Bill to bring back firing squad advances to Senate
By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports
The Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee on Monday voted 5-4 to advance a bill that would bring back the firing squad as a legal form of execution in Idaho.
The decision comes after a federal judge stayed an execution last week for Gerald Pizzuto Jr., a man on Idaho’s death row. The Idaho Department of Correction has twice been unable to obtain the necessary chemicals to execute him by lethal injection.
The Idaho Attorney General’s Office requested Pizzuto’s most recent death warrant in February, just days after the House introduced the firing squad bill.
Sen. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, sponsored the legislation, saying it was not an easy subject to talk about.
“I do think that we have a duty and responsibility to help carry out this law,” Ricks said.
The first person to testify was Randy Gardner, from Utah, whose brother Ronnie Garnder was executed in 2010 by firing squad in Utah. He stressed that the firing squad is cruel and unusual punishment.
“I mean it just ripped my brother’s body apart,” said Randy Garnder. “…I think it’s very barbaric. It’s like the wild West days.”
Gardner expressed concern for the correctional teams that must tie down the condemned, the people who are forced to clean up the blood, and the wardens.
“It’s just not a good thing to be doing as civilized members of society,” he said.
Should it pass, the bill allows the use of the firing squad when lethal injection is not available. It does not outline how many guns or what type of guns would be used in an execution. That responsibility would be left to the Idaho Department of Correction director, who is hired by the Board of Correction. Board of Correction members are appointed by the governor.
Deputy Attorney General LaMont Anderson, of the AG’s capital litigation unit, explained that right now Idaho is unable to comply with the rule of law.
He said that four states have the firing squad, largely because they cannot obtain lethal injection chemicals. Death is expected to occur about 10 to 60 seconds after the shots are fired, he told the committee.
Anderson stressed that the firing squad was an effective form of execution and case law supported it as humane.
Defense attorney Johnathan Baldauf testified in opposition to the bill, addressing the issue of cruel and unusual punishment.
“The firing squad will almost certainly result in more litigation, not less,” Baldauf told the committee.
The committee members had strong opinions on the issue.
Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Moscow, is a former police officer and military veteran and said he would never support the firing squad.
“I’ve seen a lot of death and dying in my days. I’ve seen people shot, up close and personal, and I would never vote for this bill,” said Foreman. “Nothing against the sponsors, I understand the intent and the need, but if you’ve ever seen it, you would know what I mean. It’s the most disgusting, appalling thing a person could ever witness. For the life of me, I would not inflict the duties to carry this out on another Idahoan or another human being for that matter.”
Foreman wanted to hold the bill in committee, but Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, made a substitute motion to send it to the floor.
“The debate in front of us is not whether or not we should have the death penalty,” Lee said.
Ricks pointed to the Pizzuto case. Pizzuto, 66, is on Idaho’s death row after being convicted in the 1985 deaths of Berta Herndon and her nephew Delbert Herndon outside of McCall. His two co-defendants, William Odom and James Rice, were given lesser sentences for their roles in the crime.
“He bludgeoned his victims with a hammer in the head. I don’t think that was very humane,” Ricks said. “And almost every one of these conditions of people who committed murders, some of these a very horrific that caused undue amount of pain and suffering to their victims that died. I know we want to be sensitive in this case, but we have to think of the victims and justice for those families who have been harmed in this case.”
Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, responded to Ricks’ comment.
“Personally, if somebody harmed my family members, it’s hard to say what I’d do. But I’m operating now as the state,” Wintrow said. “Just because someone was bludgeoned doesn’t mean that I should bludgeon them back. That is our role here … to understand humane treatment and model that to the rest of civilization.”
IDOC does not currently have a firing squad facility on its prison campus, so should the bill pass, IDOC would need to build a facility for using a potential firing squad. Ricks estimated that could cost as much as $750,000.
Idaho currently has eight people, including Pizzuto, on death row.
Sens. Wintrow, Foreman, James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, and Linda Wright Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, voted against moving the bill forward.
The bill now heads to the Senate for a vote.