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No Clean Hands in a Dirty Business: Firing Squads and the Euphemism of “Evolving Standards of Decency”

Posted by on Monday, March 21, 2016 in Notes, Volume 69, Volume 69, Number 2.

No Clean Hands in a Dirty Business: Firing Squads and the Euphemism of “Evolving Standards of Decency”


When it comes to executions, “the enterprise is flawed.” While this statement from Judge Kozinski was chiefly concerned with the problems of lethal injection, it applies with equal force to America’s development of execution methods in general. The flaw is not merely the risk of botched executions posed by execution methods, but rather society’s preference for euphemism. Society has sought to couch its discussion of capital punishment in “padded words,” limiting critical examination of execution methods. In doing so, the public favors what appears humane, often based on promises of technological advancement, rather than what is actually humane. Such a transposition undermines the Eighth Amendment’s protection of individual rights, allows practical difficulties to proliferate, and turns “evolving standards of decency” into a treadmill—the feeling of progressing without actually going anywhere.

This Note suggests a different course: executions should be conducted by firing squad. While it lacks the clinical appearance and scientific appeal of other methods, the firing squad better preserves the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. In addition, the firing squad’s simplicity has practical benefits; it avoids many of the troubles states currently face in conducting lethal injections. Finally, the firing squad promotes honesty in capital punishment, replacing padded words with a procedure that is unmistakably the taking of a life. In sum, the firing squad better respects both individual rights and public knowledge. Moreover, it forces the reckoning proposed by Judge Kozinski: “If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.”


Vanderbilt Law School, J.D. Candidate 2016; A.B., Political Science, International Affairs, 2013, University of Georgia. I would like to thank my friend Calvin Cohen for bringing this idea (and the Wood opinion that sparked it) to my attention, as well as my peers on the Law Review—Matt Gornick, Kelsey Craig, Hannah McSween, and Samiyyah Ali in particular—for their aid in editing and refining this Note. I’d also like to thank my friends from the Demosthenian Literary Society at the University of Georgia for teaching me how to take and defend bold positions. Finally, I owe an impossible debt of gratitude to my family for years of love, support, and patience.