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Idaho Governor Signs Execution of Firing Squad Bill

Republican Gov. Brad Little has signed a bill allowing execution by firing squad, making Idaho the latest state to turn to older methods of capital punishment amid a national drug shortage lethal injections.

The Legislature passed the measure on March 20 with a majority without a veto. Under it, firing squads will only be used if the state cannot obtain the drugs needed for lethal injections.

Pharmaceutical companies have increasingly banned executioners from using their drugs, claiming they are meant to save lives. An Idaho death row inmate has already had his execution postponed several times due to drug shortages.

The shortage has prompted other states in recent years to revive older methods of execution. Only Mississippi, Utah, Oklahoma and South Carolina have laws allowing firing squads if other methods of execution are unavailable, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The South Carolina law is on hold pending the outcome of a legal challenge.

Some states have begun refurbishing electric chairs in the event that deadly drugs are unavailable. Others have considered – and, at times, used – largely untested methods of execution. In 2018, Nevada executed Carey Dean Moore on a never-before-tried drug combination that included the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. Alabama has built a system to execute people using nitrogen gas to induce hypoxia, but it has yet to be used.

“As I sign this bill, it is important to emphasize that justice can and should be served by minimizing the stress on prison staff,” Little wrote in a cover letter after signing the bill. “For those on death row, a jury found them guilty of their crimes and they were legally sentenced to death. It is the responsibility of the State of Idaho to uphold the law and ensure that sentences legal penalties are carried out.”

In a historic streak of 13 executions in the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the federal government opted for the sedative pentobarbital as a replacement for the deadly drugs used in the 2000s. It issued a protocol authorizing firing squads execution for federal executions if necessary, but this method was not used.

Some attorneys for federal inmates who were eventually put to death argued in court that firing squads would actually be faster and less painful than pentobarbital, which they say causes a feeling close to drowning.

However, in a 2019 filing, US attorneys quoted an expert as saying that a person shot by firing squad can remain conscious for 10 seconds and that it would be “extremely painful, especially due to the bursting of the bone and spinal cord damage”.

President Joe Biden’s Attorney General Merrick Garland has ordered a temporary pause in federal executions in 2021 while the Justice Department reviews protocols. Garland did not specify how long the moratorium will last.

Idaho Senator Doug Ricks, a Republican who co-sponsored that state’s firing squad bill, told fellow senators Monday (3/20) that the state’s difficulty in finding Lethal injection drugs could continue “indefinitely,” which he believes death by firing squad is “humane” and that the bill would help ensure respect for the rule of law.

But Sen. Dan Foreman, also a Republican, called the executions by firing squad “below the dignity of the State of Idaho.” They would traumatize the executioners, the witnesses and the people who clean up afterwards, he said.

The bill was initiated by Republican Representative Bruce Skaug, motivated in part by the state’s failure to execute Gerald Pizzuto Jr. late last year. Pizzuto, who now has terminal cancer and other debilitating illnesses, spent more than three decades on death row for his role in the 1985 murders of two gold diggers.

The Idaho Department of Corrections estimates it will cost about $750,000 to build or upgrade a death chamber for firing squad executions.

The director of the agency, Jeff Tewalt, said he would be reluctant to ask his collaborators to participate in a firing squad.

Both Tewalt and his former colleague Kevin Kempf played a key role in getting drugs used in the execution of Richard Albert Leavitt in 2012, flying to Tacoma, Wash., with more than $15,000 in cash for buy them from a pharmacist. The trip was kept secret by the department but revealed in court documents after University of Idaho professor Aliza Cover sued for the information under a public records law.

Biden has pledged during his campaign to work to end the death penalty nationwide, but he has been silent on the issue as president. Critics say his hands-off approach risked sending the message that he was okay with states adopting alternative methods of execution.


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