Death Penalty By Firing Squad: How Is It Carried Out?

Death by firing squad, an archaic way of carrying out the death penalty that is now banned in the United States (for most prisoners, that is), was the form of execution chosen by convicted Utah criminal Ronnie Lee Gardner.

A method of carrying out the death penalty that began in Utah's pioneer days, death by firing squad was finally banned in 2004, and the state switched to lethal injection. But because the ban is not retroactive, prisoners who chose this form of death prior to the ruling are still entitled to it.

Gardner requested that he be killed by a firing squad at his sentencing hearing in 1985, simply telling the judge, "I would like the firing squad, please." His execution was carried out on the morning of June 18.

Using .30-caliber Winchester rifles, the five men simultaneously took aim and fired at a white target on Gardner's chest, directly over his heart. Gardner, who wore a hood over his head and was strapped to a chair, was instantly shot through the heart.

Sandbags were stacked behind and around Gardner's chair in order to prevent bullets from ricocheting around the cinderblock room.

The five executioners, certified police officers who remain anonymous, stood about 25 feet (7.6 meters) away and shot from behind a black curtain and through a brick wall cut with a gun port, or a special opening for the firearms. Of the five guns, one was loaded with a blank so that no one would be able to determine who fired the fatal shot.

The controversial manner of capital punishment has rarely been carried out in the United States since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, after which there have only been three instances of death by firing squad – all of which took place in Utah, the only state that continued to offer death by firing squad as an option to some prisoners on death row.

After choosing the firing squad in 1985, Gardner later changed his mind in 1990, telling a judge that he preferred to die by lethal injection. He told news sources that he made the change for the sake of his children, who "didn't understand" the firing squad decision.

But in 1996, he changed his mind again, and threatened to sue the legal system if he was not allowed to select his original choice of facing the firing squad, an option he claimed to have always favored, according to news sources.

"I guess it's my Mormon heritage," Gardner told Salt Lake City newspaper Deseret News in 1996. "I like the firing squad. It's so much easier…and there's no mistakes."

The change was allowed, but Gardner continued to delay the capital punishment through numerous appeals, and 25 years passed between the time of his initial sentencing and execution.

The last inmate to be executed by firing squad was John Albert Taylor, in 1996.

Currently, the U.S. states that still carry out capital punishment favor lethal injection as a more humane alternative to older forms of execution, mainly the electric chair and the gas chamber.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.