GUNNISON, UT If death row inmate Troy Kell gets his way, he'll die when four .30-caliber bullets, each shot from an identical gun, burst through his ribcage and destroy his heart.
It might not be the easy way to go for Kell, who stabbed and killed a fellow inmate in 1994 while serving time for another murder conviction. But the admitted white supremacist doesn't want to die by lethal injection, the method used in all 65 executions last year and all 11 so far this year. He wants to die in a hail of bullets, at the hands of the Utah Department of Corrections firing squad.
|Why would these inmates volunteer to get justice at the tip of the bullet?
Kell isn't alone in choosing the firing squad. In fact, he is one of four death row inmates in Utah that have chosen it, and the method is also on the books in Idaho and Oklahoma. Another age-old method of execution, hanging, is still legal in three states Washington, Delaware, and New Hampshire and both methods were last used in 1996.
But why would these inmates volunteer to get justice at the tip of the bullet or the end of a taut rope when they could drift away on a gurney with a lethal injection?
For death-row inmates like Kell, it can be a plea for attention, a way to delay the execution date, or a way to make things difficult for the prison system. Some also hope that such a shocking death will impact the public's opinion of what has become one of the most controversial issues in law enforcement.
"In some cases, this may actually make the difference," said sociologist Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Boston's Northeastern University. "It has an impact on those people who aren't rigidly in favor of the death penalty, but who could still change their minds."
Why, how, and to whom?
Being hung, shot to death, poisoned by gas or electrocuted were only ways to go in the U.S. until lethal injection, which was first used in Texas in 1982.
The firing squad remains in Oklahoma, Idaho, and Utah, and the gallows in New Hampshire, Washington, and Delaware.
|The method was developed following the lifting of the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ban on executions. As states gradually resumed executions following the rescinding of the ban, the search for a kinder, gentler method of killing began.
That doesn't mean the old methods have disappeared, however. As vestigial as they are, the firing squad remains in Oklahoma, Idaho, and Utah, and the gallows in New Hampshire, Washington, and Delaware. Deborah Denno, a professor of law at Fordham University, says thhat states would be admitting the methods were flawed in the first place if they were removed.
"They're sort of conceding fault if they change it," said Denno. "It would be a statement that the method was acting improperly. It means that something was going wrong with all the hundreds of executions that were carried out already."
There aren't currently any inmates on death row in New Hampshire. In Washington, none of the nine inmates on death row have chosen hanging as their method of execution. And in Delaware, only one inmate is eligible for hanging (who, according to a 1996 statue, has a choice of his method of execution). In Oklahoma, the firing squad is only a backup, to be used only if lethal injection and electrocution are ruled unconstitutional.
In Idaho, where there are 20 inmates on death row, the firing squad isn't likely to be used the state has only executed one inmate since 1957. And, even then, adds spokesperson Mark Crenopas, "It would be up to the director of the department of corrections. There's a lot of things that could potentially go wrong [with lethal injection]. If you can't fix the machine, you gotta have a backup plan."
Recently one state did make a change, however, after a death row inmate voiced his decision to die by an alternative execution method.
John Byrd Jr., a convicted murderer on Ohio's death row, wanted to die by the electric chair, but he never got the chance. The state had not used the chair since 1963, and Reginald Wilkinson, Ohio prison director, said he opposed using the chair because he wanted to make the process easier for his
|"Nobody dies as easily as convicted murders in this country."
Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a group that fights against curbs on the power of law enforcement, agrees that inmates who choose alternative methods of execution are drawing attention to the cause. "It's kind of like taking people who really love Burger King down to the slaughterhouse," he says.
But Rushford is quick to add that methods of execution such as the firing squad and the gallows are not only safe, they're deserved punishments. "If done properly, everything that they've done has been humane," Rushford says. "Nobody dies as easily as convicted murders in this country. It's a much quicker, more merciful death than their victims suffered."
Inside the Firing Squad
The last person to die by the firing squad in the U.S. also wanted to make a point. John Albert Taylor, who was shot to death on January 26, 1996, for killing a child, chose to be executed in the same room where Kell wants to be executed.
Manning these ports were five gunmen, four with bullets loaded in their chamber, one with a blank.
|The inmate reportedly wanted to make the killing as awkward as possible for the state, and said he did not want to flop around "like a dying fish" from lethal injection.
In the early morning hours, Taylor was brought to an execution room with special features designed by the Utah Correctional Facility for the bloody task. He was dressed in dark clothing so that the blood wouldn't show and positioned in a custom-designed chair with channels on the sides and a pan underneath to collect the blood and bodily fluids that would be spilled. A white circle was affixed over his heart with velcro, and he was restrained in the chair by his arms, legs, chest, and head.
Behind Taylor were thick sandbags to absorb the bullets and prevent them from bouncing around the execution room. About 20 feet in front of him were five gun ports, one for each of five identical .30-caliber rifles used in the killing. Manning these ports were five gunmen, four with bullets loaded in their chamber, one with a blank the moral safeguard afforded the executioners so that each, if necessary, could cling to the notion that they were not complicit in the inmate's killing.
Facing these matching instruments of death, then, was Taylor's last glimpse of this world as warden Hank Galetka covered his head with a thick, black hood. According to a local reporter, the sharp report of the rifles rang in the chamber 45 seconds later, and Taylor slumped in death immediately.
|"To ask a man how to die is more barbaric than hanging."
The two executions were seized upon by anti-death penalty groups such as the ACLU to highlight what they perceive as cruel and unusual punishment.
"Lethal injection is an attempt to sanitize execution, but in fact it is no less barbaric and no more civilized than the firing squad," said Nadine Strossen, the president of the organization. "Utah and the rest of the nation should end this gruesome search for the 'best method' of killing and simply abolish the death penalty."
According to Cynthia Adcock, a law professor at Duke University and founder of the Duke Death Penalty Clinic, the ability of anti-death penalty groups to affect the nation's conscience comes because society is at a continual moral crossroads concerning the death penalty, a simultaneously brutal and vindicating function of the state.
"It's kind of the Old-West mentality, something from a different time."
|"People don't like to think of themselves as brutal," says Adcock. "If we're faced with a form of execution that is brutal, then we have to admit that we are brutal. We want our hands as clean as possible."
That's precisely why, Adcock says, decisions like Troy Kell's to die by the most brutal method possible can jog the consciousness of the nation.
When an inmate chooses to go by firing squad or by hanging, she says, "It's kind of the Old-West mentality, something from a different time people find it to be intriguing."
"It might also work the other way," cautions Marjorie Cohn, associate professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. "When an execution takes place in this country people are fighting for chairs to watch it. Public hangings used to be the national past time. People got a great catharsis from that."
The Public Spectacle of Death
That last gasp of public executions took place early in the morning on August 14, 1936, when a crowd of 20,000 gathered to watch Rainey Bethea, a young black man who had been convicted of the rape and murder of a seventy-year-old white woman. According to local papers, the throngs included "children of primary school age and women with babies in their arms ... in the crowd which had waited all night to witness the execution at dawn."
Bethea was led shoeless up a platform with 13 stairs, where six men waited to fit him with the noose. To his left: A mass of white faces, once jovial, hushed by the sobriety of what was to come. By 5:23 a.m., Bethea was swinging at the bottom of a rope, two months and seven days after the murder he allegedly committed. The spectacle caused by his death caused such an outcry among the spectators and in the press that hanging were thereafter conducted outside the presence of the public.
|The spectacle of Bethea's death caused such an outcry that hangings were no longer conducted in public.
A Better Way to Kill
Though critics of lethal injection point out its many flaws, the tripartite cocktail of numbing chemicals first lulls to sleep then gently kills its victims has most certainly convinced the public that lethal injection is a gentler alternative to the electric chair, the firing squad, and the gallows.
In one study, almost 60 percent of 1000 people surveyed preferred lethal injection when the next highest method, electrocution, received only 8 percent of the votes.
Dr. Edward Brunner, chairman of the Department of Anaesthesia at Northwestern University Medical School, says the results are not surprising. "In the minds of the American public and of jurors in capital cases the perception of lethal injection is of a clean, clinical and painless end," he said.
In reality, the method isn't foolproof. Anti-death penalty advocates note that even lethal injections don't go off without a hitch in fact, many prove to be excruciatingly difficult.
But no matter the problems with lethal injection says Jack Levin, it will never grab the public's attention like the firing squad or hanging.
"It's meant to minimize pain, but not necessarily the pain of the condemned man it's the pain of the public, he said.