Firing Squad: A botched execution is nearly impossible

May 23, 2017

The fine citizens of Arkansas killed four killers in one week last month. Like most other states with a death penalty for heinous felonies, Arkansas executes its murders by lethal injection. And therein lies the problem.

Last year, of course, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled our death penalty unconstitutional in compliance with an earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision about how death-penalty sentencing occurs. Now, the House has approved a complying death-penalty bill. It's now up to the Senate.

Lethal injection as an execution method is of fairly recent origin. Used to be, back when almost all states had a death penalty, that the most common methods were either electric chair or hanging. A few states had gas chambers. And a couple states used firing squads. Utah still has that option. Delaware still had hanging as an option until just a couple years ago.

The theory here was that lethal injection was more humane; that it satisfied the constitutional requirement that punishment not be "cruel and unusual." The "cruel" part has come to mean pain-free. Utterly pain-free. No discomfort whatsoever.

The other day, the New York Times (of all publications) published an op-ed that advocated a return to public hangings and to the use of stocks for lesser crimes. Note we said "public" hangings. These were common in colonial times and were understood to be quite usual at the time of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Think about that for a second.

There are at least two issues here. One is the efficacy of the death penalty at all. Progressives and many religious denominations, including mine, oppose the death penalty in all its forms. The second issue is the humanity of the method of putting murderers to death.

Most states use a three-drug cocktail for executions. One drug puts the convict to sleep and incapable of experiencing pain. Another stops breathing. The third stops the heart. Interesting, isn't it, that we allow veterinarians and animal shelters to put our dogs and cats to "sleep" using only one drug, and we don't accuse the veterinarians of cruelty to animals. Why?

But now, the issue isn't so much all that, but rather the inability of states to procure one or more of the drugs needed for the cocktail. Drug companies resist selling to states for that purpose. Doctors refuse to participate based on medical ethics requirements to "do no harm." One result is less-well-trained medics inserting the intravenous drips required to inject the drugs. A handful of problematic executions have resulted.

So let's just admit it. Lethal injection is too complicated a method of execution.

Many years ago, my father witnessed an execution. My home state is Iowa, and back then, the method was hanging. It seems that in my small, rural home county, a man had come from Chicago tracking his wife. He found her in bed with another man in our local motel. Boom, he offed her. And then headed back to Chicago. The state police stopped him at the Illinois state line (the Mississippi River).

My father was invited, indeed almost required, to go to Fort Madison, the location of the Iowa State Penitentiary, as a witness because he was the editor and publisher of the county's dominant newspaper. He went.

His report back to my mother and me the next day (I was in the single digits) was that the prisoner was led into the prison's room, walked up the gallows and had a hood placed over his head.

The hangman put the rope around his neck, and the warden pulled the lever, releasing the door on the floor. The man was dead by the time the doctor reached him a few seconds later. This method works; it works quickly. Because hanging severs the spinal cord, it kills instantly.

Even more efficient is the firing squad. You arrange for three or more marksmen. You give some of them bullets and the others blanks, although this may not be necessary if you recruit your marksmen from volunteers. Most likely, there are plenty of Army- or Marine Corps-trained marksmen who would be glad to pull the trigger.

A botched execution is nearly impossible in this scenario. An Army or Marine Corps marksman at 25 feet won't miss the target over the heart. One or more bullets through the heart results in instant death.

I have lived in a number of states as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor and military man. Iowa and New York have repealed their death penalties. Wisconsin never had a death penalty. Texas, Georgia and Virginia, especially Texas, have had busy death chambers.

Advocate for repeal if you wish. But if we don't in Delaware, then make it sensible, simple, painless and quick. Most likely, that's more than the killer did.


Reid K. Beveridge has covered politics in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Delaware and Washington, D.C. He is now retired at Broadkill Beach.



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