Draper, Utah — Death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner died in a barrage of bullets early today as Utah carried out its first firing squad execution in 14 years.
Shortly before the shooting, Gardner was strapped into a chair and a team of five marksmen aimed their guns at a white target pinned to his chest.
He was pronounced dead at 1:20 a.m. CDT.
Utah adopted lethal injection as the default execution method in 2004, but Gardner was one still allowed to choose the controversial firing squad option because he was sentenced before the law changed. He told his lawyer he did it because he preferred it — not because he wanted the controversy surrounding the execution to draw attention to his case or embarrass the state.
Some decried the execution as barbaric, and about two dozen members of Gardner’s family held a vigil outside the prison as he was shot. There were no protests at the prison.
The executioners were all certified police officers who volunteered for the task and remain anonymous. They stood about 25 feet from Gardner, behind a wall cut with a gunport, and were armed with a matched set of .30-caliber Winchester rifles. One was loaded with a blank so no one knows who fired the fatal shot. Sandbags stacked behind Gardner’s chair kept the bullets from ricocheting around the cinderblock room.
Gardner was sentenced to death for a 1985 capital murder conviction stemming from the fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell during a failed escape attempt. Gardner was at the Salt Lake City court facing a 1984 murder charge in the shooting death of a bartender, Melvyn Otterstrom.
Gardner and his defense attorneys fought to stop the execution to the end. They filed petitions with state and federal courts, asked a Utah parole board to commute his sentence to life in prison without parole, and finally unsuccessfully appealed to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gardner even tried to appeal to the general public, setting up an interview with CNN’s “Larry King Live.” But the Utah Department of Corrections canceled the phone interview minutes before it was scheduled to take place Wednesday.
Gardner spent his last day sleeping, reading the novel “Divine Justice,” watching the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy and meeting with his attorneys and a bishop with the Mormon church. He had eaten his last requested meal — steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7UP — two days earlier.
Members of his family gathered outside the prison, some wearing T-shirts displaying his prisoner number, 14873. None planned to witness the execution, at Gardner’s request.
“He didn’t want nobody to see him get shot,” said Gardner’s brother, Randy Gardner. “I would have liked to be there for him. I love him to death. He’s my little brother.”
Gardner’s attorneys argued the jury that sentenced him to death in 1985 heard no mitigating evidence that might have led them to impose a life sentence for the man who described himself as a “nasty little bugger.” Gardner’s life was marked by early drug addiction, physical and sexual abuse and possible brain damage, court records show.
The execution process was set in motion in March when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request from Gardner’s attorney to review the case. On April 23, state court Judge Robin Reese signed a warrant ordering the state to carry out the death sentence.
At that hearing, Gardner declared, “I would like the firing squad, please.”
The firing squad has been Utah’s most-used form of capital punishment. Of the 49 executions held in the state since the 1850s, 40 were by firing squad.
Gardner was the third man killed by state marksmen since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling reinstated capital punishment in 1976. The other two were Gary Gilmore, who famously uttered the last words “Let’s do it” on Jan. 17, 1977; and John Albert Taylor on Jan. 26, 1996, for raping and strangling an 11-year-old girl.
Historians say the method stems from 19th Century doctrine of the state’s predominant religion. Early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believed in the concept of “blood atonement” — that only through spilling one’s own blood could a condemned person adequately atone for their crimes and be redeemed in the next life. The church no longer preaches such teachings and offers no opinion on the use of the firing squad.
The American Civil Liberties Union decried Gardner’s execution as an example of what it called the United States’ “barbaric, arbitrary and bankrupting practice of capital punishment.”
At an interfaith vigil in Salt Lake City on Thursday evening, religious leaders called for an end to the death penalty.
“Murdering the murderer doesn’t create justice or settle any score,” said Rev. Tom Goldsmith of the First Unitarian Church.
Burdell’s family opposes the death penalty and asked for Gardner’s life to be spared. In a taped statement, Burdell’s father, Joseph Burdell, Jr., said he believes his son’s death was not premeditated, but a “knee-jerk reaction” by a desperate Gardner attempting to escape.
But Otterstrom’s family lobbied the parole board against Gardner’s request for clemency and a reduced sentence.
George “Nick” Kirk, was a bailiff at the courthouse the day of Gardner’s botched escape. Shot and wounded in the lower abdomen, Kirk suffered chronic health problems the rest of his life.