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South Carolina has instituted a firing squad for executions. Some prisoners prefer it


Richard Moore has an excruciating choice to make. The state of South Carolina is set to execute him for murder on April 29. Moore must choose between the electric chair or the state's newest option, a firing squad made up of three shooters. And South Carolina isn't alone. Three other states in the U.S. have adopted firing squads. Richard Moore is seeking an injunction that would halt his execution, but his case has reignited conversations around execution methods in the U.S. Maurice Chammah has been reporting on the death penalty for The Marshall Project, and Maurice joins us now. Thanks for being here.

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Thank you for having me.

ESTRIN: So we should warn that our conversation will include descriptions of executions. First, can you just lay out the history behind the use of firing squads in the U.S.?

CHAMMAH: Sure. It was extremely common, you know, before we were a country. It continued to be used in kind of a military context during the Civil War. But in the 20th century, we really abandoned the firing squad. You know, there was one execution in 1913 in Nevada. And then since then, there have been just a handful, and they have all been in Utah for reasons that have to do with Mormon theology and ideas about blood being shed.

ESTRIN: Why has the U.S. avoided executions by firing squad for so long?

CHAMMAH: There's no one simple answer. It kind of taps into some really deep cultural questions and the kind of - what I think are sort of core contradictions at the heart of American capital punishment. We as a country want the death penalty, but over and over again, we've shown that we don't want it to be bloody or violent. You know, we embraced lethal injection, which has the appearance of a medical procedure, even though there have been many times where prisoners have shown an incredible amount of pain and, you know, convulsed on the gurney.

ESTRIN: So now Utah has had this execution method in place for a while. Mississippi, Oklahoma and then most recently South Carolina have adopted firing squads. So what is prompting these states to adopt firing squads now?

CHAMMAH: Lethal injection had been the dominant form of execution over the last few decades, but at a certain point, pharmaceutical companies started to say, we don't want our drugs used to execute people. And that made it hard for states to acquire the drugs. And so they started talking about other forms of execution, and the firing squad is a part of that.

ESTRIN: Now, you report that legislators have called this method archaic or medieval, but prisoners in at least 10 states have recently said that they actually prefer a firing squad to other methods like lethal injection. Why is that?

CHAMMAH: Well, I should say that these prisoners also say, for the most part, that they don't want to be executed, and they are just responding to the Supreme Court, which has said it to the prisoners, in effect, you have to propose an alternative. But all that said, multiple prisoners argue that lethal injection as it's currently practiced is cruel and unusual. And the alternative they would prefer is the firing squad because it's known to be an instantaneous and relatively painless death.

ESTRIN: So that gets into the the question of, is there a humane way to shoot someone to death? I mean, you've spoken to experts about the electric chair, lethal injection, firing squad. What do they say about that question?

CHAMMAH: Well, I think it really gets down to whether you think there's a humane way to kill anyone, period. You know, there's one expert witness who has shown up in courtrooms around the country named James Williams. And he made this point that really, you know, made me sit up where he said, well, in some countries it's even more painless in that they basically take a gun to the back of someone's head and shoot them, and they are dead before they even know it, quite literally. And that is arguably even more painless. And yet, of course, when we hear that or imagine that, it's shocking and maybe creates some revulsion. And I think that speaks to this kind of core dilemma that Americans have, where we support the death penalty, but when confronted with sort of the most efficient and effective way to carry it out, it also makes us recoil and sort of raises up our own ambivalence around whether we actually want to be executing prisoners.

ESTRIN: Yeah. And death by firing squad probably raises that question very clearly. Maurice Chammah is the author of "Let The Lord Sort Them: The Rise And Fall Of The Death Penalty" and has been reporting on executions for The Marshall Project. Thank you very much.

CHAMMAH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.