Bring Back the Firing Squad

The lesser of two evils.

Photographer: Trent Nelson/AP Photo

The likelihood that a state might execute an innocent person -- something that has almost certainly already happened in the U.S. -- is reason enough to abolish the death penalty. But while states continue to use it, they could at least be honest about what it means and choose a method that doesn't inflict additional unnecessary suffering. 

It isn't difficult to kill a prisoner swiftly. A bullet to the heart, or lopping off the head, does the job. Yet states have chosen to disguise the brutality of the death penalty by adopting lethal injection --  a method that purports to be more humane but, because it doesn't work reliably, is actually more cruel than, say, death by firing squad. The desire to sanitize execution has made a terrible policy even worse. 

QuickTake Lethal Injection

Last July, the authorities in Arizona took almost two hours to kill Joseph Wood. Some witnesses said he was writhing and gasping for air throughout that time. The state attorney general’s office insisted he was sleeping soundly. What sounded like gasping was just snoring, they said. Wood is no longer available for comment. 

Two months before that, Clayton Lockett, a prisoner in Oklahoma, writhed and groaned in a way that officials recognized as problematic: They called off the execution, but he died anyway. As a result of that incident, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear an appeal next month by three other Oklahoma death-row inmates, who argue that the state’s use of lethal drugs constitutes a “cruel and unusual punishment” banned by the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. 

This is not the first time the court has looked at the question. In 2008, it upheld Kentucky’s use of lethal drugs. Since then, though, the company that manufactured one of the ingredients in that cocktail has ceased producing it, and the European Union has banned certain drugs from being exported to the U.S. to halt their use in executions. States have been turning to alternatives. So the Supreme Court now finds itself in the absurd position of micromanaging the drugs used in lethal injections. 

States should stop using the death penalty, but if they can't bring themselves to do that, they should return to older, swifter and more reliable methods of execution. This week, Utah became the first state to bring back its firing squad, but it plans to use this method only if lethal injection is unavailable. It would be better to switch to death by firing squad and be done with it. 

Through most of history, the death penalty was designed to inflict maximum pain and suffering. People were crucified, buried alive, burned at the stake, and hanged, drawn and quartered -- to name just a few of the methods conjured by the human imagination. The French introduced the guillotine in 1792 as a more modern way to cut off somebody's head than using a sword or ax. In the name of progress, cleaner and more clinical-seeming methods followed. 

Yet if there can be such a thing as a humane execution, what counts is speed: The faster, the better. Executions have only gotten slower. The electric chair, gas chamber and lethal injection can all lead to intense and prolonged suffering. Each is designed, in truth, to spare the society that inflicts the punishment the sight of blood and guts. These methods are kinder to the executioners than to the condemned. 

States should stop trying to mask the violence of the act. Executions are unavoidably brutal. Either scrap the death penalty, and the possibility of gross and irreversible injustice that goes with it -- or, for pity's sake, accept its brutality and make it quick.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.