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Idaho lawmakers vote to bring back firing squad as backup method for death row executions


A firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah, is shown. (AP Photo/Trent Nelson, Pool, File)

The Idaho state Senate passed a bill Monday that would allow death row inmates to be executed by firing squad, bringing back a method of capital punishment that hasn’t been allowed in the state since 2009.

The veto-proof measure, which passed in the senate with by a vote of 24-11 following a 50-15 vote in the house, now heads to Republican Gov. Brad Little to be signed into law.

House Bill 186 provides that if legal injection is not available, “the method of execution shall be firing squad.” There are a number of reasons why lethal injection might be “not available” for use, including pharmaceutical companies‘ refusal to provide drugs for use in executions and other supply-chain difficulties.

Sponsors and supporters of the bill have said that its purpose is not to expand the death penalty, but rather, to ensure that current Idaho law is carried out as intended.  Idaho currently has eight inmates on death row awaiting execution. The last person executed in Idaho was Richard Albert Leavitt, who was executed by lethal injection in 2012.

House Bill 186 was motivated in part by the delayed execution of Gerald Pizzuto, Jr. Pizzuto, a terminally ill man, has been on death row for three decades for the killing of two gold prospectors in 1985. Pizzuto’s execution was scheduled for March 23, but was stayed when Idaho could not obtain the necessary drugs for the injection that would ultimately kill him.

Idaho would join a handful of states that already allow firing squad as a method of execution. Utah, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Mississippi also authorize its use, which, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, usually involves multiple shooters aiming rifles at the inmate’s heart as indicated by a white cloth target, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Utah is the sole state that has used the method in the last 100 years, as it executed Ronnie Lee Gardner via firing squad — at the inmate’s request — in 2010.

Georgia may also institute the firing squad as capital punishment. Death row inmate Michael Wade Nance has been awaiting execution in Georgia since 2002, and in a lawsuit has asked that he be put to death by firing squad. Nance sued the Georgia Department of Corrections and commissioner Timothy C. Ward in January 2020, alleging that the state’s only method of execution — lethal injection — would amount to torture and violate his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

In Georgia, lethal injection protocol includes administering the drug pentobarbital, a sedative. Nance had argued that his regular use of gabapentin, an anticonvulsant that he takes regularly for back pain, would make his brain less responsive to pentobarbital, preventing him from being fully sedated during the execution.

Nance prevailed in court, and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed and found the idea of firing squad plausible.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos