Critics worry decision to bring back firing squad as execution backup will hurt Utah's image



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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers say they took a pragmatic approach in approving the firing squad as a form of execution if lethal-injection drugs aren't available.

Their thinking: Develop a backup plan in case a nationwide lethal-drug shortage persists.

But critics say bringing back the firing squad in Utah — the only state to use the method in the past 40 years — could tarnish the state's image with visitors.

Tourism is big business in Utah, home to world-class ski resorts and spectacular national parks. Travelers spent a record $7.5 billion in the state in 2013, and tourism dollars are linked to one of every 10 Utah jobs, according to a University of Utah report released this year.

But firing squad executions draw a different kind of attention — one Utah lawmakers decided 11 years ago that the state didn't need. Former state Rep. Sheryl Allen said Tuesday reinstating the firing squad as a backup could once again elicit criticism.

"I think Utah needs to be concerned. That's not what we want our attention on," said Allen, a Republican who sponsored the 2004 bill that did away with firing squads as a primary execution method.

Bringing back the execution method adds fuel to the fire for critics who point to other Utah oddities — such as its strict, sometimes confusing liquor laws — as reasons to steer clear, said David Corsun, director of the University of Denver's Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management. Utah also has long been linked to polygamy, which was once practiced by Mormons but is no longer legal or sanctioned by the church.

Corsun said the firing squad could affect Salt Lake City's position in the competitive and lucrative convention business.

Large associations try to avoid states where controversial laws have recently passed, he said. Venues in other cities certainly will bring up Utah's firing squad as a way to sway associations away from the state.

"Unless it's Smith and Wesson, I don't think they are going to be racing to that controversy," Corsun said.

Legislators and tourism officials, however, downplayed the new law's impact on Utah's image. State tourism director Vicki Varela said in a statement she doesn't think the firing squad presents a major problem because executions are rare, and the possibility that the backup method will be needed is remote.

Officials with some of Utah's main tourist sites were tight-lipped on the matter. Visit Salt Lake president Scott Beck declined to comment, deferring to Varela. A spokeswoman for Park City's Chamber of Commerce said it's too early to know what will happen.

Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill Monday, saying he agreed a backup plan was needed.

The measure's sponsor, Republican Rep. Paul Ray, said the issue of firing squads in Utah is far less controversial than the ACLU and critics want to make it.

The governor's office received a much smaller response to Ray's proposal than it did for other hot-button issues, like same-sex marriage.

Still, among the hundreds of emails sent to Herbert from places including Rhode Island and New Zealand were messages from people like Seattle resident Randy Kilmer, who called the firing squad barbaric and said he would never again ski in Utah if it became law.

Ashley Korenblat, CEO of Western Spirit Cycling in Moab, said tourists follow news about the places they visit.

She recalled visitors from Arkansas who commented on another Utah news story of national note: the passing of an anti-discrimination law that protects LGBT residents and religious rights. The tourists were pleased with the state's progressive step, she said.

"People do notice what you're doing, and the vacation industry is quite competitive," Korenblat said. "Regardless of whether (the firing squad is) a good idea or not, it's a little strange."

Hans Fuegi, owner of Park City's Grub Steak Restaurant, said he doesn't think the issue is prominent enough to affect whether people choose Utah for a ski vacation.

But ACLU Utah Legal Director John Mejia said it likely will take only one firing squad death for another influx of international attention. That could happen in a few years when convicted murder Ron Lafferty's execution comes up.

Lafferty already had chosen to die by gunfire when Utah's law changed in 2004, and he was grandfathered in. Another death row inmate, Doug Carter, has picked lethal injection but could be killed by firing squad if the drug shortage lingers and the state is unable to get a supply 30 days in advance.

Mejia understands states are in a bind with the shortage but said using the firing squad as a backup only exacerbates a flawed death penalty system.

"I don't think that Utah deserves to be put in a bad light for an obsolete practice that we should get rid of anyway," he said.

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