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Not Wholly And Entirely True About Federal Firing Squads



Firing squad deployed for death row backlog

Err, no. Sure, The Donald is speeding up – resuming possibly – the application of the federal death penalty. But they’ve not now said that they can shoot them. Instead:

Having reinstated federal capital punishment the Trump administration is scrambling to expand the number of ways that the federal government can execute prisoners before the president leaves office in January.

The default method is lethal injection unless a judge specifically orders otherwise but under a rule scheduled to take effect next month, death by firing squad and by electrocution are among the extra methods that will be permitted.

The proposal brings federal executions into line with the varied means available to executioners in individual states, such as Alabama, where prisoners can elect to be killed by electrocution or nitrogen hypoxia (a lethal gas dose) instead of by deadly injection.

In Utah a 2015 law states that a firing squad shall be deployed to carry out executions if the substances required for a lethal injection are unavailable.

The new law, first reported by ProPublica — a not-for-profit body in New York City that produces investigative journalism in the public interest — specifies that the government may conduct executions by lethal injection, by a method designated by a court, “or by any other manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence was imposed”.

All of which is something different.

A standard defence technique is to insist that the method of execution is unfair, unsafe (!), amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and so on and on. All of which may be true of course. But you only get to try any specific argument the once. “Sucking his brains out by attaching a Dyson to his eyeball is cruel!” “Yep.” “Lethal injection with this set of drugs is cruel!” “Nope, we dealt with that when Jimmy Joe Bob were done for that murder rape. Shut up.”

Each objection is a one time only objection. Except America has two legal systems, state and federal. So we’ve the possibility – given death sentence appeals perhaps the certainty – of two stabs at each single argument. By saying that the Feds can execute by any method already legal in that particular state jurisdiction we get to the presumption that the second round of objections in the federal court system don’t happen.

Reading between the lines of the official announcement this is indeed what they’re doing.

And the important bit? The method of execution can only be what is legal to use as the method in the state where the sentence was imposed. So, Utah allows firing squad (Gary Gilmore and all that). So, a federal sentence imposed in Utah can be by firing squad as is possible under state law. They’re not, actually, suggesting the creation of the Federal firing squad to speed up the execution process at all.

Don’t we have such a perceptive media out there?



  1. Well, I did my best to read the bit in the Federal Register. As near as I could tell, it allows the Feds to out-source executions to the states. I couldn’t see any bit that would let the Feds continue bumping people off if all the states decided to abolish the death penalty, but presumably that possibility is remote.

    I’d actually regard it as sensible. It seems to be trying to make sure that bureaucratic quibbles don’t hamper the ability to quickly give someone the chop. God knows how it’ll work out in practice though.

  2. The issue here is limited to those convicted under federal law and sentenced to leaving early. As at the state level, defense attorneys at the federal level have made a judicial mess of execution methods as a means to delay imposition of the sentence. The administration is attempting to get ahead of the meaningless legal motions about methods. Justice delayed is justice denied (this applies to the state as well as the guilty).

  3. I’m opposed to the death penalty – quite happy for someone to rot in prison for the rest of their life and avoid the costs of endless death penalty appeals which are probably far higher then just keeping someone locked up.

    But if you are going to execute someone, why not a large calibre hand gun up close to the back of the head?

  4. Carbon monoxide works perfectly well. It’s completely painless and the subject is in no way aware that he is dying, as millions of CO poisoning cases have proved.

    • Nitrogen Hypoxia is a good way to go. It’s much quicker that CO and people who have accidently died this way are not even aware of the hypoxia.

  5. This is a welcome return of responsibilites from Federal to State level. The Federation shall only do within a State what is legal within that State.


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expunct (ɪkˈspʌŋkt)
VERB (transitive)
1. to delete or erase; blot out; obliterate
2. to wipe out or destroy

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