Condemned Men Face Firing Squad

Convicted killers Roberto Arguelles, left, and Troy Michael Kell are shown at Utah State Prison at Point of the Mountain, Utah, in these August, 2001 photos.
AP
The only state that dispatches condemned inmates by firing squad is assembling gunmen for back-to-back executions next month.

The nation's last execution by firing squad was in 1996.

Exercising their right under Utah law, serial killer Roberto Arguelles and Troy Michael Kell, a white supremacist who stabbed a fellow inmate to death, have chosen the firing squad over lethal injection and are set to die at 12:01 a.m. on June 27 and 28, respectively.

However, Kell filed an appeal last week that will probably halt his execution.

Of the 850 inmates put to death in the United States since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, two have died by firing squad, both in Utah: Gary Gilmore in 1977 became the first person executed in the United States after the court's ruling, and John Albert Taylor was put to death 19 years later.

Since 1977, Utah has executed four other killers, all by injection.

Anti-death penalty forces are protesting, arguing that the firing squad amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. And the prison is bracing for large crowds of protesters.

Utah's use of firing squads predates statehood in 1896 and is a remnant of the early Mormon belief that bloodshed is a required punishment for taking a life, said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which says it is neutral about the death penalty but critical of its application.

"Certainly no other state has continued its use or allowed people to choose it. It's the one thing that stands out," Dieter said. "It's part of the history, so there's a reluctance to change."

The notion that murder must be atoned for in blood has never been part of official church doctrine, and the Mormon church has not taken a formal position on execution methods, said Robert Millet, Brigham Young University religion professor.

The Utah Corrections Department is recruiting law enforcement officers for two five-person firing squads, asking the police departments in the communities where the crimes were committed to nominate volunteers.

The officers' identities will not be released, and participants will be barred from talking publicly about the experience.

A hood will be put over the condemned man's head and a target will be pinned over his heart. The executioners will fire simultaneously from gun portals in a separate room at the inmate, seated in a chair about 30 feet away.

One of the five rifles will contain a blank so that no one will know who fired the fatal shots.

In 1992, Arguelles abducted and strangled Margo Bond, a janitor at a junior high school where he had been hunting for teenage victims. He also kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed two girls, ages 13 and 15, and stabbed a 16-year-old girl more than 40 times. He was sentenced to death in 1997. Arguelles has repeatedly said he wants to die.

Kell was convicted in 1996 of killing a black man, Lonnie Blackmon, at the Utah State Prison. Kell, serving time for a previous murder, stabbed Blackmon 67 times with a homemade knife in 1994. A prison videotape shows Kell shouting, "White power!" during the attack.

Utah has 11 men on death row. Besides Arguelles and Kell, two other inmates have chosen to die by firing squad.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 37 states have lethal injection as their method of execution.

Eight have electrocution, as well as two others that list electrocution as an alternative to other methods. Only Nebraska requires the electric chair.

Five states authorize the use of poison gas and three allow hanging. Besides Utah, two other states allow the use of firing squads under certain circumstances.