Gov. Brad Little signs bill to let Idaho execute inmates by firing squad
March 24, 2023 Updated Sun., March 26, 2023 at 9:03 p.m.
Idaho could begin executing death row inmates by firing squad as early as this summer after Gov. Brad Little joined a wave of Republican support to use the method when lethal injection drugs are unavailable.
Little signed House Bill 186 on Friday, tasking the Idaho Department of Correction with creating policies to implement the new law, which goes into effect in July. The department also plans to spend an estimated $750,000 to overhaul a cell block at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution outside Kuna, where death row inmates are housed, to move forward with firing squad executions.
“While I am signing this bill, it is important to point out that fulfilling justice can and must be done by minimizing stress on corrections personnel,” Little wrote in a transmittal letter after signing the bill. “For the people on death row, a jury convicted them of their crimes, and they were lawfully sentenced to death. It is the responsibility of the state of Idaho to follow the law and ensure that lawful criminal sentences are carried out.”
An IDOC spokesperson did not respond to the Idaho Statesman’s request for comment Friday evening.
The new law stands to make Idaho the fifth U.S. state to adopt a firing squad as an alternative method of execution. Tennessee also is in the midst of considering a similar bill to add the execution method this legislative session.
South Carolina was the most recent state to add a firing squad in 2021. That law, however, remains in legal limbo after the state’s supreme court kicked it back to a lower court to review whether prison officials have worked hard enough to find lethal injection drugs. The lower court ruled last fall that the state’s alternative execution methods of a firing squad or electric chair were unconstitutional.
Utah was last to execute a prisoner, convicted double-murderer Ronnie Gardner, by firing squad in 2010. Idaho’s neighbor has performed the method three times and is the only U.S. state to do so since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment after an eight-year national hiatus.
Gardner’s older brother, Randy Gardner, testified in person against the bill before an Idaho Senate panel earlier this month. He urged lawmakers to reject the bill, declaring it cruel and unusual punishment, including the collateral damage such an execution method has on anyone connected to it.
“I mean, it just ripped my brother’s body apart,” Randy Gardner said. “I think you guys are going backwards by bringing the firing squad. It’s just not a good thing to be doing as civilized members of society. I would beg you folks not to pass this through.”
Little wrote Friday that he hasn’t given up on obtaining chemicals needed for executions by lethal injection. He noted another law passed last year, which shielded execution drug suppliers from being publicly identified, “helped expand options” that would have otherwise been unavailable.
Firing squad more humane, bill sponsor says
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, and Sen. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, advanced from the Senate panel in a 5-4 vote. It went on to receive a supermajority of support in the Senate after an overwhelming approval in the Idaho House earlier this month.
Skaug, an attorney and former Ada County deputy prosecutor, told the Statesman in an interview that he didn’t have concerns Idaho’s law would face significant legal challenges and felt the firing squad was more humane than lethal injection.
Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador told the Statesman in an interview that he helped draft the bill. Skaug said that based on the opinion of the attorney general’s office, the law will result in less litigation than lethal injection, the state’s only allowable execution method.
“Lethal injection is the first choice. That’s what I’m pushing, and, if we can’t do it, then firing squad,” Skaug told the Statesman. A firing squad is “certain, and it is quick. And most things I’ve read, it’s 10 seconds of extreme pain, and then you’re done.”
The firing squad bill came about after prison officials acknowledged that the state could not secure the drugs to carry out lethal injections, effectively making death sentences unenforceable.
In a Friday statement, Labrador told the Statesman that the new law means “the de facto moratorium on the death penalty” is over.
“The firing squad will not be the primary or preferred method of execution, it will be a fallback option that will be used only if lethal injection is not available,” he said.
The scheduled December execution of longtime Idaho death row inmate Gerald Pizzuto was postponed after prison officials couldn’t obtain the drugs. Officials again said in a court filing earlier this month that they still haven’t been able to find lethal injection drugs.
The Federal Defender Services of Idaho, the legal nonprofit that represents the majority of the state’s eight death row inmates, including Pizzuto, declined to comment Friday.
Leo Morales, executive director of the ACLU of Idaho, in a statement called the firing squad an “archaic and particularly gruesome execution method.” Morales criticized the law as “a step backward,” as public support for the death penalty reached an all-time low.
“Instead of trying to reinstate the death penalty with a gruesome execution method, Idaho lawmakers should have kept the firing squad in the dust bin of history, where it belongs,” Morales said.
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