CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IN UTAH

There has always been provision for execution as a form of punishment in Utah, although the methods proposed have changed over time. For example, original statutes provided beheading, hanging, and the firing squad as means of carrying out the death penalty. Beheading was never used and, in 1888, was dropped as an option. Hanging and the firing squad remained the only two options until 1980 when hanging was eliminated and replaced by lethal injection. Prior to this, the condemned was given his (Utah had never executed a woman) choice between hanging and firing squad and, if he refused to specify a choice, the firing squad was mandated. With the change in the law in 1980, the choice was still preserved, but if the condemned refused to choose, lethal injection was mandated.

To date, there have been forty-seven legal executions in the state of Utah [editor's note: as of 1991 when this article was written]. Of these, thirty-nine were by firing squad, six by hanging, and two by lethal injection [editor's note: as of 1991 when this article was written]. The last hanging was that of Barton Kirkhamn in 1958. He was executed for killing two people in a Salt Lake City grocery store, and he chose hanging because it would put the state to the most trouble and inconvenience. [One of the] ...last firing squad executions was that of Gary Gilmore who was executed for killing two young men in Utah County. He died 17 January 1977, the first person executed after ten years of moratorium on executions in the United States. [editor's note: On January 26, 1996, the last person to be executed by firing squad in the United States took place in Utah. John Albert Taylor was executed at 12:03am Mountain Time for the 1988 rape and strangulation of 11-year-old Charla King. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Albert_Taylor]

Lethal injection was introduced in Utah with the death of Pierre Dale Selby, on 28 August 1987. He was sentenced to die for killing three people in Ogden's HiFi Shop thirteen years earlier, and was the second black to be executed in Utah. Also two Hispanics and two Indians have been executed; all the others have been white men. Of the forty-seven executed men, twenty-five were non-Mormons, and eight Mormons; the religion of fourteen could not be specifically ascertained. The ages of those executed ranged from eighteen to sixty-four years of age--the age of John D. Lee when he was executed after being returned to the scene of the Mountain Meadows Massacre for execution, twenty years after the crime occurred. The time between conviction and

There have been two double executions. In 1854, two Ute Indians were executed together by hanging for killing two brothers in Cedar Valley. In 1956, two men were executed simultaneously for the killing of a Beaver City gas station employee.

Originally, executions usually took place in the counties where the crimes occurred and were carried out under the direction of the county sheriff. In 1903 this changed and executions generally took place at the Sugar House prison, although still under the direction of the county sheriff. In 1951, with the construction of the new prison at Point of the Mountain, executions were conducted at the prison; and firing squads were generally selected from volunteers among law enforcement officers of the county in which the crime occurred.

Among the twenty-nine counties in the state, thirteen have had crimes that resulted in executions. As could be expected, the more populous counties had more capital crimes with Salt Lake County by far leading the way.

Utah has always been considered rather unusual among the states in that the condemned is given a choice as to the method of execution, although seven other states also provide more than one alternative. Idaho and Oklahoma also provide firing squads as options. Those states that provide more than one method of execution as a general rule also allow the condemned to choose which method he or she prefers.

Utah has had its share of "famous" executions. In 1878 Wallas Wilkerson was executed after his case became the first one heard on appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court challenging execution as "cruel and unusual punishment." Joe Hill was executed on 19 November 1915 after appeals for clemency from Helen Keller, President Woodrow Wilson, and the Swedish ambassador were ignored, although there were many who believed Joe Hill was innocent. In 1938 John Deering allowed his heart beat to be monitored while he was being executed by firing squad. On 17 January 1977 Gary Mark Gilmore became the first person executed in the U.S. after all those under sentence of death had been released from death rows around the country ten years earlier. His execution renewed the capital punishment process that continues to this day. Under more strict guidelines from the Supreme Court, capital punishment laws and procedures were reinstituted and death rows began again to fill.

See: L. Kay Gillespie, The Unforgiven: A History of Utah's Executed Men (1991).

L. Kay Gillespie