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Execution by firing squad, in the past sometimes called fusillading (from the French fusil, rifle), is a method of capital punishment, particularly common in the military and in times of war. Execution by shooting is a fairly old practice. Some reasons for its use are that firearms are usually readily available and a gunshot to a vital organ usually kills relatively quickly. Before the introduction of firearms, bows or crossbows were often used—Saint Sebastian is usually depicted as executed by a squad of Roman auxiliary archers in around 288 AD; King Edmund the Martyr of East Anglia, by some accounts, was tied to a tree and executed by Viking archers on 20 November 869 or 870 AD.
A firing squad is normally composed of several military personnel or law enforcement officers. Usually, all members of the group are instructed to fire simultaneously, thus preventing both disruption of the process by a single member and identification of the member who fired the lethal shot. To avoid the disfigurement of multiple shots to the head, the shooters are typically instructed to aim at the heart, sometimes aided by a paper target. The prisoner is typically blindfolded or hooded, as well as restrained, although in some cases prisoners have asked to be allowed to face the firing squad without their eyes covered. Executions can be carried out with the condemned either standing or sitting. There is a tradition in some jurisdictions that such executions are carried out at first light, or at sunrise, which is usually up to half an hour later. This gave rise to the phrase "shot at dawn."
Execution by firing squad is distinct from other forms of execution by firearms, such as an execution by a single firearm to the back of the head or neck. However, the single shot by the squad's officer with a pistol (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 often the supreme punishment or disciplinary means employed by military courts for crimes such as cowardice, desertion, espionage, murder, mutiny, or treason. For servicemen, the firing squad is symbolic. The condemned serviceman is executed by a group of his peers indicating that he is found guilty by the entire group. Although a court-martial might be presided over and prosecuted by officers, the instruments of execution are the ordinary weapons fired by members of the group from which he is being expunged. Furthermore, in judicially approved executions, the condemned man is allowed to stand, rather than kneel; in many cultures, the ability or the will to stand in the face of adversity or danger is considered a salient feature of individual pride. Finally, the group action on one side (being the firing squad), with the condemned standing opposite, presents a visual contrast that reinforces to all witnesses that solidarity is an overriding necessity in a military unit.
If the condemned prisoner is an ex-officer who is acknowledged to have shown bravery in their past career, they may be accorded the privilege of giving the order to fire. An example of this is Marshal of France Michel Ney.
In some cases, all but one member of the firing squad may be issued a weapon containing a blank cartridge. Sometimes all but one member have live rounds. No member of the firing squad is told beforehand if he is using live ammunition. This is believed to reinforce the sense of diffusion of responsibility among the firing squad members. This diffusion of responsibility makes the execution process more reliable because the members are more likely to aim to kill if they are not entirely blamed for it, or if there is a chance they did not fire the lethal shot. It also allows each member of the firing squad to believe afterwards that he did not personally fire a fatal shot—for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the "conscience round".
According to Pvt. W.A. Quinton, who served in the British Army during the First World War and had the experience of being in a firing squad in October 1915, he and 11 colleagues were relieved of any live ammunition and their own rifles before being issued replacement weapons. The firing squad was then given a short speech by an officer before they fired a volley at the condemned man. He said about the episode, "I had the satisfaction of knowing that as soon as I fired, the absence of any recoil, [indicated] that I had merely fired a blank cartridge".
In more recent times, such as in the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner in the American state of Utah in 2010, a rifleman may be given a "dummy" cartridge containing a wax bullet instead of a lead bullet, which provides a more realistic recoil.
During the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, three captured German spies were tried and executed by a U.S. firing squad at Henri-Chapelle on 23 December 1944. Thirteen other Germans were also tried and shot at either Henri-Chapelle or Huy. These executed spies took part in Waffen-SS commando Otto Skorzeny's Operation Greif, in which English-speaking German commandos operated behind U.S. lines, masquerading in U.S. uniforms and equipment.
The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 expressly prohibits the usage of capital punishment in peacetime, but authorizes the use of the death penalty for military crimes committed during wartime. War needs to be declared formally, in accordance with international law and article 84, item 19 of the Federal Constitution, with due authorization from the Brazilian Congress. The Brazilian Code of Military Penal Law, in its chapter dealing with wartime offences, specifies the crimes that are subject to the death penalty. The death penalty is never the only possible sentence for a crime, and the punishment must be imposed by the military courts system. Per the norms of the Brazilian Code of Military Penal Procedure, the death penalty is carried out by firing squad.
Although Brazil still permits the use of capital punishment during wartime, no convicts were actually executed during Brazil's last military conflict, the Second World War. The military personnel sentenced to death during World War II had their sentences reduced by the President of the Republic.
Cuba, as part of its penal system, still utilizes death by firing squad, although the last recorded execution was in 2003. In January 1992, a Cuban exile convicted of "terrorism, sabotage and enemy propaganda" was executed by firing squad. The Council of the State noted that the punishment served as a deterrent and stated that the death penalty "fulfills a goal of overall prevention, especially when the idea is to stop such loathsome actions from being repeated, to deter others and so to prevent innocent human lives from being endangered in the future."
The death penalty was widely used during and after the Finnish Civil War (January–May 1918); some 9,700 Finns and an unknown number of Russian volunteers on the Red side were executed during the war or in its aftermath. Most executions were carried out by firing squads after the sentences were given by illegal or semi-legal courts martial. Only some 250 persons were sentenced to death in courts acting on legal authority.
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 tried 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. One Finn, Toivo Koljonen, was executed for a civilian crime (six murders). 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.
Pvt. Thomas Highgate was the first British soldier to be convicted of desertion and executed by firing squad in September 1914 at Tournan-en-Brie during World War I. In October 1916 Pvt. Harry Farr was shot for cowardice at Carnoy, which was later suspected to be acoustic shock. Highgate and Farr, along with 304 other British and Imperial troops who were executed for similar offenses, were listed at the Shot at Dawn Memorial which was erected to honor them.
On 15 October 1917 Dutch exotic dancer Mata Hari was executed by a French firing squad at Château de Vincennes castle in the town of Vincennes under charges of espionage for Germany during World War I.
During World War II, on 24 September 1944, Josef Wende and Stephan Kortas, two Poles drafted into the German army, crossed the Moselle Rivers behind U.S. lines in civilian clothes, posing as Polish slave laborers, to observe Allied strength and were to rejoin their own army on the same day. However, they were discovered by the Americans and captured. On 18 October 1944 they were found guilty of espionage by a U.S. military commission and sentenced to death. On 11 November 1944, they were shot in the garden of a farmhouse at Toul. The footage of Wende's execution as well as Kortas are shown in these links.
Execution by firing squad is the capital punishment method used in Indonesia. The following persons were executed (reported by BBC World Service) by firing squad on 29 April 2015 following convictions for drug offences:
Fabianus Tibo, Dominggus da Silva and Marinus Riwu were executed in 2006. Nigerian drug smugglers Samuel Iwachekwu Okoye and Hansen Anthoni Nwaolisa were executed in June 2008 in Nusakambangan Island. Five months later three men convicted for the 2002 Bali bombing—Amrozi, Imam Samudra and Ali Ghufron—were executed on the same spot in Nusakambangan. In January 2013 56-year-old British woman Lindsay Sandiford was sentenced to execution by firing squad for importing a large amount of cocaine; she lost her appeal against her sentence in April 2013. While on 18 January 2015, under the new leadership of Joko Widodo, six people who were convicted of producing and smuggling drugs into Indonesia who had been sentenced to death were executed at Nusa Kambangan Penitentiary shortly after midnight.
Following the military overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet initiated a series of mock war tribunals trials against Allende supporters around the country. During the first months of the coup, hundreds of Chileans were executed by firing squad and summary executions. Under mandates from Pinochet, General Sergio Arellano Stark led an army unit that traversed Chile by helicopter in the weeks after the overthrowal of president Salvador Allende, killing Allende supporters or anyone seen as hostile to the new regime. The Pinochet regime, which reigned between 1973 and 1990, was one of Chile's most violent. According to official data, more than 40.000 people were reported as executed and disappeared and near a million people exiled during his 17-year rule, which took place after the coup and the death of President Salvador Allende.
Following the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, 15 of the 16 leaders who were executed were shot by British military authorities under martial law. The executions have often been cited as a reason for how the Rising managed to galvanise public support in Ireland after the failed rebellion.
Italy had used the firing squad as its only form of death penalty, both for civilians and military, since the unification of the country in 1861. The death penalty was abolished completely by both Italian Houses of Parliament in 1889 but revived under the Italian dictatorship of Benito Mussolini in 1926. Mussolini was himself shot after World War two.
On 1 December 1945 Anton Dostler, the first German general to be tried for war crimes, was executed by a U.S. firing squad in Aversa after being found guilty by a U.S. military tribunal for ordering the killing of 15 U.S. prisoners of war in Italy during World War II.
The last execution took place on 4 March 1947, as Francesco La Barbera, Giovanni Puleo and Giovanni D'Ignoti, sentenced to death on multiple accounts of robbery and murder, faced the firing squad at the range of Basse di Stura, near Turin. Soon after the Constitution of the newly proclaimed Republic prohibited the death penalty except for some crimes, like high treason, during wartime; no one was sentenced to death after 1947. In 2007 the Constitution was amended to ban the death penalty altogether.
During the Mexican Independence War, several Independentist generals (such as Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos) were executed by Spanish firing squads. Also, Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico and several of his generals were executed in the Cerro de las Campanas after the Juaristas took control of Mexico in 1867. Manet immortalized the execution in a now-famous painting, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian; he painted at least three versions.
Firing-squad execution was the most common way to carry out a death sentence in Mexico, especially during the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero War. An example of that is in the (attempted) execution of Wenseslao Moguel, shot ten times—one of them at point-blank range—and lived because he fought under Pancho Villa. After these events, the death sentence was reduced to some events in Article 22 of the Mexican Constitution; however, in 1917 capital punishment was abolished completely.
During World War II some 3,000 persons were executed by German firing squads. The victims were sometimes sentenced by a military court; in other cases they were hostages or arbitrary people passing by who were executed publicly to intimidate the population and as reprisals against the resistance movements. After the attack on high-ranking German officer Hanns Albin Rauter, about 300 persons were executed publicly as reprisal. Rauter himself was shot near Scheveningen on 12 January 1949, following his conviction for war crimes.
On 13 May 1945, five days after the capitulation of Adolf Hitler's Wehrmacht, a German firing squad executed two Navy sailors on the wall of an air raid shelter near the Ford plant in Amsterdam for desertion. At the time the execution was supervised and under Canadian control in Amsterdam.
Nigeria executed criminals who committed armed robberies--such as Ishola Oyenusi, Lawrence Anini and Monday Osunbor--as well as military officers convicted of plotting coups against the government, such as Buka Suka Dimka and Major Gideon Orkar, by firing squad. It has not been used since the advent of democracy in recent years.
Vidkun Quisling, the leader of the collaborationist Nasjonal Samling Party and of Norway during the German occupation in World War II, was sentenced to death by firing squad for treason and executed on 24 October 1945 at the Akershus Fortress.
During the Marcos administration, drug trafficking was punishable by firing-squad execution, as was done to Lim Seng. Execution by firing squad was later replaced by the electric chair, then lethal injection. On 24 June 2006, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo abolished capital punishment by Republic Act 9346. Existing death row inmates, who numbered in the thousands, were eventually given life sentences or reclusion perpetua instead.
In Tsarist Russia firing squads were, undoubtedly, used in the army, for executions during combat on the orders of military tribunals.
In the Soviet Union, from the very earliest days, the bullet to the back of the head, in front of a ready-dug burial trench was by far the most common practise. It became especially widely used during the Great Purges of the late 1930s.
Australian soldiers Harry "Breaker" Morant and Peter Handcock were executed by a British firing squad in the South African Republic on 27 February 1902, for war crimes during the Second Boer War; questions have since been raised in Australia as to whether they received a fair trial.
Executions in Saudi Arabia are usually carried out by beheading; however, at times other methods have been used. Al-Beshi, a Saudi executioner, has said that he has conducted some executions by shooting.Misha'el bint Fahd bin Mohammed al Saud, a Saudi princess, was also executed in the same way; however, her partner was not so lucky.
Both sides in the ongoing Syrian civil war have employed firing squads. In January 2013, a Syrian civilian described how he narrowly survived a firing squad assembled by government supporters that resulted in the deaths of some 20 people.
Execution by firing squad in the United Kingdom was limited to times of war, armed insurrection and within the military, although it is now outlawed in all circumstances, along with all other forms of capital punishment.
The Tower of London was used during both World Wars for executions: during World War I 11 captured German spies were shot between 1914-16. All spies executed on British soil during the First World War were buried in East London Cemetery, in Plaistow, London. On 15 August 1941, German Cpl. Josef Jakobs was shot for espionage during World War II, the last person to be executed at the Tower.
When the U.S. Army took over Shepton Mallet prison in Somerset in 1942, renaming it Disciplinary Training Center No.1 and housing troops convicted of offences across Europe, two men were executed by firing squad for murder--Pvt. Alexander Miranda on 30 May 1944 and Pvt. Benjamin Pigate on 28 November 1944. Locals complained about the noise, as the executions took place in the open air at 1:00 am.
Since the 1960s there has been some controversy concerning the 346 British and Imperial troops --including 25 Canadians, 22 Irish and five New Zealanders --shot for desertion, murder, cowardice and other offences during World War I, 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 to uncover just why these soldiers were executed. The Shot at Dawn Memorial was erected at Staffordshire to honour these soldiers.
The American Civil War saw several hundred firing squad deaths, but reliable numbers are not available.
In 1913 Andriza Mircovich became the first and only inmate in Nevada to be executed by shooting. After the warden of Nevada State Prison was unable to find five men to form a firing squad, a shooting machine was built to carry out Mircovich's execution.
John W. Deering allowed an electrocardiogram recording of the effect of gunshot wounds on his heart during his 1938 execution by firing squad, and afterwards his body was donated to the University of Utah School of Medicine, at his request.
Utah's 1960 execution of James W. Rodgers became the last execution by firing squad in the United States for nearly two decades. Since 1960 there have been three executions by firing squad, all in Utah:
Execution by firing squad was banned in Utah in 2004, but as the ban was not retroactive; three inmates on Utah's death row have the firing squad set as their method of execution. Idaho banned execution by firing squad in 2009, temporarily leaving Oklahoma as the only state in the union utilizing this method of execution (and only as a secondary method).
Reluctance by drug companies to see their drugs used to kill people has led to a shortage of the commonly used lethal injection drugs. In March 2015, Utah enacted legislation allowing for execution by firing squad if the drugs they use are unavailable. Several other states are also exploring a return to the firing squad.
In Arthur v. Dunn, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued, "In addition to being near instant, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless. . . . . And historically, the firing squad has yielded significantly fewer botched executions."
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