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Diane Dimond: If We’re Keeping the Death Penalty, Then Bring Back Firing Squads

It’s clearly time to bring back firing squads.

If we’re going to keep carrying out the death penalty in this country, and if we are going to continue to grandly insist that they are “humane executions,” then only a return to a firing squad will ensure a speedy and relatively pain-free death for the condemned.

You might think I’m kidding, but I’m not. I say, line up six to eight sharp shooters, employ the old practice of giving one of them a blank instead of a bullet and instruct them to aim for the prisoner’s heart. I guarantee the convict will be dead before they drop to the ground.

Compare that to what we’ve been led to believe is the least barbaric option of taking a life: lethal injection.

As we recently saw in the bungled execution of Clayton Lockett at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, things can go wrong — very wrong — using a lethal injection.

The problem is critical now because European manufacturers of lethal drugs have decided they will no longer supply the United States because we are the only Western country that still has death penalty. So penitentiaries across America are scrambling to find alternative “cocktails” of drugs to kill those whose death row appeals have run out.

Lockett, 38, became Oklahoma’s first prisoner to receive a new, three-drug concoction designed to do three things: First, render him unconscious and unable to feel pain. Second, to make him unable to breathe and, finally, to stop his heart.

It soon became clear that this convicted kidnapper, rapist and murderer of an 18-year-old girl never fell into unconsciousness even though a doctor declared he had. Four minutes later, Lockett’s body twitched and he rose up from the gurney muttering, “Oh, man.” A prison official quickly pulled the curtain on the spectator’s window, declared "vein failure” and the execution was interrupted. According to prison officials, 45 minutes later, Lockett died of a heart attack.

Lockett’s case is not unique. Three months ago, an Ohio man, convicted of rape and aggravated murder, became that state’s first guinea pig of an untried lethal cocktail. Witnesses to Dennis McGuire’s execution said after the injection, he clenched his fists, gasped loudly for air and made choking sounds for 15 minutes before he was declared dead.

Who thinks that is more humane than a quick hail of bullets into the heart?

I can cite several more cases of bungled lethal injections — including a 265-pound man whose execution took nearly 10 needle sticks over two hours because technicians couldn’t find a proper vein — but I don’t want to be accused of overlooking the final, frightening minutes of the victims.

Certainly, the victims of all condemned killers faced much more brutal and undeserved ends, and we should never forget the crimes against them. That goes without saying. But that’s not the point of this column.

The Boston Globe recently took a look back at executions in the United States — from 1890 to 2010 — and found botched attempts have happened regularly no matter what the mode of death. A reminder as you read on: The U.S. Constitution guarantees none of us is to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

The Globe found that at hangings there were some convicts who “had to be dropped and hanged more than once when the initial fall did not kill them.” In addition, there was the problem of unwanted decapitations. Those condemned to the electric chair sometimes had to be repeatedly shocked before they died. Some caught on fire and executioners reported smelling burned flesh. Death row inmates sent to the gas chamber “often struggled, convulsed, gasped for breath and were asphyxiated for extended periods of time before they succumbed.” None of these manners of death is nearly as quick or reliable as a firing squad.

Today, 32 states, the U.S. military and the federal government all have death penalty by lethal injection statutes on the books. (Only Connecticut, Maryland and New Mexico have voted to abolish capital punishment.) According to the latest Gallup poll on the death penalty, a full 60 percent of Americans still support this ultimate punishment for convicted murderers. And so my point is that, if this really is the path we want to take, there is no more fail-proof way to carry out an execution than a firing squad. Period — end of discussion.

Like many Americans, I struggle with being both against the death penalty and for it in certain cases. For example, another Oklahoma man was set to be executed right after Lockett, but Charles Warner’s date with death has been postponed pending an investigation into the state’s practices. Warner does not dispute that he raped and killed an 11-month-old baby girl, and for fiends like that I’m hard pressed to suggest he should live another day. Am I a gung-ho advocate for the death penalty? No. Am I vehemently against it? Well, I guess not. That’s my constitutionally protected opinion (as fluid as it is) so, please, no hate mail.

At this juncture, when U.S. prisons are hard pressed to even get the chemicals for a lethal injection, maybe it’s time for each of us to search our souls and ask what we think is right. There are evil people in the world who do horrid things. If the justice system finds they should be eliminated, how do we want to achieve that?

Only two states currently authorize firing squads and one, Utah, is phasing out the practice. Ironically, Oklahoma — the state that botched an execution and sparked a social conversation — would allow firing squads, but only if the courts first find both lethal injection and electrocution to be unconstitutional.

That’s not on the horizon anytime soon. So, the bottom line? The flawed system of lethal injection is here to stay unless and until we tell lawmakers we want something different. Do you?

Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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