By James Nelson
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Utah prosecutors have reluctantly allowed a condemned killer to seek execution by firing squad rather than by lethal injection, saying they want to avoid further delays in putting him to death.
The request by Michael Archuleta, 49, convicted of the 1988 slaying of a college student, follows recent talks among state lawmakers and criminal justice officials about possibly returning to firing squads as an execution option in light of the current shortage of lethal-injection drugs.
If Archuleta gets his way, he would ultimately become only the fourth to be executed by shooting in the United States -- all of them in Utah -- since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. The last was in June 2010.
Utah, the last state to carry out executions by rifle volley, officially did away with the practice in 2004 under pressure from death penalty opponents and human rights activists who vehemently opposed firing squads as barbaric.
But the statute to abolish firing squads carved out an exemption for those death row inmates, like Archuleta, who had already requested it as their preferred manner of execution.
Approving Archuleta's request on Wednesday, state District Court Judge Donald Eyre Jr. signed an execution warrant ordering him to be put to death by firing squad on April 5.
Archuleta was convicted in 1989 of first-degree murder for the 1988 beating death of Gordon Church, who was kidnapped and sexually abused during the slaying.
Thomas Brunker, capital case coordinator for the Utah State Attorney General, said on Friday his office disagreed with Archuleta's request for a firing squad but opted not to challenge it for practical reasons.
"Our view was that was legally not appropriate," he said. "If we had to litigate that, it would push everything back."
Archuleta's reasons for seeking death by firing squad remained murky. "I haven't really talked to him about why, and that's just his expressed method of execution," his attorney James Slavens said.
Despite prosecutors' decision to go along with the mode of execution sought by the inmate, Archuleta's execution is likely to be delayed beyond April 5 due to appeals his lawyers plan to bring in the federal courts, Brunker said.
All three inmates last executed by firing squad in Utah had requested that manner of death, including Gary Gilmore who became the first person put to death after the Supreme Court's landmark 1976 ruling.
Gilmore's 1977 death, the subject of Norman Mailer's bestseller "The Executioner's Song," gained nationwide attention and sparked anguished debate about capital punishment. The American Civil Liberties Union fought unsuccessfully to block it.
The Utah statute that did away with firing squads for new death row inmates still contains language that would permit the general reinstatement of the practice if lethal injection were to one day be found unconstitutional, Brunker said.
Oklahoma law, likewise, would allow for execution by firing squad only if lethal injection and electrocution were ruled unconstitutional, according the Death Penalty Information Center.
Denny LeBoeuf, director of the ACLU's capital punishment project, which opposes all U.S. executions, noted that in past executions, Utah authorities placed a blank round in the chamber of one of the rifles used so that each gunman was able to believe he did not fire the fatal shot.
"If there's nothing wrong with this, how come we're allowing this little out, this little moral out for people who are actually doing the shooting," she said.
Officials with the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice have recently held discussions with state legislators about the possibility of relying on firing squads if drugs for lethal injection cannot be obtained.
Executions have been delayed in some states in recent months by a shortage of a key anesthetic used in the lethal injection "cocktail" to render a prisoner unconscious before another drug to stop the heart is administered. The scarcity occurred after the main U.S. manufacturer ceased production of the anesthetic last year.
"The issue has been discussed," said Ric Cantrell, chief of staff of the Utah Senate. "But there is no bill file for it, there is no sponsor, there is no immediate need."
(Additional reporting by Bob Bernick; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman)