Following a handful of high-profile, botched executions, the constitutionality of lethal injection is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Capital punishment has been a controversial moral issue for decades, but its legality has only come under scrutiny in recent months. Departing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has been outspoken against the death penalty, endorsing a moratorium on all executions until the Supreme Court makes its decision.
Holder’s position aligns with a popular argument against capital punishment — if even one innocent individual is killed, then the entire system is flawed. “Our system of justice is the best in the world. It is comprised of men and women who do the best they can, get it right more often than not — substantially more right than wrong,” Holder said. “But there’s always the possibility that mistakes will be made, mistakes in determinations made by juries, mistakes in terms of the kind of representation somebody facing a capital offense receives. And it is for that reason that I am opposed to the death penalty.”
Other high-ranking politicians have agreed with Holder. Last month, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf implemented a statewide moratorium on capital punishment. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee did the same last year. “With my action today, I expect Washington state will join a growing national conversation about capital punishment,” Gov. Inslee said. “I welcome that, and I’m confident that our citizens will engage in this very important debate.”
Any debate has at least two sides, and the side in support of capital punishment has fought back in recent weeks. In response to the possibility that lethal injection could be ruled unconstitutional, states are taking precautionary methods. Utah’s Senate committee quickly passed a bill that would reinstate death by firing squad as an alternative method of execution. As KSL.com reports, the bill would also legalize firing squad executions if the drugs needed for lethal injections aren’t available 30 days before the date of the death warrant. Wyoming’s House of Representatives passed a similar bill, despite the state having no inmates on death row. Oklahoma is also exploring the possibility of using gas chambers as an execution method.
We created a poll in order to find out how people feel about states implementing these new methods of execution in light of the forthcoming Supreme Court ruling. The poll asked the following question: “Should states be allowed to use death by firing squad for the death penalty?” At 62.1%, the majority of respondents said “No.” Still, 37.9% of respondents — a relatively high number — said “Yes.”
Age played a significant factor in the results of the data. The largest age group that responded “Yes,” at 47.6%, was 65+. By contrast, the largest group to respond “No” was the youngest, 18-24 year olds. Urban respondents were also more likely to say “No” than Rural respondents.
Only three firing squad executions have taken place since 1976. The vast majority of executions in that time period have used lethal injection, which is also the primary method used by all states. Eight states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia — also have electrocution as an option if lethal injection drugs are not available.
Firing squad executions may seem outdated, but they could easily become a reality if the Supreme Court rules lethal injection unconstitutional. As our poll shows, a relatively large amount of the population believes that states have the right to implement firing squads. As the actions of legislators in Utah, Wyoming and Oklahoma have shown, politicians feel the same way. Someday, it'll be up to us to decide whether or not the death penalty itself should remain legal.