Idaho lawmakers approve bill that could allow firing squad executions

Idaho lawmakers have approved a bill that could allow prisoner executions by firing squad, the latest move by a state to revisit older methods of capital punishment.

On Monday, Idaho's state legislature passed the legislation with a veto-proof majority to reinstate a firing squad as the state’s backup method of execution for death row inmates. A longtime death row inmate has had his scheduled execution next week postponed multiple times because due to the scarcity of drugs used for lethal injections.

The bill is now headed to Idaho Gov. Brad Little for signature. He has previously supported the death penalty.

Other supporters say that death sentences currently are ineffective in the state because it has been unable to get the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections, the only legal method of capital punishment in Idaho.

"This is not talking about the merits of whether we should have the death penalty or not," said state Sen. Doug Ricks, a co-sponsor of the bill during a Senate debate Monday. "This is about justice. I do think this a humane way to do it."

Idaho could be the fifth U.S. state to adopt executions by firing squad if the bill is passed into law.

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Why is Idaho seeking to use a firing squad for executions?

Idaho previously had a firing squad for executions, which it adopted as an option in 1982, but never used it. That option was removed from state law in 2009 after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a method favoring the more commonly used lethal injections.

A bill recommending firing squads for executions in Idaho was brought forward last month by state Rep. Bruce Skaug. Among his arguments, Skaug said that the state could not execute convicted murderer Gerald Pizzuto Jr. late last year as his death warrant expired due to a lack of lethal injection drugs.

Skaug also said those drugs may not be available anytime soon and that the state needs an alternative to carry out death sentences.

Pizzuto, 66, who suffers from terminal bladder cancer, has spent nearly 40 years on death row for his role in the 1985 murders of two gold prospectors. Last month, a judge issued a death warrant for Pizzuto ordering his execution on March 23, but an appellate judge granted Pizzuto a stay of execution two weeks ago.

Prior to the Idaho Supreme Court hearing an appeal in Pizzuto's case in June 2022, Little said he supported the death penalty.

"The severity of Pizzuto’s brutal, senseless, and indiscriminate killing spree strongly warrants against a reduced sentence," Little said in a statement. "The state must have the ability to fully carry out the just sentences as ordered by the court in this case."

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Expert says using firing squad for executions sends 'brutal message'

If passed, Idaho could use a firing squad for executions if lethal injection is unavailable within five days of the state issuing a death warrant or if a court finds it unconstitutional.

One expert, Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit, told USA TODAY on Monday he believes Idaho's actions are a step backward and send a "brutal message."

Dieter said a firing squad "reverts to older methods of execution" that's considered cruel and unusual punishment. He added that Idaho could face numerous challenges in court.

"I think this is an effort by Idaho to put pressure on pharmaceutical companies and the medical community to provide the drugs and expertise they need to carry out executions with lethal injections," said Dieter, who added that 18 executions occurred in the U.S. last year, all by lethal injections.

About seven of those 18 executions had some sort of botch either when execution teams were unable to set IV lines that led to either canceled executions or delays for several hours, Dieter said.

Some lawyers for federal inmates who were eventually put to death argued in court that firing squads actually would be quicker and cause less pain than pentobarbital, which they said causes a sensation akin to drowning.

But in a 2019 filing, U.S. lawyers cited an expert as saying someone shot by firing squad can remain conscious for 10 seconds and that it would be “severely painful, especially related to shattering of bone and damage to the spinal cord.”

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How many states consider using firing squads for executions?

Currently, Mississippi, Utah, Oklahoma, and South Carolina have laws allowing firing squads if other execution methods are unavailable, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Meanwhile, a South Carolina judge has put that state's firing squad law on hold until a lawsuit challenging the method is resolved. Last year, Judge Jocelyn Newman ruled that the South Carolina Department of Corrections is permanently barred from executing four death row inmates by electrocution or firing squad.

Utah was the last U.S. state to carry out a firing squad execution in 2010.

Contributing: Associated Press, Kathryn Casteel, USA Today Network

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Idaho capital punishment: Bill approved that could allow firing squad