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A Closer Look at the Death Penalty as Utah Considers Firing Squads

03/11/2015 06:57 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

If the Utah State Senate gets its way, Utah could soon use firing squads to execute some death-row prisoners. The measure passed 18 to 10 on Tuesday, but it's not clear if Governor Gary Herbert will sign it into law or veto the bill. If he approves the measure, Utah would become the only state to allow an execution by firing squads if there's a drug shortage.

Governor Hebert said:

Our state, as is the case with states around the country, is finding it increasingly difficult to obtain the substances required to perform a lethal injection. We are dedicated to pursuing all reasonable and legal options to obtain those substances to make sure that, when required, we are in a position to carry out this very serious sentence by lethal injection.

Not only is it a question of drug availability, but after a botched execution in Oklahoma last year via lethal injection, several states are now seeking out new forms of capital punishment. But even beyond that, the death penalty is one of the most hotly-debated topics of our time. Overall, most people are in favor of the death penalty with 63 percent supporting it for convicted murderers, according to a 2014 Gallup poll.

Opponents make the point that the arbitrariness of the death penalty and the potential of putting an innocent person to death are sufficient reasons for abolishment. Proponents claim we have no proof of ever killing an innocent person while admitting that it's possible. They say the death penalty is a deterrent to murderers and other criminals considering committing a capital offense.

That's one of the biggest questions up for debate: Does the death penalty work to deter crime?

"We're very hard pressed to find really strong evidence of deterrence," said Columbia Law School's Jeffrey Fagan.

Yet, others like David Muhlhausen, senior policy analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation, believe the death penalty does deters crime. In testimony in front of the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate, he said, "Capital punishment produces a strong deterrent effect that saves lives."

The debate will go on, but the delusional thinking in the death penalty equation is based on the logic of deterring vicious criminals from killing people. It's not. Proponents would love to make this claim, but they can't. There are simply too many variables involved to support it.

Critical thinking tells us that the extermination of a convicted murderer is about emotional and psychological revenge for the victim's family and for society as a whole. It plays to our innate human desire for fair play. Not too many people shed tears when they hear of a killer being executed. To the contrary, we feel good for the victim's family that they can now gain closure and move on with their lives. It's the same emotional thinking that drives us to cheer the homeowner who kills a burglar that threatened his family.

So, why is it that we can smile at the violent death of another human being? Our sense of fair play. It's pervasive across the animal kingdom, and human beings are no exception. How many of us were saddened to see Osama bin laden get shot in the head? No one, because he killed 3,000 people.

The death penalty appeals to our deepest emotions and works to satisfy our need to even the score and balance the scale. And that's true whether it's carried out by lethal injection, the electric chair, a firing squad or any other method.

Back in Utah, the head of Utah's prison system has said the state does not have any lethal injection drugs on hand and would have to obtain some in the years ahead if an execution were to be scheduled. That might be difficult as European manufacturers don't want to sell the lethal cocktail to prisons and corrections departments because they oppose the death penalty.

In the meantime, Governor Hebert is expected to make a decision on firing squads within the week. If approved, it would reinstate the use of firing squads more than a decade after the state abandoned the practice.