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News January 24, 1996

Death penalty foes battle to silence firing squads

SALT LAKE CITY -- Death penalty opponents are pulling out all the stops to block the firing-squad execution of a child-killer in Utah this week.

It would be the first by a firing squad since Gary Gilmore died that way in Utah nearly 20 years ago.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City are among those trying to halt the Friday execution of John Albert Taylor, convicted in 1989 for killing 11-year-old Charla King.

Unless Taylor appeals, he will be seated in a chair and blindfolded just after midnight. Five state law enforcement officers will aim their rifles at his heart and fire. But one of them will be armed with a blank, leaving each of the five the chance to believe he was not the executioner.

Representatives from the ACLU and Amnesty International are hoping to meet with Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt tonight to persuade him to grant Taylor, 36, a reprieve. "This is a matter of buying time," said Carol Gnade, executive director of Utah's ACLU branch.

A state parole board would then address the issue of whether to commute Taylor's sentence to life.

Utah allows those awaiting execution to choose between lethal injection and the firing squad. No other state allows an inmate to chose the firing squad.

"It echoes back to the old West," said death penalty opponent Randolph Scott McLaughlin, a Pace University professor of law and vice president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

Death penalty opponents say Taylor, who maintains his innocence, should not be the one to pick a method of death. And Republican state legislator Sheryl Allen, who favors the death penalty, plans to offer legislation that would bury the firing squad option for good, although it would not affect Taylor's decision.

"It appears to me we can do this differently, in a more civilized way," Allen said.

Death penalty opponents also plan to meet with leaders of Utah's House and Senate.

Actor Mike Farrell, a death penalty opponent best known for starring in the television series M*A*S*H, will host a "Virtual Vigil" on the America Online computer network Thursday night.

While there have been about 300 executions in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, Utah's particular method has allowed opponents to reopen the debate.

"We have to take this opportunity to talk about the lack of civility," Gnade said. She said opponents have not had this type of chance to put executions under the microscope for a long time.

Copyright 1996, The Detroit News

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