrast, takes several minutes for death to occur, and instances of botched executions in that manner have been reported. In 2014, an Oklahoma prisoner writhed, groaned, and convulsed for over forty minutes. While the man surely wanted to live longer, he certainly didn’t want to do so under excruciatingly painful circumstances.
Why a return to execution by firing now? One driving factor is the lack of availability of the drugs needed for a lethal injection. Typically, a three-drug cocktail is utilized for executions, and South Carolina hasn’t possessed a usable dose of lethal injection drugs since 2013. Lack of these drugs is attributable to drug companies’ reluctance to have their products used to kill people, leading to a shortage.
Because of this drug shortage, in May of 2021 South Carolina’s governor signed a bill into law which allowed inmates to choose their method of execution–firing squad or electric chair. Talk about picking your poison….South Carolina is one of a handful of states authorizing this execution method; the others are Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah.
But just because the method is authorized doesn’t mean that it’s being used. According to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, only three executions in the U.S. have been carried out by firing squad since reinstatement of the death penalty nationally in 1976. And all three of those executions were conducted in Utah. Nevertheless, no firing squad executions have occurred in over a decade.
While the acceptability of using a firing squad in general may not be resolved immediately, the life of at least one condemned S. C. prisoner hangs in the balance now. Hopefully a quick resolution of his case will take place. To me, it is cruel and unusual to have the condemned remain in limbo for an extended time as to whether he will live or be executed no matter by what method.
Is it the method itself or simply the fact someone is being put to death that’s the crux of death penalty opponents’ objections? If you were to be executed, what method would you select–injection, electrocution, or shooting? Should all shooters in a firing squad be given live ammo or should one receive a non-lethal bullet?