SHERIDAN — Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, has filed a bill for consideration by the 2014 Wyoming Legislature regarding the death penalty that has turned more than a few heads across the nation.
The bill would amend state statute to make death by firing squad Wyoming’s alternative form of execution rather than gas chamber. The primary form of execution in Wyoming — along with 35 other states, the U.S. military and the U.S. government — is lethal injection.
Burns said he was surprised by the overall negative reaction to his bill.
“Wyoming’s more the rule than the exception when it comes to the death penalty,” Burns said. “I brought the bill for practical purposes. Having the gas chamber as a back-up option in Wyoming is equivalent to stating that the back-up is being dropped from great height from a Zeppelin.”
Wyoming doesn’t have a gas chamber to use for executions, and Burns felt it would be economically impractical to pursue building one since it would likely be used very little — if ever. Burns also said he felt gas chambers are cruel and unusual punishment.
“In my opinion, it’s a very gruesome form of execution, the idea that you’re basically being suffocated to death,” Burns said. “For me personally I’d rather have a firing squad. I’d take a firing squad even over the needle.”
Two states currently offer firing squad as an alternative, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Oklahoma has it as its third alternative only if lethal injection and electrocution are ruled unconstitutional. Utah no longer offers firing squad as an option unless an inmate chose the method prior to its elimination in the state.
However, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington has said death by firing squad could be challenged as unconstitutional based on the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Burns said there are more than economic reasons for delineating a different alternative execution method.
The constitutionality of lethal injection has been up for debate for years, Burns said. The debate centers on whether certain drugs cause undue pain that is masked by drugs that anesthetize and paralyze the condemned. Also, in recent years, the availability of drugs used in lethal injections has been jeopardized.
If lethal injection is ever ruled unconstitutional or drugs become unavailable, Wyoming needs to have a viable alternative, Burns said.
Burns said he chose the firing squad because it was the most straightforward and cost effective method. He said even hanging, which is an alternative in three states, is costly because gallows must be built. He also said hanging poses problems — such as necks not being broken, causing the condemned to choke to death, or decapitation — if not carried out effectively.
Burns said if the Legislature wishes to choose a different alternative, he’d be fine with that. He just wants to address the issue of Wyoming having an inadequate alternative form of execution. He doesn’t think it will be a problem to get the bill onto the floor.
“It was only in the past year that I discovered the particular statute regarding Wyoming’s alternative for lethal injection, and that’s why I’m bringing it now, even during a budget session,” Burns said. “I think any other legislator will look and see how impractical the gas chamber is and want to deal with the problem.”
Wyoming currently has one inmate on death row. Dale Wayne Eaton was convicted in 2004 of the rape and killing of 18-year-old Lisa Marie Kimmell, who was from Billings, Mont.
Eaton has been challenging his death penalty sentence for more than 10 years.