What Utah and Virginia Are Trying to Do to Keep The Death Penalty Will Shock You

February 6, 2015

A protester holds a sign up during an anti-death penalty protest on June 18,2001 in Santa Ana, CA. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
A protester holds a sign up during an anti-death penalty protest on June 18,2001 in Santa Ana, CA. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

As the death penalty declines across the US, a small number of states are taking drastic measures to keep their death chambers active.

In light of last year’s three gruesomely botched executions, Ohio and Oklahoma (responsible for two of them) are taking the precaution of putting executions on hold. But that’s a little too cautious for Utah and Virginia, two states that appear willing to do just about anything to continue executions.

Virginia State Senator Richard Saslaw has introduced a bill that, rather than address the problems that have led to horrifying botched executions, simply sidesteps them by cloaking the entire execution process in secrecy. It even proposes to exempt information about executions from the Freedom of Information Act. After all, why clean up a mess when you can just sweep it under the rug?

In addition to its secrecy provisions, the bill also ensures the state’s access to lethal injection drugs by allowing secret contracts with compounding pharmacies – pharmacies that mix their own drugs unregulated by the FDA. Ohio tried the same thing, resulting in the botched execution of Dennis McGuire (the first of last year’s three botched executions).

Utah has taken a different approach. State Representative Paul Ray is sponsoring a bill that would allow the firing squad as an option when lethal injection drugs aren’t available. If lethal injection regulations are intended to find some kind of “humane” execution method, Rep. Ray’s bill must be intended to take us back to a time when we simply didn’t worry about being humane.

Utah last carried out an execution by firing squad in 2010 when it executed Ronnie Lee Gardner. The spectacle of the firing squad made international news and put the spotlight on Utah standing far outside the national consensus on capital punishment methods.

That national consensus is continuing to evolve, and it’s not moving in the direction of Utah and Virginia. The death penalty has been declining across the United States for years.

2014 saw the fewest executions in the United States in the last 20 years, and the fewest people sentenced to death in the last 40 years, according to the latest report from the Death Penalty Information Center. The nation’s 35 executions were concentrated in just seven states (with three states – Texas, Missouri, and Florida – responsible for 80%). In fact, the majority of death penalty cases nationwide stem from only 2% of counties, with the vast majority of counties abandoning the practice altogether.

Most counties have seen the death penalty as a drain on resources with no benefit. Contrary to popular belief, studies have consistently shown that the death penalty costs far more public resources than alternative punishments, even life in prison without parole. 80% of US counties have not employed the death penalty in decades, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

While more and more states abolish the death penalty or abandon its use, those that continue to cling to it do so in increasingly gruesome circumstances.

Whether it’s botched executions that essentially torture prisoners to death, shrouds of secrecy, or even the executions of people with intellectual disabilities (as Georgia and Texas both demonstrated last week), the way the death penalty is employed in a small number of states is deeply shocking the conscience of the rest of the country and the world.

The time has come to admit the death penalty is broken beyond repair and abandon it once and for all.