DRAPER, Utah – A death row inmate who had used a gun to fatally shoot two men suffered the same fate today as he was executed by a team of marksmen — the first time Utah used the firing squad to carry out a death sentence in 14 years.
A barrage of bullets tore into Ronnie Lee Gardner's chest where a target was pinned over his heart. Two minutes later an ashen Gardner, blood pooling in his dark blue jumpsuit, was pronounced dead at 12:17 a.m.
He was the third man to die by firing squad since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Unlike Gary Gilmore, who famously uttered the last words "Let's do it" on Jan. 17, 1977, Gardner could muster few words before a black hood was fastened over his head. Asked if he had anything to say during the two minutes afforded him, Gardner said simply, "I do not, no."
The five executioners, certified police officers who volunteered for the task and remain anonymous, stood about 25 feet away, behind a wall cut with a gunport, and were armed with matching .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.
Utah Department of Corrections Director Thomas Patterson said the countdown cadence went "5-4-3..." with the shooters starting to fire at the count of 2. Gardner's arm tensed and jerked back when he was hit. As the medical examiner checked for vital signs the hood was pulled back, revealing that Gardner's head was tilted back and to the right, his mouth slightly open. "I don't agree with what he done or what they done but I'm relieved he's free," said Gardner's brother, Randy Gardner, after the execution. "He's had a rough life. He's been incarcerated and in chains his whole damn life, now he's free. I'm happy he's free, just sad the way he went."
The execution was witnessed by media representatives who are separated from witnesses for the victims or the condemned in rooms on opposite ends of the execution chamber behind reflective glass so they can't be seen. Gardner walked willingly to his execution, a stark contrast to the fatal escape attempt he undertook 25 years ago that resulted in his death sentence.
Gardner was sentenced to death after being convicted of murder in 1985 for the fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell during a failed escape attempt. Gardner was at the Salt Lake City court facing a murder charge in the shooting death of a bartender, Melvyn Otterstrom when he took a gun smuggled into him and he shot Burdell in the face as the attorney hid behind a door in the chaotic courthouse. 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 politely declared, "I would like the firing squad, please." He told his lawyer he did it because he preferred to die that way. Gardner was allowed to choose between the firing squad and lethal injection because he was sentenced to death before Utah eliminated the firing squad as an option in 2004. State officials did not like the negative publicity fire squad executions generated.
Gardner, 49, chose his manner of death and then worked furiously with his lawyers to prevent it. 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's attorneys argued the jury that sentenced him to death in 1985 heard no mitigating evidence that might have led them to instead impose a life sentence. Gardner's life was marked by early drug addiction, physical and sexual abuse and possible brain damage, court records show.
They also argued he could not get a "fair and impartial hearing" before Utah's Board of Pardons and Parole because lawyers that represent the board work for the Utah attorney general's office, which sought his death warrant and argued against the board commuting Gardner's death sentence. 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.
John Albert Taylor, who raped and strangled an 11-year-old girl, was the last person executed by firing squad on Jan. 26, 1996. 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.
Gardner, who once described himself as a "nasty little bugger" with a mean streak, 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. A prison spokesman said officers described his mood as relaxed. 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 witnessed the execution, at Gardner's request. "He didn't want nobody to see him get shot," Randy Gardner said. "I would have liked to be there for him. I love him to death. He's my little brother."
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." And religious leaders called for an end to the death penalty at an interfaith vigil in Salt Lake City on Thursday evening. "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. 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. Kirk's daughter, Tami Stewart, said before the execution she believed Gardner's death would bring her family some closure. "I think at that moment, he will feel that fear that his victims felt," she said.