It appears that Utah will have it’s first execution by firing squad in June for many many years. Ronnie Lee Gardner has been on death row for about 25 years and he has finally gone through the entire appeals process and was sentenced to die by a Salt Lake City judge.

Execution by Firing Squad

I’m somewhat fascinated by this whole idea and I have been for some time. I actually went to law school at the University of Utah and I remember discussing this oddity of the state with other residents. From what I remember the squad is made of 4 or 5 volunteer police officers and all are given blanks except for one gun which has the real bullet. This is an attempt to avoid any one officer from feeling the guilt of having to shoot the condemned.

The real interesting thing about Utah and the firing squad is it’s origin. There is a certain fundamentalist version of Mormonism (which is not practiced or believed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). The whole notion derives from a concept called “blood atonement”. Blood atonement derives from the Law of Moses which taught, among other things, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and of course capital punishment for murder. The belief in blood atonement also posits that those who shed the blood of innocents cannot take advantage of the salvation gained by Christ’s atonement unless they too are killed by having their blood shed (as opposed to being hung where no blood was shed). There was some concept that innocent blood “cries out” for retribution. Even in the Bible when Cain killed Abel it says the blood ascended to the ears of God.

So when Brigham Young helped settle Utah the firing squad was used as a method of punishment for murders who desired to have their sins forgiven and it has been the law every since (despite the fact that mainstream Mormons don’t believe this doctrine, only fundamentalists do).

In 2004 Utah actually banned execution by the firing squad, however the law was not retroactive, so those who were still on death row could opt (it’s always a choice, you can choose lethal injection if you wanted) to be executed by firing squad. Since Gardner was on death row before the 2004 law went into effect he is still eligible and indeed will be killed by firing squad.