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Utah Reinstitutes Death by Firing Squad

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - Utah will allow death by firing squad again, reinstating what the governor called a "gruesome" and "barbaric" practice, after problematic executions elsewhere and a shortage of lethal injection drugs.

Gov. Gary Herbert on Monday signed House Bill 11 , making Utah the only state to use shooters in the past 40 years.

"Death Penalty Procedure Amendments" was drafted by State Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield. It "provides that if substances are not available to carry out the death penalty by lethal injection on the date specified by warrant, the death penalty shall be carried out by firing squad."

The measure cleared the state Senate by 18-10 vote.

After a rash of botched executions, states have altered injection protocols and scrambled to secure a lethal three-drug cocktail.

European countries, central suppliers of lethal drugs including the sedative sodium thiopental, were restricted from exporting the products in recent years amid a European Union mission to abolish the death penalty worldwide.

The only U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, Illinois-based Hospira, suspended production of the drug in 2009.

A substitute sedative, midazolam, led to botched executions in Oklahoma, Arizona and Ohio.

Dennis McGuire snorted and gasped for 26 minutes before dying in an Ohio prison in January 2014, and Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett died of an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after his execution with midazolam began in April 2014.

Joseph Wood gasped more than 600 times and took nearly two hours to die in Arizona, in July 2014.

Utah Gov. Herbert called firing squads "gruesome" and "barbaric" this month, but added: "We need to have the ability to fall back on something that gives certainty to the court's instructions. And so that fallback position is the firing squad.

"We've had it before, and I know it's a little bit gruesome and certainly looks a little bit barbaric. But as we hear from medical personnel, it's probably not a bad way to die, if you believe in capital punishment."

Herbert's spokesman, Marty Carpenter, countered criticism this week by saying that Utah prefers lethal injection.

"Those who voiced opposition to this bill are primarily arguing against capital punishment in general, and that decision has already been made in our state," Carpenter said in a statement.

"We regret anyone ever commits the heinous crime of aggravated murder to merit the death penalty, and we prefer to use our primary method of lethal injection when such a sentence is issued," Carpenter said. "However, when a jury makes the decision and a judge signs a death warrant, enforcing that lawful decision is the obligation of the executive branch."

Thirty-four states use capital punishment. All of them use lethal injection as the primary method of execution.

Electrocution is used as a secondary method in eight states; four use the gas chamber and three use hanging.

Utah banned death by firing squad in 2004.

The most recent execution in the state, and also its last execution by firing squad, was in 2010.

Double murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, who spent nearly 25 years on death row, chose shooters before the law was changed.

Gardner was pronounced dead after four bullets, fired by five police officers with .30-caliber Winchester rifles, pierced a target pinned to his chest.

One rifle held a blank round, as is customary with executions by firing squad, so all the shooters can think that they fired the blank round.

The Utah Department of Correction said Gardner, 49, spent his final hours watching "Lord of the Rings" movies at the state prison, near Salt Lake City.

John Holdridge, of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the execution "both savage and inhumane and highlights the systemic injustices that plague the entire death penalty system in Utah and the rest of the United States."

The ACLU of Utah last week called the firing squad and Ray's bill "state-sponsored murder."

"Talking about which methods of execution to use in Utah merely distracts us from discussing the systemic injustices and inequities that plague every other execution that takes place in this country, regardless of method, and which delegitimize the death penalty system in Utah and across the nation," the ACLU said in a statement.

"In Utah and across the country, decisions about who lives and who dies are largely dependent upon the skill of their attorneys, the race of the defendants and of their victim, the defendant's socioeconomic status and where the crime took place. Such infrequent, arbitrary and discriminatory administration of the death penalty is the very definition of a failed system."

The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Utah then performed the nation's first execution in a decade, in 1977.

Gary Gilmore, who killed a gas station clerk and motel manager in Utah County in 1976, was shot by firing squad.

Gilmore's last words were: "Let's do it."

The phrase, oddly, inspired Nike's "Just Do It" slogan, said Dan Wieden, co-founder of ad agency Wieden & Kennedy, in the film "Ad & Copy."

Herbert signed 55 bills on Monday, including measures on healthcare, powdered alcohol and air quality.

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