SALT LAKE CITY — If all goes according to plan, four days from now John Albert Taylor will eat a pizza, smoke a cigarette, then be strapped into a chair and shot in the heart for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Charla King in 1989.
If a bill to be introduced this month in the Legislature becomes law, the 36-year-old Taylor may be the last person executed by firing squad in the United States.
A warehouse at Utah State Prison is being outfitted with one-way mirrors, plywood partitions with gun ports and a wooden armchair in preparation for Friday's scheduled execution in the only state that allows condemned inmates to choose between a firing squad and a lethal injection.
At a time when only unusual executions receive much media scrutiny, Taylor's case is attracting attention around the world and is renewing a statewide controversy over capital punishment that involves history, religion and high emotions on all sides.
Appalled by the spectacle, state Rep. Sheryl L. Allen is drafting a bill to abolish what many believe is a barbaric practice that could tarnish the image of a state celebrating its centennial and gearing up to host the Winter Olympics in 2002.
"As we enter our second hundred years," said Allen, whose proposed legislation is backed by Gov. Mike Leavitt, "I'd like us to convey a better image than this. I want the world to look at us positively, as a progressive state."
A month ago, Taylor fired his lawyer, dropped his appeals and denounced lethal injection--saying he did not want to "flop around like a dying fish" on a gurney.
His announcement came as a bombshell.
State corrections officials had to relearn firing-squad protocol not used since the execution of convicted killer Gary Gilmore in 1977, which ended a 10-year hiatus in executions of any kind in America.
They also were inundated by an embarrassing flood of requests from would-be volunteers eager to fire a slug into Taylor's heart. This despite guidelines requiring that one of the five anonymous marksmen be supplied with a blank so that none would know who fired a fatal round, thereby avoiding possible lifelong guilt.
Among those who say they want to kill Taylor are law enforcement officers across the nation, a 19-year-old Air Force cadet in Colorado Springs, a squad of soldiers from Ft. Bragg, N.C., and a "guy claiming to be a CIA agent," according to Jack Ford, spokesman for the Corrections Department.
The actual firing squad members will be officers selected from lists supplied by local law enforcement agencies.
"We let the agencies choose the men," Ford said, "because we wanted the most reliable, dependable and well-adjusted individuals possible. If we left it up to volunteers, some might have a ghoulish desire to inflict damage rather than execute the man."
That is only one of his concerns.
"We prefer to do lethal injections," Ford said, "because instead of watching a guy go to sleep, witnesses will watch someone get shot. We will have a paramedic crew on hand in case it is more violent than someone thought it would be."
Then there is the problem of blood-borne pathogens.
"We have no idea where the blood will splatter," he said. "There will be a pan under the chair to collect the drip."
Foes of capital punishment--including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the Vatican--hope the attention Taylor receives will convince the public of the futility of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime, and spotlight the primitive grotesquerie of firing squads in particular.
Taylor's execution would be the 49th in Utah since 1852 and the 40th by firing squad. He is one of six inmates scheduled to be executed this month in the United States.
Historically, only a handful of states executed the condemned by firing squad. Over the years, most of those states turned to ostensibly more humane methods of execution: electrocution, lethal injection and hanging.
In 1980, Utah's Legislature changed the state's capital punishment law to replace death by hanging with lethal injection--but retained the option of using a firing squad.
The only other state that still has firing squads on the books is Idaho, but it allows them only with the approval of corrections officials--which is considered highly unlikely.
In a state with deep Mormon roots, Taylor's choice has resurrected a historical controversy surrounding "blood atonement"--the idea that only by spilling their blood can the condemned hope to receive forgiveness in the next life.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaders here vehemently deny that blood atonement was ever part of their doctrine.
But historians and criminologists say execution by firing squad in Utah is a relic of the rough side of Mormonism's past, when the church's version of the Old Testament world view drew violent reactions from non-Mormon Western frontier settlers.