From Goya’s The Third of May to the ubiquitous blindfold and cigarette depicted in so many cartoons, the images associated with execution by firing squad are a highly recognizable idiom in today’s intricate language of signs and symbols. However, it turns out that the firing squad is not nearly as common in the American penal system as it is in the works of Chuck Jones.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, out of 15,269 documented and confirmed executions, only 142 were carried out by firing squad between the years of 1608 and 2002. Even when accounting for undocumented executions during the Civil War, the estimated total number of instances in which a person was judicially shot absolutely pales in comparison to the number of executions by lethal injection – or even the number of people executed in the electric chair – since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.
Which brings us to Utah Fun Fact # 354: In addition to being the home base of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the spawning grounds of the Osmond Clan, and the unlikely sanctuary of former child star Gary Colemn, the Great State of Utah is also the site of the only two executions by firing squad since Gregg Vs. Georgia. While Oklahoma maintains a firing squad option, it is only utilized when both lethal injection and the electric chair are both deemed unconstitutional. So far, that has not happened.
Gary Gilmore, shot by firing squad in 1977, was actually the first person to be executed in the United States after the Supreme Court ended the ten-year moratorium on the death penalty. Gilmore is famous for his cavalier attitude toward his execution – when asked if he had any last words, Gilmore replied “Let’s do it!” It is perhaps Gilmore’s unconventional behavior that has caused critics to wonder if perhaps a firing squad execution allows death row inmates to go out in blaze of glory not exactly befitting a ceremony meant to serve as a punishment for murder. Since then, only one other man in the United States has been executed in a hail of gunfire. The comparatively reserved John Albert Taylor was shot on January 26, 1996, with over 150 TV news crews descending on Utah to cover the story.
Legislators repealed execution by firing squad in 2004 due in part to the antiquated image of frontier-style justice that the firing squad garnered Utah. However, because the new ban does not apply retroactively, the Beehive State will host at least one more “blaze of glory,”this time for Ronnie Lee Gardner on June 18. This will render the score 3-0, Utah, on firing squad executions. Embarrassing? Perhaps. Still, it could be worse. At one time, Utah was the only state in the union to allow decapitation. Now that would tarnish our state’s image.