A Utah inmate facing the death penalty for a violent 1985 escape attempt is scheduled to die on June 18 by firing squad, an execution method that has been phased out in nearly every state, including Utah.
Ronnie Lee Gardner elected Friday to face a firing squad under a provision of state law that exempts five death row inmates who signaled their preference to die by firing squad before Utah all but banned the old, frontier-style practice in 2004.
“I would like the firing squad, please,” Gardner, 49, told District Judge Robin Reese during Friday’s hearing in Salt Lake City.
The case has renewed calls among death penalty opponents in Utah for an end to executions by all methods, and particularly those by firing squad.
“Even Utah has decided that it’s so barbaric that it actually is no longer an option for people sentenced to death today,” said Ralph Dellapiana, death penalty project director for High Road for Human Rights, one of a coalition of death penalty opponents in Utah.
“It’s kind of a shock to the community when there’s actually going to be somebody put up against a wall and killed,” he said.
Utah is the only state that still actively uses firing squads. A state law in 2004 ruled out such executions except if death by lethal injection is found to be unconstitutional. Oklahoma has a similar provision, but that state allows firing squads only if both lethal injection and electrocution are ruled unconstitutional.
“In the future, convicted felons will not have a choice,” Utah state Rep. Sheryl Allen, a Republican who carried the 2004 legislation, said in an interview. “Number one, I believe it should be the decision of the state, and not the executed criminal; and number two, the firing squad just attracts an inordinate amount of attention. Execution is unfortunate, period, but in this case people concentrate on the method, rather than the victims.”
Tom Brunker, head of the state attorney general’s capital punishment appeals section, said death by firing squad would still be allowed if the U.S. Supreme Court declared lethal injection unconstitutional on its face, or if a defendant with medical constraints connected to lethal injection successfully argued that it would be unconstitutional to force him to undergo the procedure.
The law phasing out firing squads was not retroactively applied to Gardner and four other inmates who had already signaled their preference to die by firing squad before 2004 because lawmakers did not want to provide them with additional grounds for appeals, Allen said.