Ronnie Lee Gardner, on death row in Utah for the murder of a defense attorney in 1985, is scheduled to be executed early Friday. At one time, he had selected lethal injection, but in a court hearing in April, he expressed a different preference: "I would like the firing squad, please."
Utah is the only state that still executes inmates by firing squad. And the limited body of research on executions suggests that, of the options, the firing squad isn't a bad way to go. A Utah inmate who in 1938 agreed to be gunned to death while hooked up to an electrocardiogram showed complete heart death within one minute of the shots. By contrast, in a typical, complication-free lethal injection, it takes about nine minutes for the inmate to die.
A raft of recent cases suggests that lethal injections don't always go as planned. Ohio opted to change its execution protocol this year after several botched executions, including one in which corrections personnel tried to place an IV line for two hours before giving up. Death penalty lawyers and human rights groups argued that mix-ups in the drug cocktail could result in a long, painful death, tantamount to torture. The Supreme Court rejected that argument.
By contrast, shooting is simple and deadly. It's easy to find psychologically stable, trained professionals. The four-bullet protocol provides a measure of certainty that one bullet will strike the heart, leading to a near instantaneous death.
Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School who has studied execution methods for nearly two decades, said she would pick the firing squad if offered Gardner's choice between the two methods. "To me, it seems like the more humane choice," she said.