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Idaho bill to execute inmates by firing squad clears Legislature, heads to governor

March 20, 2023 Updated Wed., March 22, 2023 at 7:53 p.m.

The Idaho Capitol building shown Jan. 23 in Boise.  (Tribune News Service)
The Idaho Capitol building shown Jan. 23 in Boise. (Tribune News Service)
By Kevin Fixler Idaho Statesman

Idaho is poised to become the fifth U.S. state to approve prisoner executions by firing squad after the proposed law cleared the Legislature on Monday on its way to the governor’s desk.

House Bill 186, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, and Sen. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, passed the Senate by a 24-11 vote. The bill would establish a firing squad as the state’s backup method of execution to lethal injection.

Backers argued that death sentences are effectively unenforceable in Idaho at the moment because prison officials have been unable to secure the drugs needed to carry out the state’s only current execution method. A lethal injection execution scheduled for December had to be postponed after the state could not obtain the drugs – with officials again acknowledging earlier this month that they still have to find them.

“This is not talking about the merits of whether we should have the death penalty or not,” Ricks said during Senate debate Monday. “This is about justice. I do think this a humane way to do it.”

The bill overwhelmingly passed the Idaho House earlier this month, 50-15.

Attorney General Raúl Labrador helped draft the bill. In a phone interview after its Senate passage, Labrador told the Idaho Statesman that the decisive votes show lawmakers are on board with a firing squad as the state’s backup method going forward.

“It’s an issue that the state of Idaho should be careful and deliberate and swift in the way that we go about completing the process,” Labrador said. “I think they understand that we have an alternative so we can execute the judgment of the people.”

Oklahoma, Utah, Mississippi and South Carolina already have the firing squad on their books as an alternative method of execution. South Carolina most recently passed the law, in 2021; it has been challenged in court and is making its way through the legal process. Utah was the last U.S. state to carry out a firing squad execution, in 2010.

Skaug, an attorney and former Ada County deputy prosecutor, also testified last week before a Senate panel that lawmakers should vote on the intent behind the bill – and not on whether they support or oppose the death penalty. Capital punishment is already Idaho law, he said.

“There needs to be retribution as part of our sentencing,” Skaug testified. “That’s what keeps me or some other people from taking vengeance on our own if we suffer in the family a murder, because we know the system will bring us justice. This is the justice system that we have set up, and that is death penalty.”

Senate opponents tried to gain support against the bill Monday by questioning its constitutionality under Eighth Amendment protections from cruel and unusual punishment. They also cited their opinions that a firing squad is not fit for a civilized society and that executing a person should, in fact, be a difficult task for the state to pull off.

Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Moscow, a retired police officer and U.S. military combat veteran, was among the most vocal opponents.

“I’ve seen the aftermath of shootings, and it’s psychologically damaging to anybody who witnesses it. It’s, in a word, ‘brutal,’ ” he said Monday on the Senate floor. “And the use of the firing squad, in my opinion, is beneath the dignity of the state of Idaho. We have to find a better way.”

Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, joined Foreman in voting against the bill. She asked fellow lawmakers to exercise restraint as a model to citizens on how to avoid “contributing to a culture that becomes numb and distanced from violence.”

“Our corrections system is a direct reflection on us, on who we are – who we are as a state and the decisions we make,” Wintrow said. “A firing squad, to me, is really barbaric, and is not a good reflection on the restraint that we as a state should practice.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho immediately rebuked Monday’s vote, calling both the bill and it Senate passage “appalling.” The ACLU opposes the death penalty.

“A firing squad is particularly gruesome. As we heard during testimony, the violence of such executions leave lasting scars on all involved,” Leo Morales, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement. “Idaho has never used firing squad as a method of execution, presumably because it is inhumane. This archaic piece of legislation must not become law in Idaho.”

‘We set the policy’

The Idaho Department of Correction manages the state’s death row, now with eight inmates, and oversees executions. The department last explored adding the firing squad as a backup execution method in 2014 but chose not to pursue it. The firing squad was written into Idaho law from 1982 to 2009 but never used.

IDOC was surprised by the firing squad bill this session, informed of its planned introduction in the days before it was publicly announced, a department spokesperson previously told the Idaho Statesman. Department Director Josh Tewalt advocated against reintroducing the firing squad during testimony on another execution-related bill last year. Tewalt, who has declined Statesman interview requests through the department spokesperson, did not testify in either the House or Senate committees that advanced the legislation for full floor votes.

“He doesn’t give an opinion, because we set the policy,” Skaug said. “We leave it up to Josh Tewalt how best to humanely and with dignity carry out the sentence. … Please remember the victims of these families and the horrific murders committed by those that are on death row now.”

Labrador previously worked at Skaug’s private law firm for nearly three years before voters elected him state attorney general in November. He told the Statesman on Monday that his office informed Gov. Brad Little of the bill ahead of its introduction.

IDOC estimated the cost of modifying an area of the Idaho Maximum Security Institution outside Kuna for firing-squad executions at $750,000. The bill was passed with an emergency clause and would take effect on July 1 if Little signs it into law.

Little’s office declined to comment Monday, citing a policy not to comment on legislation awaiting action by Little.

The Republican governor last month told the Statesman he supports the death penalty, and that the state should continue the practice in a way that considers the potential impact on state prison officials. He continues to prefer lethal injection over alternative methods, he said.

“I think it’s only in lieu of our current system not working, and I haven’t given up on our current system,” Little said. “I’m a proponent for capital punishment, but we need to do it in the most dignified and humane manner that creates the least amount of stress” for corrections officers.

Labrador told the Statesman he hopes Little signs the bill and planned to phone the governor about it now that it has cleared the Legislature.

“Just a regular phone call, two adults dealing with issues of import to the state of Idaho,” Labrador said, declining to share more about what the conversation with another elected official might entail.

Ricks, a two-term state senator, in 2021 carried a bill that became law to compensate people who were wrongfully convicted. The bill unanimously passed the Senate. It directly benefited a pair of former death row inmates who were each later exonerated.

On Monday, Ricks advocated for a way to carry out Idaho’s death sentences in a more timely way.

“I know this is not a fun subject to talk about. It’s a very solemn and difficult thing,” he said on the Senate floor. “This is simply providing a means for those who have been convicted, for the justice of the victims of first-degree murder, for the victims’ families and for the rule of law.”

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