BOISE, Idaho – Idaho is poised to allow firing squads to execute condemned inmates when the state can't get lethal-injection drugs, under a bill the Legislature passed Monday with a veto-proof majority.
Firing squads will be used only if the state cannot obtain the drugs needed for lethal injections — and one death row inmate has already had his scheduled execution postponed multiple times because of drug scarcity.
The move by Idaho lawmakers is in line with those by other states that in recent years have scrambled to revive older methods of execution because of difficulties obtaining drugs required for longstanding lethal injection programs. Pharmaceutical companies increasingly have barred executioners from using their drugs, saying they were meant to save lives, not take them.
Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little has voiced his support for the death penalty but generally does not comment on legislation before he signs or vetoes it.
Only Mississippi, Utah, Oklahoma and South Carolina currently have laws allowing firing squads if other execution methods are unavailable, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. South Carolina’s law is on hold pending the outcome of a legal challenge.
Some states began refurbishing electric chairs as standbys for when lethal drugs are unavailable. Others have considered — and at times, used — largely untested execution methods. In 2018, Nevada executed Carey Dean Moore with a never-before-tried drug combination that included the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. Alabama has built a system for executing people using nitrogen gas to induce hypoxia, but it has not yet been used.
During a historic round of 13 executions in the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the federal government opted for the sedative pentobarbital as a replacement for lethal drugs used in the 2000s. It issued a protocol allowing firing squads for federal executions if necessary, but that method was not used.
Some lawyers for federal inmates who were eventually put to death argued in court that firing squads actually would be quicker and cause less pain than pentobarbital, which they said causes a sensation akin to drowning.
However, in a 2019 filing, U.S. lawyers cited an expert as saying someone shot by firing squad can remain conscious for 10 seconds and that it would be “severely painful, especially related to shattering of bone and damage to the spinal cord.”
President Joe Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, ordered a temporary pause on federal executions in 2021 while the Justice Department reviewed protocols. Garland did not say how long the moratorium will last.
Idaho Sen. Doug Ricks, a Republican who co-sponsored that state's firing squad bill, told his fellow senators Monday that the state's difficulty in finding lethal injection drugs could continue “indefinitely” and that he believes death by firing squad is “humane.”
“This is a rule of law issue — our criminal system should work and penalties should be exacted,” Ricks said.
But Sen. Dan Foreman, also a Republican, said firing-squad executions would traumatize the people who who carry them out, the people who witness them and the people who clean up afterward.
“I've seen the aftermath of shootings, and it's psychologically damaging to anybody who witnesses it,” Foreman said. “The use of the firing squad is, in my opinion, beneath the dignity of the state of Idaho.”
The bill originated with Republican Rep. Bruce Skaug, prompted in part by the state's inability to execute Gerald Pizzuto Jr. late last year. Pizzuto, who now has terminal cancer and other debilitating illnesses, has spent more than three decades on death row for his role in the 1985 slayings of two gold prospectors.
The Idaho Department of Correction estimates it will cost around $750,000 to build or retrofit a death chamber for firing squad executions.
Agency Director Jeff Tewalt last year told lawmakers there would likely be as many legal challenges to planned firing squad executions as there are to lethal injections. At the time, he said he would be reluctant to ask his staffers to participate in a firing squad.
Both Tewalt and his former co-worker Kevin Kempf played a key role in obtaining the drugs used in the 2012 execution of Richard Albert Leavitt, flying to Tacoma, Washington, with more than $15,000 in cash to buying 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 act.
Kempf was promoted to lead the Correction Department two years later and now is the executive director of the Correctional Leaders Association. He said the execution process is always challenging for all involved, including victims' relatives. Those challenges could be amplified in firing squad executions, he said.
“I've got to say at the same time, my thoughts go to staff members that may have to carry out something, per law, that looks like putting someone to death,” Kempf told the AP during a phone interview earlier this month. “That is nothing I would assume any correctional director would take lightly, asking someone-slash-ordering someone to do that.”
Biden pledged during his campaign to work at ending the death penalty nationwide, but he has remained silent on the issue as president. Critics say his hands-off approach risked sending a message that he’s OK with states adopting alternative execution methods.
Tarm contributed from Chicago.