With 2015 now in the record books, a look back shows just how busy and…
April 29, 2014. A year ago today. Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Lockett, scheduled for execution by lethal injection.
“Lockett writhed on the gurney, moaned and clenched his teeth for several minutes,” the Associated Press reported Tuesday, “before Oklahoma prison officials belatedly tried to halt the process.”
Forty-three minutes into the process, Lockett died.
Today, in a case known as Glossip v. Gross, brought by three convicted murderers in Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments to outlaw midazolam, the first sedative administered in the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections. Justices also have been asked to dismiss the cases.
But should the justices rule in favor of the inmates, the AP reported, it “could force several states to either find new execution drugs or change the way they put prisoners to death.”
So, how about firing squad as an option? Some states have no problem with that.
Neither does NIU College of Law professor Marc Falkoff, who spoke to NIU Newsroom in March about firing squads. Read why below.
But now lawmakers in Utah are headed exactly in that direction, thanks to legislation approved earlier this month and awaiting the governor’s signature. The proposal keeps lethal injection as the primary method but would allow firing squads if the deadly cocktail of drugs is unavailable.
“We would love to get the lethal injection worked out so we can continue with that,” Ray said, “but, if not, now we have a backup plan.”
Perhaps even more shocking is that only a decade has passed since the Beehive State removed the firing squad from its execution options for Death Row inmates. Those remaining on Death Row from before that day – May 3, 2004 – still can choose bullets.
NIU’s Marc Falkoff, who felt prompted to enter Columbia Law School after the State of New York reinstated the death penalty, and who worked at the Southern Center for Human Rights to defend people charged with capital crimes, is not opposed to what’s happening in Utah.
And, if he had to vote, he would join the ayes.
“I have long thought that firing squads are the way to go – because they work,” said Falkoff, an associate professor in the NIU College of Law.
“The firing squad is utterly barbaric, but so is lethal injection. So is killing someone in a gas chamber. It’s all utterly barbaric. The problem is that we observers cannot see the pain and feel the suffering of the person being executed. It’s all hidden from us.”
Falkoff cites the case of Caryl Chessman, executed in the gas chamber by the State of California in 1960. Chessman “told his lawyers, ‘If you see me nodding my head, that’s an indication that I’m experiencing pain,’ ” Falkoff said, adding that Chessman did nod.
He also points to NPR’s “amazing tape of an execution gone wrong. It’s just harrowing.”
“It’s all done in a sterilized, medicalized procedure, so it feels cleaner and sterile and antiseptic, but the reality is that what we’re doing is taking a human being’s life,” he said. “And we know from all the botched lethal injections that things can go horribly wrong and they do go horribly wrong – wrong mix of drug cocktails, wrong doses of drugs, needles not being inserted into veins properly. All of that and more has happened.”
On the other hand, “the firing squad almost always works. You have three or four riflemen behind a blind 20 feet away; they’ve got a target on the guy’s heart. They all fire at the same time. Death is almost instantaneous,” he said.
Almost. “If you look at the botched executions by firing squad, they tend to be because the state didn’t tie the defendant to the chair and he moved. That’s really the only way to screw up a firing squad. The prisoner might flinch.”
Although he would never call executions “humane,” he is not morally opposed to the death penalty itself. “I understand it, I really do,” he said, “but I sincerely believe that it cannot be meted out in a fair and non-racially biased manner.”
Meanwhile, he has his doubts about Rep. Ray’s “humanitarian” motivations.
“I recognize the political opportunism at work here. I recognize that politicians might sincerely believe in the efficacy of the death penalty, but it’s a political boon for them to be gung-ho supporters of it,” he said. “No one really loses elections for advocating for executing more people more quickly.”
In the end, though, Falkoff said he believes the mere notion of the firing squad – and the visual images it conjures – will rally support for abolishing the death penalty altogether.
“The firing squad brings home to people the utter barbarity of snuffing out the life of another human being,” he said, “especially in an era when we’re seeing exonerations happen over and over again.”