(SAN FRANCISCO) — Should lethal injection be replaced by firing squad? One federal judge thinks so.
Before Joseph Wood’s controversial execution Wednesday in Arizona, one federal judge reviewing the case earlier in the week opined that states should consider abandoning lethal injection executions in favor of a return to “more primitive” and “foolproof” methods such as the firing squad.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote an opinion Monday expressing his belief that Arizona would ultimately prevail in its attempt to execute Wood, who was convicted of killing his estranged girlfriend and her father in 1989.
But using drugs to carry out executions is a “misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful,” Kozinski said.
His words seem almost eerily prescient after conflicting reports emerged regarding whether Woods died peacefully, as one witness said, or gasping for air as another witness suggested. His execution took nearly two hours.
In the provocative opinion, Kozinski, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan, wrote that executions aren’t peaceful. “They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tried to do can mask that reality,” he said.
Kozinski, 64, allowed that the electric chair, hanging and the gas chamber are subject to occasional mishaps but that a firing squad would be the “most promising” method. “Eight or ten large-caliber rifle bullets fired at close range can inflict massive damage, causing instant death every time,” he wrote.
“Sure, firing squads can be messy,” he writes, “but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood. If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.”
Only two states — Oklahoma and Utah — would consider the firing squad under certain circumstances, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization opposed to the death penalty. Utah performed the three most recent executions by firing squad in the United States, with Ronnie Lee Gardner the latest in 2010.
Utah no longer offers the firing squad as an option, but allows it only for those inmates who chose the method prior to its elimination in 2009. Oklahoma only offers the firing squad if lethal injection and electrocution are found unconstitutional.
Lethal injection is now the primary method of execution.
Kozinski’s opinion seemed designed to ignite a broader conversation regarding the efficacy of current protocols and procedures. He pointed to California’s difficulty, “or perhaps unwillingness,” to come up with an execution protocol. “Old age, not execution, is the most serious risk factor for inmates at the San Quentin death row,” he wrote.
Indeed, a California District Court judge ruled earlier this month that the state’s administration of the death penalty is unconstitutional in part because of the long delays in its implementation. Since 1978, 300 inmates have been placed on death row and only 13 have been executed.
Kozinski reiterated his belief that Arizona should prevail in the Woods case but that a lethal injection system was “inherently flawed and ultimately doomed to failure.”
If the state wishes to continue carrying out executions, he said, “it would be better to own up that using drugs is a mistake and come up with something that will work, instead.”
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