A Utah firing squad executed inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner [BBC backgrounder] on Friday, after the US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] failed to stay the execution [order, PDF]. The execution comes as the first of its kind [CBS report] in the US in 14 years, and only the third since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty [JURIST news archive] in 1976. Gardner was permitted to choose his method of execution under Utah's former death penalty law because he was convicted prior to the passing of a 2004 law requiring lethal injection. He was executed for a murder committed in 1985 during an escape from a courtroom where he was being tried for another murder. At a press conference following the execution, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff [official website] emphasized that the decision to execute Gardner was not taken lightly [BBC report], stating that only 0.6 percent of convicted murderers are executed in the US. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [official website] used the occasion to criticize the use of the death penalty in the US, describing it as arbitrary [press release] and the product of an unequal justice system, citing the low percentage of capital offenders to be executed as an example of a random system. The ACLU also called on Utah to abolish the death penalty.
In March 2009, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (D) [official website] signed a bill which repealed [JURIST report] the use of the death penalty in the state, replacing it with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for capital felony convictions. New Mexico was the third state to abolish the death penalty since 1976, joining New Jersey and New York [JURIST reports], which abolished the death penalty in 2007. There are 15 other states which do not use the death penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) [advocacy website], Maryland, Utah, Kansas, Colorado, and Montana are considering eliminating or limiting the use of capital punishment. The number of executions that took place in the US in 2009 was down 47 percent from 10 years ago, according to the DPIC annual report [JURIST report] released in December. There were 52 executions in 2009, compared to 98 in 1999. The report also emphasized that the number of death sentences handed down in 2009 - 106 - is the lowest since 1976. Executions resumed in the US in April 2008 after the Supreme Court lifted an effective ban on the death penalty by upholding the constitutionality of lethal injection [JURIST report].