After a 1996 killing by a Utah firing squad, a witness, newspaper columnist Hal Schindler, described it. "If ever John Albert Taylor felt consuming terror, it would have been in the agonizing 45 seconds before a Utah State Prison firing squad snuffed out his life early Friday morning," he wrote. "That was the elapsed time from the moment Warden Hank Galetka pulled a hood over the convicted child-killer's head and stepped from the execution chamber to the instant that four .30-caliber slugs slammed into Taylor's chest. As quickly as the breath exploded from his lungs, it was over. Taylor was dead before the doctor could make the official pronouncement—before witnesses could bring themselves to breathe again."
The column went on to give a brief history of the death penalty in the state, which then included 40 executions by firing squad, two of which were seriously bungled.
Here's what happened in 1879:
Wallace Wilkerson, who killed a man in an argument about a card game in Provo, was to face the firing squad in a corner of the jail yard. As the hour neared, Wilkerson strode from his cell dressed in black broadcloth and wearing a white felt hat. In his left hand he carried a cigar, which remained with him to the last. Witnesses noticed "he exhibited unmistakable effects of liquor." The condemned man insisted on not being tied to the chair and he refused a blindfold. "I give you my word," he said, "I intend to die like a man, looking my executioners right in the eye."
The sheriff protested, explaining that the sharpshooters would be concealed in a shed 20 feet distant. Wilkerson pleaded, and the sheriff relented. He placed a white, 3-inch patch over the condemned man's heart, stepped back and signaled the shooters.
Wilkerson heard the muted command, "Ready, aim . . . " and drew up his shoulders as if to brace himself for the fatal moment. The guns fired; four heavy slugs tore into the condemned man. With the impact, Wilkerson leaped out of the chair and jumped forward "five or six feet." He crashed to the dirt and turned his head downward to his chest.
"Oh, my God! My God! They have missed," he screamed.
A doctor and several witnesses rushed forward. As Wilkerson writhed on the ground in full view of some 20 spectators, it became apparent the bullets had not struck his heart.
By straightening in his chair, he had raised the target and the shooters were misdirected. Three slugs touched the target, but were well above the vital spot; the fourth bullet struck six inches from the others and shattered Wilkerson's left arm.
It was 27 minutes before he could be pronounced dead.
A similar fate befell Eliseo J. Mares in September 1951 when the firing squad missed his heart and it took several minutes for him to die, according to the column.
I oppose the death penalty. In a flawed criminal-justice system, there is a risk of imposing a penalty on an innocent that cannot be reversed or mitigated. And even in a case where the condemned is definitely guilty, there is a risk of harm to the executioners—consider why firing squads are organized so that no one knows who fired the fatal shot—and society if the killing undermines the inviolability and sanctity of human life.