Monday marks an important anniversary in death penalty history: It is the 45th anniversary of the day that the United States carried out the first execution after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of death penalty statutes across the country and revived capital punishment in 1976.
Six months later, on Jan. 17, 1977, Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in Utah.
And last week, in a grim but fitting nod to the anniversary of his execution, two Oklahoma death row inmates, Donald Grant and Gilbert Postelle, said they wanted to follow in Gilmore’s footsteps and face a firing squad rather than be executed by lethal injection.
Grant and Postelle asked U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot to halt their forthcoming executions and order the state to develop a protocol for carrying out their executions by firing squad.
Their requests raise a pressing question: How has this country come to the point where people on death row would want to be shot? Grant’s and Postelle’s request highlights capital punishment’s irreducible cruelty and the illusory quest to find a way to kill humanely.
Gilmore had no such illusions. He knew that death by firing squad would be a violent, brutal, and frightening way to die. As he said when he was sentenced, being put to death by gunshot would show the world that he was not “a coward” and that he wanted “to atone for what he did.”
His desire to die by being shot attracted international attention. Gilmore went on to achieve post-mortem celebrity status when his execution was chronicled in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and in a subsequent television movie.
On the day he was killed, Gilmore was strapped into a wooden chair, and a hood was put over his head. Sandbags were piled behind and beside the chair to catch the bullets as they passed through his body. His last words were unsentimental and unapologetic: “Let’s do it.”
His firing squad was made up of five volunteers, each of whom worked in law enforcement. As has long been the tradition with firing squads, Utah announced that only four of them fired live ammunition; the other shot a blank, what is known as the “conscience round.”
This tradition suggests that there is something shameful when the state kills. It is designed to ensure that none of the members of the firing squad knows for sure whose shot kills and who bears that shame.
Despite these efforts, as a report in the Guardian noted, the firing squad has always “shocked many across America, with critics claiming it was a throwback to the brutal blood-begets-blood mentality of the frontier era.”
This is one reason it has been rarely used. From 1900 to 2010, the date of the last use of the firing squad in this country, only 34 of the 8,776 executions during that period were by firing squad.
But recently it has experienced a bit of a renaissance.
Utah dropped the firing squad after 2010, but had a change of heart and brought it back in 2015. It is also on the books today in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. The Trump administration attempted to add it to the allowable methods in federal executions in November 2020.
The renewed interest in the firing squad is in part a response to lethal injection’s acute and long-term problems. Lethal injection was first adopted by the state of Oklahoma in 1977 and first used by Texas in 1982, though it was first seriously considered as a method of execution by the state of New York almost a century earlier.
Oklahoma and other early adopters did no scientific studies to determine the best drugs to use. They went with a three-drug cocktail developed by Jay Chapman, then Oklahoma’s chief medical examiner: sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride—in other words, an anesthetic, a paralytic, and a drug to stop the heart.
By his own admission, Chapman let hunches and conjectures drive his decisions. While a combination of an anesthetic and a paralytic agent would have guaranteed death, he added a third drug, potassium chloride. Chapman “didn’t do any research” and relied solely on the fact that “it’s just common knowledge” that potassium chloride is lethal.
Nonetheless, lethal injection’s early proponents contended that it would be humane. They declared that executions using this method could be accomplished with “no struggle, no stench, no pain.”
But in the last four decades the reality of lethal injection has not matched that promise. Between its first use and 2010, more than 7 percent of lethal injections were botched. Execution teams struggled to find usable veins for the IVs that would carry the killing drugs. Drug dosages were sometimes not correct, and at least in one case the drugs used were not prescribed in the official protocol.
In the last decade, things have only gotten worse. Because of drug shortages, death penalty states have turned to new and untested drugs and drug combinations. The rate at which lethal injections are botched has increased. Between 2010 and 2020, newspapers and independent witnesses used that term to describe roughly 8 percent of lethal injections.
In September 2020, a National Public Radio investigation corroborated these observations and found more problems. NPR found signs of pulmonary edema—fluid filling the lungs—in 84 percent of the 216 post–lethal injection autopsies it reviewed. Some autopsies revealed that inmates’ lungs filled while they continued to breathe, which would cause them to feel as if they were drowning and suffocating.
Oklahoma has a particularly dismal record when it comes to lethal injection, having carried out among others the gruesome botched executions of Clayton Lockett in 2014 and John Marion Grant in October of last year.
With this record, it is not surprising that Grant and Postelle would rather be shot. Unlike Gilmore, they are not doing so out of false bravado. Instead they are desperately trying to get Oklahoma to respect the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
The history of America’s execution methods, including hanging, the electric chair, and the gas chamber, suggests that those efforts cannot and will not meet these constitutional expectations.
How we punish certainly requires solicitude for the suffering we inflict. But it is also about much more than that. How a society punishes reveals what it stands for and what it values. Whether the firing squad is less painful than lethal injection, as some contend, is only one part of the equation. Even if it were true, this country still should not want to be the kind of place where the government authorizes five people to shoot rifles at a defenseless person, strapped to a chair at close range.
The anniversary of Gilmore’s death is a good time to ponder the repeated failures of America’s execution technologies as well as all the damage that the death penalty does to all in whose name it is carried out. Executions have never made us a safer, saner, or more just society. Nor will they ever.