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Utah governor signs bill making firing squads the state’s backup execution option

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

More than a decade after Utah largely moved away from firing squads for executions, the state on Monday officially reversed course and made that the backup method of execution.

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) signed a bill making firing squads the option if the state is unable to obtain the drugs needed for a lethal injection. This decision comes as a shortage of the drugs used to carry out lethal injections has forced states across the country to scramble to keep carrying out executions, which has prompted some states to alter their lethal injection protocols as they search for usable drugs while others have considered returning to older methods that have largely been discarded.

“We regret anyone ever commits the heinous crime of aggravated murder to merit the death penalty and we prefer to use our primary method of lethal injection when such a sentence is issued,” Marty Carpenter, a spokesman for Herbert, said in a statement. “However, when a jury makes the decision and a judge signs a death warrant, enforcing that lawful decision is the obligation of the executive branch.”

Firing squads were never formally banned in Utah. The state passed a law in 2004 repealing the use of firing squads, with an exception in place for people sentenced to death before that law went into effect. These inmates are allowed to choose their method of execution, though lethal injection — the primary method of execution in Utah and nationwide — is the default choice if they do not make a request.

Utah currently has no lethal injection drugs. The state, which has not carried out a lethal injection since 1999, currently has eight men on its death row, according the Department of Corrections. (A ninth inmate, Douglas Lovell, was sentenced to death by lethal injection, but his case has gone back to trial after the Utah Supreme Court ruled that he could withdraw his guilty plea.)

[Texas is about to run out of lethal injection drugs]

Three of the inmates on death row have selected the firing squad as their method of execution. Utah carried out the country’s last execution by firing squad in 2010, when the state put convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner to death. That was also the last execution Utah has carried out.

Lethal injection is still the default method of execution in Utah. However, the bill approved by lawmakers earlier this month amid the drug shortage provides the Department of Corrections with a clear alternative.

Texas, which carries out the most executions in the country, is scheduled to run out of lethal injection when it next executes someone, which could be early next month. Officials say they are not sure what they will do for the executions scheduled to take place over the two months that follow. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Wyoming, which has carried out just one execution over the last four decades, have also considered allowing the use of firing squads.

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case on lethal injections next month, one that directly relates to the drug shortage and the impact it has had nationwide. As states struggled to find new execution drugs, at least three lethal injections have appeared to go awry, prompting the court to take up an issue it last considered in 2008, when a three-drug protocol was typical nationwide. Since the court acted in 2008, the drug shortage has radically altered the lethal injection landscape in the country, and the justices could potentially change it further.

[Why the Supreme Court is acting on lethal injection and what that could mean for the death penalty]

The new Utah law says that if the state cannot “obtain the substance or substances necessary” for a lethal injection at least 30 days before the scheduled execution date, inmates will be killed by a firing squad instead.

By altering its law in the face of the drug shortage, Utah follows the example of Tennessee, which adopted a law altering its death penalty plans last year. As is the case in Utah, lethal injection is the method of execution in Tennessee, though inmates who committed crimes before 1999 were given the ability to choose between the electric chair or lethal injection. The law that went into effect in Tennessee last year says that if execution drugs are unavailable or lethal injection is deemed unconstitutional, executions would automatically be carried out using the electric chair.

This change gives Utah a much rarer method of execution in this country. The electric chair is available in eight states, including Oklahoma, which allows it if lethal injection is found to be unconstitutional, and it has been used in 158 executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The firing squad, by comparison, has been used just three times in that period — all in Utah. It is only allowed in Utah and Oklahoma, and where it can be used if lethal injection and electrocution are both deemed unconstitutional.