Gary Herbert, Republican Governor of the US state, signed a law yesterday permitting the method – which he admitted is “a little bit gruesome” – as a back-up when lethal drugs are not available.
Paul Ray, a member of the Utah House of Representatives who sponsored the amendment, told the BBC the state can no longer obtain the combination of drugs it previously used to execute prisoners:
“The European drug manufacturer that manufactures the cocktail, they no longer sell that to the United States, so we had to have a fall-back option, a Plan B, so we don’t end up going to court and costing a lot of money in litigation.”
Governor Herbert’s office said enforcing death warrants “is the obligation of the executive branch,” although it prefers to do so by injection.
Execution by lethal injection uses drugs which are also manufactured for therapeutic indications. But US states have experienced shortages in recent years, as several pharmaceutical manufacturers have agreed not to supply chemicals used in the death penalty.
A shortage of such drugs has led to some states experimenting with untested drug combinations to kill prisoners. In January 2014 the benzodiazepine Midazolam was used with the sedative hydromorphone in a botched execution in Ohio, when inmate Dennis McGuire took an usually long 25 minutes to die.
Drug scarcity was also behind the use of a makeshift cocktail of Midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride in a Florida case in October 2013.
The shortages are despite attempts by prisons to stockpile lethal injection drugs, legal justice campaign group Reprieve told in-Pharmatechnologist.com.
Utah prisons do not currently have stocks of lethal injection chemicals. Representative Ray said the state’s firing squads will use five police marksmen firing .30 calibre rifles from 20 feet away, one loaded with a blank. He claimed the “three to five seconds” it takes to kill prisoners by firing squad is more humane than the several minutes by injection, and said he would choose it for himself over a drug-based execution.