Earlier this year the State of Utah put plans in place to reintroduce the use of firing squads for death row executions. This step was taken by the Utah State Senate in March 2015 as a precautionary back up in case the drugs used during lethal injections were unavailable. If firing squads are to be used in the future Utah would be the only state in the union to do so. Today I’d like to discuss this and also take you back to a case from the 1970s. You might not have heard of Gary Gilmore, but you’ll certainly have heard of the advertising slogan that was inspired by some of his final words. Words uttered through a cross hair lens.
In the US in the last four decades only three death row inmates have faced their end via firing squad. All three executions happened in Utah. The proposal to reintroduce its use has been met with a cacophony of opposition from moral, social, humanitarian and, well take your pick from a range of sources to be honest. The death penalty and the use of lethal injection, or in the case of Utah, the deployment of a firing squad is a hugely divisive issue and one with which we agree and disagree in equal measure. Let’s leave aside whether the death penalty should exist and focus on the fact that, in the US at least, it does. Does it hurt? Do those that administer the fatal blow know what they are doing? If so are they qualified and approved to kill on demand?
Bizarrely, a volunteer firing squad member is more qualified to end an inmate’s life than a civil servant employed to administer a lethal injection. But can a tactic that was deployed in the 19th century really be acceptable in the 21st? Well that seems to be exactly the position the State of Utah is adopting. Let me take you back to the 1970s.
In 1977 Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in Utah. He’d been sentenced the previous year. His was the first legally approved execution in a decade thanks to a US Supreme Court injunction, and yet that isn’t what makes his case infamous. That honour belongs to the fact that Gilmore chose to be executed by firing squad. Not only that, he instructed his lawyers not to appeal for a stay of execution. Imagine that. There you are on death row. You can choose any means of execution you wish. A choice, I should point out, not given to those whose lives you ended. Let’s explore that for a second. You take the lives of others in a manner of your choosing and yet you get to choose how your own death occurs. If you could choose the beginning of your end, what would you do? In the past we’ve discussed who’d you want to investigate your murder but this is altogether different. How would you choose to die? Well, Gary Gilmore chose firing squad. Gary Gilmore killed Max Jensen and Bennie Bushnell. Max worked at a gas station, Bennie was a motel manager. Gilmore killed both of them in cold blood. He was a serial criminal, from a family littered with transgressions and prone to violent behaviour. Whilst on death row he tried to kill himself twice. His charge sheet ranges from petty crime as a child to violent crime as an adolescent. As an adult he argued strongly for his own execution.
His death involved the use of five shooters. Gilmore was strapped to a chair by the arms, legs and neck. He was hooded and wore a black circular target over his heart. From 20 feet the five volunteers fired from hunting rifles into his chest. Within hours his organs had been removed to help save or prolong the lives of others. Some of his final words were let’s do it and when the chaplain placed a hood over his head Gilmore uttered dominus vobiscum. (The Lord be with you). Typically in such circumstances one of the guns is loaded with a blank so that none of the shooters would know who delivered the fatal shot. His story inspired Norman Mailer’s 1979 novel The Executioner’s Song which won a Pulitzer Prize and was subsequently made into a film starring Tommy Lee Jones. It also inspired advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy when developing a new slogan for Nike. Co-founder Dan Wieden said I didn’t like ‘Let’s do it’ so I just changed it to ‘Just do it’.
Whatever the State of Utah decides to do, I hope it remembers Max Jensen and Bennie Bushnell, the two people Gilmore murdered, seemingly without motive. Whether justice is delivered via lethal injection or via a hunting rifle it will remain a hugely divisive issue. The debate will rage for a long time and if the state does press ahead with its plan you will hear the name Gary Gilmore many more times.
This is the 100th inkjockey post. Thank you so much for reading.