South Carolina recently became the fourth state in the nation to offer the firing squad as an alternative method to a lethal injection execution.
The change created considerable consternation among death penalty opponents and some media outlets. The general consensus of opinion is that any alternative method of execution reinforces the inherent barbarity of the death penalty itself.
I agree … but to a point.
There is nothing cruel and unusual about giving a condemned person the choice of execution method.
In fact, giving the condemned an alternative to lethal injection is actually humane. Lethal injection is the cruelest execution method ever employed in the United States—worse than hanging, the electric chair, and, yes, even worse than the gas chamber (the second worst execution method in America).
Facts bear on the tree of truth.
There have been more than 1300 lethal injection executions carried out in the U.S. since it was first used in Texas in 982. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, roughly 7 percent (or 75 altogether) of these needle executions were horribly botched inflicting immeasurable but certainly excruciating pain to the condemned person. That’s the highest botched rate of any other method of execution used in this country, with the gas chamber coming in second with a 5 percent botched rate.
Compare that to the 0% botched rate of firing squad executions—not a single botched firing squad execution over the past 140 years. The DPIC does point to an 1879 firing squad execution carried out in territorial Utah during which the shooters missed the condemned man’s heart creating a 27 minute death cycle.
The traditional firing squad involves five shooters, each armed with a 30-caliber Winchester rifle. The shooters stand behind a wall with rifles pointed through holes in it. Four of the rifles are armed; the fifth is not. This practice is done so no one in the firing squad will know for sure which fired the fatal shot. The condemned person is restrained in a chair in front of a wooden panel 25 feet from the wall. A target is placed over their heart. Four bullets, any one of which is capable of killing, will simultaneously rip through the heart, producing an almost instantaneous death. The condemned person will never hear the explosion of the rifles.
It is virtually impossible to botch a firing squad execution—even with three blind shooters. The 30-caliber Winchester rifle was not made until 1895—some 16 years after that 1879 botched execution in the Utah territory.
There will be more executions carried out in this country. The appetite for violence, especially state-sanctioned violence, is rooted in the American DNA.
Giving a person facing execution a choice in how that execution will be carried out is not cruel or unusual.
It is a humane grace.
There is ample space in the public marketplace for a continuing honest debate about either the humanity or morality of the death penalty.
The firing squad issue in South Carolina is rather simple: a condemned inmate is given a choice of how they want to die. There is no cruel or unusual debate in the exercise of that freedom. No one to my knowledge has ever argued the cruelty of a Last Meal. It has always been considered an societal acknowledgement of a condemned person’s humanity in their final hours. The individual choice of execution method should be viewed through the same social lens.
I am opposed to the death penalty. I spent six years on Louisiana’s death row followed by another 34 years in the state’s prison system. Had I been given a choice in 1966 between death in the electric chair or 40 years of imprisonment, I may well have chosen the electric chair.
Somehow, through the grace of God, I survived both fates. I entered death row in 1966 at age twenty and walked out of prison in 2006 at age sixty-one. I know about which I speak. All anyone must do is research the 1983 electric chair execution of John Lewis Evans in Alabama to know that the firing squad is a more humane method of execution.