State-sanctioned executions are a dirty business.
There’s no moral or legitimate penological value in the state putting a human being to death.
The death penalty exists for no other reason than to make vengeful-minded people feel good—most of whom reside in the former Confederate states where the value of human life is historically less revered, especially when it comes to people of color.
The Death Penalty information Center (DPIC) reports that 1270 of the 1557 executions in the U.S. between January 1977 and November 2022 took place in the South. 1117 of those executions were carried out in just 8 Confederate states.
A disproportionate number of these executions involved black men convicted of killing a white victim.
1377 of the 1557 executions carried out in the U.S. since Gary Gilmore’s execution by firing squad in Utah on January 17, 1977 have been by lethal injection. Two other men besides Gilmore were executed by firing squad, three were hanged, 11 put to death in gas chambers, and 163 electrocuted.
At least 75 of the lethal injection executed were terribly botched—most notably in Oklahoma and Alabama.
In 2014, Oklahoma tried unsuccessfully for 20 minutes to kill Clayton Lockett by lethal injection as he struggled in pain before dying of a heart attack in the death chamber some 43 minutes after the execution protocol got underway.
This past August it took Alabama prison officials, from start to finish, three gruesome, painful hours to execute Joe Nathan James.
This horribly botched execution was in keeping with Alabama’s history of botched executions.
In 1983, with the state’s first post-Furman execution, prison officials literally set John Lewis Evans on fire in its electric chair during a 20-minute execution ritual.
According to the Espy File and DPIC, there have been more than 16,000 people in colonial and post-colonial America executed in a legal process since 1608.
They were put to death through six methods, five of which could be considered primary: burning, hanging, electric chair, firing squad, gas chamber, and lethal injection.
In March 2018, NBC News listed the amount of time it takes to carry out each execution method: lethal injection, 6 minutes to 2 hours; gas chamber, 10-18 minutes; hanging, 4-11 minutes; electric chair, 2 minutes to 15-plus minutes; and firing squad, less than a minute.
Firing squad—the quickest, most efficient, and arguably the most humane way to execute a human being.
The DPIC reports that only four states—Mississippi, Utah, South Carolina and Oklahoma—allow for execution by firing squad as an alternative method of execution.
That seems odd since it costs just roughly $55,000 to convert an existing death chamber into a firing squad chamber.
Apparently death penalty state legislatures either do not want to spend that kind of money on a more humane method of execution or they simply prefer to torture condemned inmates to death with lethal injection.
This past June the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a prisoner challenging an existing method of execution under the Eighth Amendment must propose a viable alternative method.
In other words, the Eighth Amendment has no constitutional problem with the death penalty per se regardless of how it is administered or how long it takes to administer it.
In a nutshell, a condemned inmate not satisfied with lethal injection as the method for their execution must point to an available alternative method, such as the firing squad, to escape the torture of lethal injection.
That means condemned inmates in states with lethal injection as the only method of execution, such as Texas (the execution capital in the United States), are out of luck. They must undergo the torture of the needle
The death penalty is utterly inhumane. Nothing can be done about that, especially in the Old South where state-sanction killing is so acceptable that it is often advocated in Sunday morning religious services.
But the Joe Nathan James execution shows beyond a doubt that it’s time for the U.S. to move beyond the torture of lethal injection as the nation’s primary method of execution.
Lethal injection has proven itself as the most barbaric way to carry out state-sanctioned killings as evidenced by the Lockett/James executions.
The gas chamber, hanging, and electric chair, in that order, collectively run a close second as the worst ways to put down the so-called “worst of the worst” human beings.
That leaves us with the old fashioned firing squad.
A Return To The Firing Squad
This method of execution has not experienced a single “botched execution” over the past 142 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. Four of the rifles are armed; the fifth is not.
This practice is done so no one in the firing squad will know with certainty who 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 will simultaneously rip through the person’s heart, producing an almost instantaneous death.
In other words, after telling the firing squad “let’s do it” in 1977, Gary Gilmore never heard the explosion of any of the four bullets that tore into his heart.
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. Thus, the Winchester has never failed.
If death penalty states are not willing to make the firing squad as the only method of execution, then they should at least offer it as an alternative.
The death penalty, regardless of how it is carried out, is cruel and unusual punishment but it is neither cruel nor unusual to at least give a condemned person a choice in their execution method.
That is a simple act of humane grace.
As Gilmore said, “let’s do it” then.
Billy Sinclair spent 40 years in the Louisiana prison system, six of which were on death row. He is a published author, an award-winning journalist (a George Polk Award recipient), and the co-host with his wife Jodie of the criminal justice podcast, “Justice Delayed.”