A botched lethal injection in the US state of Oklahoma last month has caused a Utah lawmaker to come out and announce that he thinks the firing squad is a more humane form of execution. His musings are worth listening to as he plans to suggest that option for criminals sentenced to death in his state.
Rep. Paul Ray, a Republican from the northern Utah city of Clearfield, plans to introduce his proposal during Utah’s next legislative session.
He may well succeed. Utah has a tradition of execution by firing squad. Five police officers used .30-caliber Winchester rifles to execute Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010. Utah eliminated execution by firing squad in 2004, citing the excessive media attention it gave inmates. But those sentenced to death before that date still had the option of choosing it, which explains how Gardner met his end.
Ray reinforced his argument with the observation that drug shortages that have complicated lethal injections. He and lawmakers in other states also suggested firing squads might be the cheapest and most humane method.
“The prisoner dies instantly,” Ray said. “It sounds draconian. It sounds really bad, but the minute the bullet hits your heart, you’re dead. There’s no suffering.”
But this is not always true.
The following two stories, I hope, illustrate that firing squad – apart from the moral debate of a state taking a life and the possibility of an innocent being executed – is not a 100% surefire way of killing someone.
Wallace Wilkerson was born in 1834 in Quincy, Illinois, before moving to Utah with his family at the age of eight. At seventeen he worked as a stockman and repeatedly enlisted in the military, one time serving as a drummer in San Francisco. Around 1877, he found himself frequenting a nearby saloon that was tended by a man named William Baxter, who once had to break up a conflict between Wilkerson and another patron by using a revolver to settle them down.
As luck would have it, that same year fate conspired against Baxter when he wound up running into Wilkerson at another saloon and the two decided to play a game of cribbage for money.
As with most stories about card-playing in the 1800s, this one also took a turn for the worse with accusations of cheating. Baxter attempted to back out of the argument, but Wilkerson was having none of it and planted a bullet in the man’s forehead, then his temple. It later turned out that Baxter was unarmed at the time and Wilkerson was tried and convicted for premeditated murder.
The execution date was set for later that same year, and Wilkerson chose his method of death to be execution via firing squad, rather than the alternative options of being hanged or decapitated.
On the day of his death, Wilkerson was permitted to spend his remaining hours with his wife, during which time he must have gotten his hands on some alcohol, according to witnesses who saw him in his final moments. When he was at last taken from his cell, Wilkerson was dressed in black with a white felt hat and a cigar that he kept during the execution. The condemned man was then seated on a chair about thirty feet from the shooters as a blindfold was prepared for him. Wilkerson, however, declined to wear the blindfold, stating “I give you my word . . . I intend to die like a man, looking my executioners right in the eye.” Restraints, too, were eschewed at the word of the prisoner as a small white square was pinned over the man’s heart by a marshal.
Wilkerson took a deep breath and drew himself up straight in the chair in anticipation of the volley. This action, unbeknownst to Wallace, moved the target several inches upward as the executioners fired their salvo at him. One bullet shattered his left arm, while the rest punched into his torso, failing to instantly kill the man. Wilkerson, meanwhile, leapt from the chair and hit the ground screaming “Oh my God! My God! They have missed!”
Four doctors rushed to him amidst concerns that the executioners might have to shoot him again, but Wilkerson bled out from his wounds just twenty-seven minutes after receiving them.
In Thailand Ginggaew Lorsoungnern was a former domestic for a Bangkok family. Using her familiarity and the trust established with the family that once employed her, she picked up their six year old boy from school and personally delivered him to a Thai kidnap gang, who then demanded a ransom from the child’s parents.
The parents complied, following the plan to hurl the money out of a moving train and close to a designated flag. Unfortunately, because the delivery occurred at night, the parents were unable to properly see the flag and missed the exact spot. Assuming the ransom was denied, the infuriated kidnappers proceeded to stab the young boy to death, at which point it’s alleged that Lorsoungnern flung her body over the boy’s and attempted to shield him. This act, assuming it happened at all, failed to save the boy who was then dumped into a grave. Another sad discovery came later, when the coroner found soil in the child’s lungs, indicating that he was still alive at the time of his burial.
For her role in the boy’s murder, Lorsoungnern was sentenced to death by shooting, an execution in which the condemned was tied to a wooden cross, with their hands bound in a praying position and their bodies facing a wall. Behind them, a screen was set up in which a target was drawn, indicating where the heart was. The executioner remained behind this screen, unable to see the prisoner’s body, and operated a mounted automatic rifle which would deliver fifteen or so bullets to the vicinity of the heart. The sheer amount of bullets striking such a vital region would typically ensure that death came instantly, provided the target did not struggle too much.
On the day of her death, January 13th, 1979, Lorsoungnern succumbed to repeated fainting spells, and had trouble standing under her own power. The escorts had to keep reviving her with smelling salts as they approached the execution room while she continued to maintain her innocence in the boy’s murder.
“I didn’t do it, I didn’t kill the boy,” she begged. “Please don’t kill me, I didn’t kill him.” Her desperate words fell upon deaf ears as the escorts finally managed to lead the woman to the cross and began to secure her to it. At last, the gun was loaded and the executioner took aim. A moment later ten bullets were consecutively fired into the screen.
Shortly after the shots were fired, a doctor approached the woman and checked for vital signs, none of which were found. Lorsoungnern was, by this point, bleeding profusely as they untied her body and laid her face down on the floor where she jerked and twitched slightly. Her chest had burst open from the bullets. Her body was moved to the morgue and placed upon a bed as they readied the next person for execution.
It was then, however, that Lorsoungnern began to utter sounds and attempt to sit up. The escorts rushed into the morgue, one of them rolling her over and pushing down on her back in an effort to help her bleed out quicker. Another attempted to strangle her, but was stopped.
She continued to breathe and was ordered to be tied back on to the cross. The escorts became covered in her blood as they tried to hoist her back into position. Finally, fifteen more bullets were put into her body and she was mercifully pronounced dead. The reasons for her unenviable death are as follows: she was not tied tightly enough to the cross, and could therefore wriggle out of position, and her heart happened to be on the right side of her body instead of the left.