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Utah: Firing Squad OK If Lethal Injection Drugs Unavailable

The Utah Senate has voted to allow a firing squad to carry out executions if the drugs necessary for lethal injections are not available.

The bill, which now heads to Gov. Gary Herbert's desk, would make Utah the only state to permit a firing squad to perform an execution.

Death Penalty Drugs

Utah's firing squad bill comes on the heels of multiple botched executions in Oklahoma and Arizona. Those states, among others, began experimenting with new drug combinations for lethal injections because of shortages of the drug traditionally used in executions.

Drug suppliers blame the shortage on criticism from anti-death penalty advocates, even though states, for their part, refuse to release the names of drug suppliers. The drug shortage may also be due to a 2011 European Union export ban on sodium thiopental and other lethal injection drugs to the United States.

Arkansas has also introduced firing squad legislation, though a bill similar to Utah's died in Wyoming. Meantime Oklahoma, which should maybe just take a break from capital punishment, is considering a bill to allow the state to use nitrogen gas in executions.

Capital Punishment or Cruel and Unusual?

The death penalty has had a varied history in the United States. Death penalty laws were on the wane in the late 19th century, but Prohibition and the Great Depression led to a spike in executions during the 1930s. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled capital punishment was unconstitutional in 1972, but reversed itself in 1976.

Currently, 32 states allow for the death penalty, which is limited to mentally competent adults who have been convicted of aggravated murder. Recently, California's death penalty system has been ruled unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court is reviewing whether certain lethal injection drugs are constitutional.

Utah is the only state to execute an inmate by firing squad in the last 75 years, the most recent being Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010.

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