Execution by firing squad is a method of capital punishment, particularly common in times of war. The firing squad is generally composed of several soldiers or peace officers. The method of execution requires all members of the group to fire simultaneously, thus preventing both disruption of the process by a single member and identification of the member who fired the lethal shot. The condemned is typically blindfolded or hooded, as well as restrained - though in some cases, condemned prisoners had asked to be allowed to face the firing squad with their eyes open. Executions can be carried out with the condemned either standing or sitting.
Execution by firing squad is distinct from other forms of execution by firearms, such as a single shot from a handgun to the back of the neck. However, the single shot (coup de grâce) is sometimes incorporated in a firing squad execution, particularly if the initial volley turns out not to be immediately fatal.
The method is also the supreme punishment or disciplinary means employed by courts martial for crimes such as cowardice, desertion or mutiny. One such execution was that of Private Eddie Slovik by the U.S. Army in 1945. Slovik was the only U.S. soldier executed for desertion since the American Civil War. It has also been applied for violent crimes carried out by soldiers, such as murder or rape. Also notably, Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry was executed by firing squad for his participation in the assassination attempt on French President Charles de Gaulle.
There is a tradition in some jurisdictions that such executions are carried out at first light, or (more dramatically) at sunrise, which is usually up to half an hour later. This gave rise to the phrase 'shot at dawn', which has become particularly associated with the campaign (see below) to achieve a pardon for British servicemen shot for apparent cowardice in World War I.
In some cases, one member of the firing squad may be issued a weapon containing a blank cartridge instead of one with a bullet, without telling any of them to whom it has been given. This is believed to reduce flinching by individual members of the firing squad, making the execution process more reliable. It also allows each member of the firing squad a chance to believe afterward that he did not personally fire a fatal shot (for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the "conscience round"). This reinforces the sense of diffusion of responsibility. While an experienced marksman can tell the difference between a blank and a live cartridge based on the recoil - the blank will have much lower recoil - there is a significant psychological incentive not to pay attention and, over time, to remember the recoil as soft.
On occasion, in spite of the blank cartridge, firing squads have been reported to have chosen to miss the victim entirely, leaving it to the officer in charge to draw his sidearm and deliver the coup de grâce with a single shot to the head of a prisoner who is, until that point, unharmed.
During World War II, some 500 persons were executed, half of them condemned spies. The usual causes for death penalty for Finnish citizens were treason and high treason (and to a lesser extent cowardice and disobedience, applicable for military personnel). Almost all cases of capital punishment were carried out by court martial. Usually, the executions were carried out by the regimental military police platoon, or in the case of spies, by the local military police. Most executions occurred in 1941, and during the Soviet Summer Offensive in 1944. The last death sentences were given in 1945 for murder, but later commuted to life imprisonment.
The death penalty was abolished by Finnish law in 1949 for crimes committed during peacetime, and in 1972 for all crimes. Finland is party to the Optional protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, forbidding the use of the death penalty in all circumstances.
Firing squad execution was the most common way to execute a death sentence in Mexico, especially during the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero War. After these events, the death sentence was reduced to some events in the Mexican Constitution, and in recent years has not been used.
Within the military, Admiral John Byng was one of the most senior officers and the last of his rank to be executed in this fashion. He was shot on 14 March 1757 at Portsmouth, for "failing to do his utmost" in an encounter with the French fleet during the Seven Years' War. Australian soldiers, Harry "Breaker" Morant and Peter Handcock were shot by a British firing squad on February 27 1902, for alleged war crimes during the Boer War; many questions have since been raised as to whether they received a fair trial. Morant's (now famous) final words were "shoot straight, you bastards". The Australian Imperial Force which served throughout World War I had provision for (but never utilised) execution by firing squad. This was despite strong pressure brought upon the Australian Government to do so by the British High Command. The reason proposed for withholding this punishment was that since the AIF was an all-volunteer force, it did not warrant its application.
Following the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, 15 of the 16 rebel leaders were shot by the British military authorities under martial law. One leader, James Connolly, who could not stand because a bullet had already shattered his ankle during the fighting, was strapped to a chair and shot. The executions have often been cited as a reason for how the rebels managed to galvanise public support in Ireland after their failed rebellion. In the ensuing Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), the British authorities were wary of carrying out executions, for fear of further inflaming nationalist sentiment. Nevertheless, 14 Irish Republican Army (IRA) members were shot by firing squad during the conflict. The IRA also used formal firing squads, for example during the Killings at Coolacrease. However, the most draconian use of this punishment in the period came after the British had withdrawn from the Irish Free State. In the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, the new Irish government officially executed 77 Anti-Treaty IRA members by firing squad (see Executions during the Irish Civil War).
The Tower of London was used during both World Wars for executions: during World War I, 11 captured German spies were shot, and on 15 August 1941, German Corporal Josef Jakobs was shot for espionage during World War II.
Private Thomas Highgate was the first British soldier to be convicted of desertion and then executed by firing squad during the First World War. Particularly since the 1960s, there has been some controversy concerning 346 British and Imperial troops — including 25 Canadians, 22 Irish and 5 New Zealanders — who were shot for desertion, murder, cowardice and other offences during the war, some of whom are now thought to have been suffering from combat stress reaction or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ("shell-shock", as it was then known). This led to organisations such as the Shot at Dawn Campaign being set up in later years to try and uncover just why these soldiers were executed.
Capital punishment in the UK, including the military, was formally outlawed by the Human Rights Act 1998 (s. 21(5)), although capital punishment for murder had been abolished before this, and there have been no judicial executions by any method since 1964.
Capital punishment was suspended in the United States between 1972 and 1976, as a result of several decisions of the United States Supreme Court (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238). The process resumed with the execution of Gary Gilmore on January 17 1977, at Utah State Prison in Draper. The five executioners were equipped with .30-30 caliber rifles and off-the-shelf Winchester 150 grain (9.7 g) SilverTip ammunition. The condemned was restrained and hooded, and the shots were fired at a distance of 20 feet (6 m), aiming at the chest. In his autobiography Shot in the Heart, Mikal Gilmore wrote that when he examined the shirt worn by his brother Gary during the execution, he found five bullet holes, indicating that all members of the squad had been armed with live cartridges, and none with a blank round.
The only other post-Furman execution by firing squad, that of John Albert Taylor in 1996, also took place in Utah. Taylor is said to have chosen the firing squad because it would be awkward for state officials.
In Utah, the firing squad consisted of five volunteer police officers from the county in which the conviction of the offender took place. A law passed on March 15 2004 banned execution by firing squad in Utah, but since that specific law was not retroactive, four inmates on Utah's death row could still have their last requests granted. As of 2006, Idaho and Oklahoma are the only other states in which execution by firing squad is legally available (as backup methods only; both states use lethal injection as their primary methods of execution).