Republican Gov. Brad Little signed legislation allowing executions, making Idaho the latest state to turn to older methods of capital punishment amid a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs.
The Legislature he passed the measure on March 20 with a veto majority. According to him, firing squads will only be used if the country cannot obtain the drugs needed for lethal injections.
Pharmaceutical companies are increasingly banning executioners from using their drugs, saying they are meant to save lives. An Idaho death row inmate has already had his execution delayed multiple times because of drug shortages.
The shortage has prompted other states in recent years to revive older methods of execution. Only Mississippi, Utah, Oklahoma and South Carolina have laws that allow firing squads if other methods of execution are not available, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The South Carolina law is on hold pending the outcome of a legal challenge.
Some states have begun restocking electric chairs as a backup when lethal drugs are not available. Others have considered – and sometimes used – largely unproven methods of execution. In 2018, Nevada executed Carey Dean Moore with a never-before-tried drug combination that included the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. Alabama has built a system to execute people using nitrogen gas to induce hypoxia, but it has not yet been used.
“As I sign this bill, it is important to emphasize that serving justice can and must be accomplished by minimizing the stress on corrections staff,” Little wrote in a letter after signing the bill. “For people on death row, a jury has convicted them of their crimes, and they are legally on death row. It is the responsibility of the state of Idaho to uphold the law and ensure that lawful criminal sentences are carried out.”
During a historic round of 13 executions in the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the federal government opted for the sedative pentobarbital as a replacement for the lethal drugs used in the 2000s. He issued a protocol authorizing firing squads for federal executions if necessary, but that method was not used.
Some lawyers for federal prisoners who ended up being killed argued in court that firing squads would actually be quicker and less painful than pentobarbital, which they said causes a drowning-like sensation.
However, in a 2019 filing, US attorneys cited an expert who said that someone shot by a firing squad could remain conscious for 10 seconds and that it would be “extremely painful, especially with broken bones and damage to the spinal cord.”
President Joe Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, ordered a temporary pause in federal executions in 2021 while the Justice Department reviewed the protocols. Garland did not say how long the moratorium would last.
Idaho Sen. Doug Ricks, a Republican who co-sponsored the state’s firing squad bill, told fellow senators Monday (3/20) that the state’s difficulty finding the lethal injection drug could continue “indefinitely,” he believes that death by firing squad is “humane,” and that the bill would help ensure the rule of law is enforced.
But Sen. Dan Foreman, also a Republican, called the shootings “below the dignity of the state of Idaho.” They would traumatize the executioners, the witnesses and the people who clean up afterwards, he said.
The bill was introduced by Republican Rep. Bruce Skaug, prompted in part by the state’s inability to execute Gerald Pizzuto Jr. at the end of last year. Pizzuto, now suffering from terminal cancer and other debilitating illnesses, spent more than three decades on death row for his role in the 1985 murders of two gold prospectors.
The Idaho Department of Corrections estimates it will cost about $750,000 to build or renovate a death chamber for firing squad executions.
Agency director Jeff Tewalt said he would be reluctant to ask his staff to participate in a firing squad.
Both Tewalt and his former colleague Kevin Kempf played a key role in procuring the drugs used in the 2012 execution of Richard Albert Levitt, who flew to Tacoma, Washington, with more than $15,000 in cash to buy them from a pharmacist. The trip was kept secret by the department, but it was revealed in court documents after University of Idaho professor Aliza Cover sued for the information under the public records law.
During his campaign, Biden promised to work to abolish the death penalty nationwide, but has remained silent on the issue as president. Critics say his hands-off approach risked sending a message that he was fine with states adopting alternative execution methods.