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Governor gets hundreds of messages on firing-squad bill

Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said Thursday that he’s leaning toward signing the proposal because the state needs a fallback execution method

By Michelle L. Price
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s governor has received hundreds of messages from people around the country urging him to sign or veto a bill that would make the state the only one to allow executions by firing squad if lethal injection drugs are unavailable.

Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said Thursday that he’s leaning toward signing the proposal because the state needs a fallback execution method.

It’s unclear when Herbert will officially sign the bill. He has until April 1 to make the decision.

Herbert’s spokesman, Marty Carpenter, said Friday that the governor wants as much information as he can when making a decision. But Herbert also recognizes that people who write are passionate about the issue but may not represent the full picture of public opinion, Carpenter said.

On Friday afternoon, members of the governor’s staff met with Randy Gardner, a Salt Lake City man whose brother was the last Utah inmate executed by firing squad in 2010. Ronnie Lee Gardner was sentenced before Utah stopped allowing inmates to choose the method.

Gardner told The Associated Press that he told Herbert’s staff about his opposition to bringing back the method and how painful it was to see his brother’s body riddled with bullet holes after his execution.

Utah lawmakers passed the measure last week amid a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs that has left states scrambling. European drug manufacturers have refused to sell the drugs to U.S. prisons out of opposition to capital punishment.

While Utah is not expected to schedule another execution for several years, lawmakers voted to use the firing squad if the state cannot get lethal injection drugs 30 days in advance.

From late January through 5 p.m. Thursday, Herbert’s office received 433 emails and letters about the proposal, with 396 of those in opposition.

A good chunk of the messages in opposition came from a campaign against the proposal by the American Civil Liberties Union, where individuals could write the governor with a pre-written email.

The governor’s office received out-of-state phone calls about the bill. But it only tracks those from Utah residents and had none to report.

The messages Herbert received were primarily emails and came from people in Utah and those living as far away as Rhode Island, Minnesota and even New Zealand.

Despite the hundreds of messages, the governor is receiving far fewer messages than the thousands that have flooded his office in recent years over hot-button topics like same-sex marriage and concealed weapons permits.

Republican Rep. Paul Ray, a Republican who sponsored the firing-squad bill, he has received only a few dozen phone calls and emails about the firing-squad proposal, mostly from people who support it. He said he has received more reaction to his proposals to add regulations for e-cigarettes.

“This is not as controversial as the ACLU is trying to make it out to be,” Ray said about the firing squad. “People support it. It’s not a big deal, and there are a lot more important issues to deal with.”

Ray has argued trained marksmen offer faster and more humane deaths than the drawn-out ones sometimes seen in lethal injections.

In letters to Utah’s governor, many disagreed and called firing squads barbaric, archaic and inhumane.

“The firing squad is an inhumane method of execution that is both unnecessary and brings shame upon our great state,” Michael Brown Parker of Hurricane, Utah, wrote in an email.

Some raised concerns about the capital punishment in general. Others wondered about what kind of reputation firing squads would create for Utah.

Several people wrote to say they would not vacation in Utah the bill is approved. “I will never again come to Utah to ski if this barbaric execution style is used again in your state,” wrote Randy Kilmer, a Seattle resident.

Those writing to support the measure said the state should honor victims by having a method to carry out executions, and a firing squad would faster and more cost-effective.

“Bullets are cheaper than drugs, and if you’re going to kill someone for committing a heinous crime, I don’t see why they should go with any dignity,” wrote Samuel Batista, a resident of the Utah town of Cedar Fort.

Sandra Tomonto, of North Ogden, urged Herbert to sign the bill, writing, “Our country cannot be held hostage to the stance of the European drug manufacturers.”

A number of people suggested alternative execution methods for the Herbert to consider: poisonous herbs, the guillotine, heroin overdoses and a hypobaric chamber to simulate the effects of high altitude and deprive the inmate of enough oxygen.

Ray said he, too, has had people contacting him with alternative methods, including an older woman from Florida called him with a plan to create a death chamber.

“She scared me,” Ray said. “I’m glad she’s not my grandmother.”

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