Firing squad executes convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner at Utah prison

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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DRAPER, Utah — A death row inmate who had shot two men to death suffered the same fate Friday as he was executed by a team of marksmen — the first time in 14 years the American state of had Utah used a firing squad to carry out a death sentence.

A barrage of bullets tore into Ronnie Lee’s Gardner’s chest where a target was pinned over his heart. Two minutes later, at 12:17 a.m., Gardner was pronounced dead

He was the third man to die by firing squad since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Asked if he had anything to say during the two minutes afforded him, Gardner said simply “I do not, no.” A black hood was then fastened over his head.

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 .30-calibre Winchester rifles, one of them loaded with a blank. Sandbags stacked behind Gardner’s chair kept the bullets from ricocheting around the cinderblock room.

Gardner’s arm tensed and jerked back when he was hit.

“I don’t agree with what he done or what they done but I’m relieved he’s free,” Gardner’s brother, Randy Gardner, said 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.

He 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 1984 murder charge in the shooting death of a bartender, Melvyn Otterstrom when he shot Burdell in the face as the attorney hid behind a door in the chaotic courthouse.

The execution 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 sentence.

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.

“I would like the firing squad, please,” he told a hearing.

Having chosen his manner of death, Gardner, 49, 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.

John Albert Taylor, who raped and strangled an 11-year-old girl, was the last person executed by firing squad on Jan. 26, 1996.

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.

“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.


Associated Press Writers Paul Foy and Rich Matthews contributed to this report.

Organizations: U.S. Supreme Court, Mormon church, American Civil Liberties Union First Unitarian Church Associated Press

Geographic location: DRAPER, Utah, Salt Lake City, United States

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