Utah takes a bloody step into the past

Facing the firing squad: Execution of murderer pits Mormon tradition of 'blood atonement' against state's modernised image
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The Independent Online
DAVID USBORNE

Draper, Utah

By the time they wake this morning, the people of Utah should find that John Albert Taylor is no longer among them; killed by four bullets to the heart shortly after midnight. Only Taylor had the power to halt his dispatch by lodging an eleventh-hour appeal to the courts. As his last hours ticked by last night he showed no sign of exercising it.

The firing-squad execution of Taylor, convicted of the rape and murder of 11-year-old Charla King in 1989, has cast an unwelcome spotlight on a state that is striving to find a new image of modernity and tourist- friendly hospitality while remaining steeped in the sometimes archaic traditions of the Mormon church, to which most of the population belongs. It has also provoked anguished international and religious protest.

Though the rate of executions is surging across the US, Taylor will be the first convict to die by firing squad since Gary Gilmore, also in Utah, was shot in 1977 for the murder of a motel clerk. The state is unique in offering condemned prisoners a choice between death by firing squad and by lethal injection.

Nowhere were the cross-currents of old and new - 19th-century grotesque and 20th-century political correctness - more evident than in the execution chamber itself, hidden within a warehouse that is usually a sewing workshop at the Utah State Prison. To be sure, Taylor's death was to be violent, but his blood, officials boasted, would not be allowed "to splatter".

Hence the chair into which he would be strapped for the shooting, built by prison staff. Of straight-backed design in shiny black metal, it is fitted with leg and wrist restraints made of Velcro. The seat of the chair is perforated like a kitchen colander, so the victim's blood can drain quickly into a large metal pan below. To screen the flow of blood, deep- pile blue carpet had been wrapped around the inside of the chair's legs.

As he walked from his cell to the warehouse in the early hours of yesterday, Taylor was granted one of his final wishes - a few drags on a cigarette. To have it later was not possible, since Utah's smoking laws forbid lighting up inside. Last night his second request was honoured: a supper of pizza loaded with mushrooms, ham and Canadian bacon.

The plans for his final minutes were meticulously laid. Shortly before midnight, Taylor was to be marched into the chamber, strapped into the chair and a hood placed over his head. A medical officer was to locate his heart with a stethoscope and fix a square piece of red cloth over it as a target. Then Taylor was to be given two minutes to make a final statement. The order to fire was to be given by the prison warden.

Of all the chapters in the Taylor saga, few have been as shocking as the avalanche of offers from around the US to act as one of the five executioners. A platoon from a South Carolina army camp stepped forward, as did a self-described former CIA intelligence agent. Instead the men have been provided by local police forces. They were to stand behind a wall concealed from Taylor and push their rifle barrels through letter-box slits. According to tradition, one will have a blank in his weapon, so each can believe he did not kill the victim.

Taylor, who dispensed with his lawyer a month ago and has spurned all civil liberties groups, told a journalist he preferred bullets to lethal injection, because he did not want to "flop around like a dying fish". But historical research of the 39 firing-squad executions held in Utah since 1852 shows that it can take as long as 27 minutes to die.

Protests by Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union, and a rally in Salt Lake City earlier this week appeared to move few among Utah's politicians. Running through the controversy is a traditional teaching of the Mormon church - though its leaders today now distance themselves from it - that those who kill can avoid being cast into "outer darkness" after death only through the spilling of their own blood, or so-called "blood atonement". In the past, some of the condemned in Utah have been shot at the site of their crimes, their coffin beside them.

t Smyrna, Delaware - Billy Bailey, the murderer of an elderly couple, climbed on to a wooden gallows and was hanged early yesterday, becoming only the third convict in the US to be executed in this way in 30 years, AP reports.

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