Death by Firing Squad under the Gun Utah Faces Hard Choices That Revolve around Religion and Execution Methods

By Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

Death by Firing Squad under the Gun Utah Faces Hard Choices That Revolve around Religion and Execution Methods


Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


FOR John Albert Taylor, the debate swirling around the way he has chosen to be executed could end tonight.

But for Utah, the state in which he may be killed, the controversy is just beginning.

The execution by firing squad of Mr. Taylor, scheduled to take place shortly after midnight tonight, raises profound legal and ethical questions about how society disposes of those it deems unworthy to live. Are lethal injections more or less "humane" than other means, for example?

And in Utah - a state that is pushing a "new West" image of progressive politics, high-tech economy, and world-class winter sports - it's a reminder of "old West" roots and the fact that the state was settled by Mormons, who have a unique theology involving the concept of "blood atonement."

Death choice

Taylor was convicted of the 1988 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl, charges that he denies. Under Utah law, those condemned to die may choose the firing squad or lethal injection. (Until 1980, the choices were between hanging and firing squad.) In only one other state - Idaho - is execution by firing squad still an option.

"It's not a big issue in this state," says L. Kay Gillespie, professor of criminology and sociology at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. "The firing squad is, to a large extent, our way of doing things." Of the 48 executions since Utah gained statehood a century ago, 39 have been by firing squad.

But others are fighting the practice, seen by many as abhorrent. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Roman Catholic Church, and Amnesty International are protesting the Utah case.

"There's been a lot of botched executions with firing squads, and when people think about it or are confronted with it they find it much more distasteful," says spokesman Bill Breedlove of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, an advocacy group based in Washington.

Even in Utah, which is generally conservative politically, attitudes may be changing. A proposal in the state legislature (which Gov. Michael Leavitt has said he would sign) would ban the practice.

"It's an image question, and with the Olympics coming politicians are very concerned about that," says Professor Gillespie.

While early Mormon leaders may have talked of the need for "blood atonement," or the redemption of sins through the spilling of blood, for heinous crimes, church leaders in recent years have tried to make clear that this is not one of the denomination's official beliefs. …

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