The bald man knew how he wanted to die. He didn’t want to go by lethal injection. Anything but that. He wanted a firing squad. “I’m going to fight it,” Utah death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner, sentenced to die for killing an attorney, told the Deseret News in 1996. “I don’t know how, yet, but I will.”

And he would. Fourteen years later, the day of his execution arrived. He “appeared calm, even at peace,” according to a reporter. A black hood was slipped over his head. The clock read 12:15 a.m. Two shots sounded. And Gardner, the first man to be killed by a firing squad in Utah in 14 years, was dead by 12:17 a.m.

Two minutes. Just two minutes. Now compare that with last year’s execution of Arizona death row inmate Joseph Wood. Wood got a lethal injection — then gasped 640 times over two hours before he died. “He gulped like a fish on land,” wrote Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer. “The movement was like a piston: The mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed. … I wondered if there were a Plan B.”

Turns out, there is. On Monday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed a law that made Utah the only state to allow executions by firing squads if no lethal injection serums are available. The state’s “primary method” of executions will remain lethal injection. Then the governor said something that betrayed larger significance. He called firing squads “a little bit gruesome.” And to be sure, they are. But that’s not all.

That aside encapsulates the cognitive dissonance that today defines the firing squad. It at once seems barbaric and — yes — gruesome. With its Wild West imagery, it seems drawn from another time, when thugs and criminals were blindfolded, thrust against a craggy wall, and fired upon. But this social framing belies what may be the real truth of the firing squad: It could be the most humane method of execution. And Utah may have just pointed other states toward a faster, less painful method of execution than lethal injection, which is mired in controversy amid numerous botched procedures.

Utah is set to become the only state to authorize the use of firing squads for executions if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. (Reuters)

“Lethal injection, which has the veneer of medical acceptability, has far greater risks of cruelty to a condemned person,” Fordham University Law School professor Deborah Denno told the Associated Press in 2010. She called the firing squad a “dignified execution.”

Denno should know. She spent years studying varying execution methods, trying to determine which one is the best. While that’s difficult to answer, it’s more apparent which ones are the worst. Electrocution is a gruesome way to go. So are stoning and hanging, which she says “risked being too long and cruel. Same goes for beheading. Worst is gassing.

“In 1992, for example, Donald Harding’s eleven-minute execution and suffocating pain were so disturbing for witnesses that one reporter cried continuously, two other reporters ‘were rendered walking vegetables for days,’ the attorney general ended up vomiting, and the prison warden claimed he would resign if forced to conduct another lethal gas execution,” she wrote in 2007 in the Fordham Law Review. “While the firing squad has not been systematically evaluated, and may even be the most humane of all methods, it has always carried with it the baggage of its brutal image and roots.”

And so, she said, “the law turned to medicine to rescue the death penalty.”

But what kind of rescue was this? And who are its practitioners? The method is bedeviled by what seems to be a crippling paradox: Those who are most capable of meeting its demands are also the least likely to do so. Doctors, citing the Hippocratic Oath, won’t have anything to do with the death penalty, a fact that has given rise to any number of issues.

“It works if it’s administered competently,” Jay Chapman, who originally developed the lethal combination of drugs, told CNN in 2007. “But you have to have some skills to do it.” He said his procedure was pervaded by “incompetency,” saying one executioner “had to be an idiot” when he pointed an IV needle toward a person’s hand and not their heart.

Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit made a similar point in a dissent last July. “The guillotine is probably best but seems inconsistent with our national ethos. And the electric chair, hanging and the gas chamber are each subject to occasional mishaps. The firing squad strikes me as the most promising. Eight or ten large-caliber rifle bullets fired at close range,” he wrote, “can inflict massive damage, causing instant death every time. There are plenty of people employed by the state who can pull the trigger and have the training to aim true.”

If history’s any guide, it’s substantially easier to find competent executioners who know how to correctly operate a rifle than a syringe. What’s more, according to 1993 study on the severity of the pain imparted by each execution method, death by shooting, if properly done, may be less painful than others.

Denno discerns something broader in Utah’s decision. “There’s a concession that there’s a problem with lethal injection so states are going back to methods that seemed barbaric at one point,” she told the Christian Science Monitor. “But, relative to lethal injection, maybe don’t look so bad anymore.”

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