Utah to execute condemned killer by firing squad

June 17, 2010 8:08:08 PM PDT
Utah is set to execute a condemned killer by firing squad shortly after midnight Thursday, reviving a style of justice that hasn't been used for at least 14 years and that many criticize as archaic.

Barring an unexpected last-minute reprieve, Ronnie Lee Gardner will be strapped into a chair, have a target pinned over his heart and die in a hail of bullets from five anonymous marksmen armed with .30-caliber rifles and firing from behind a ported wall.

A flurry of last-minute appeals and requests for stays were rejected Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Gov. Gary Herbert.

The Supreme Court turned down three appeals late Thursday, although one of its orders showed that two justices, Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens, would have granted Gardner's request for a stay.

"We are disappointed with the court's decisions, declining to hear Mr. Gardner's case," one of his attorneys, Megan Moriarty, said in a statement to The Associated Press. "It's unfair that he will be executed without a full and fair review of his case."

Utah Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said there were no pending issues left for the courts.

After the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for a stay of Gardner's execution Thursday, Gardner's attorneys submitted a second request for a stay to Herbert. Herbert denied it, saying Gardner has had "the opportunity to have his arguments fully and fairly considered."

After a visit with his family, Gardner was moved from his regular cell in a maximum-security wing of the Utah State Prison to an observation cell Wednesday night, Department of Corrections officials said.

On Thursday, they said Gardner was spending time sleeping, reading the novel "Divine Justice," watching the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy and meeting with his attorneys. A corrections department spokesman said officers described his mood as relaxed.

Gardner will be the third man killed by firing squad in the U.S. since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Although Utah altered its death penalty law in 2004 to make lethal injection the default method, nine inmates convicted before that date, including Gardner, can still choose the firing squad instead.

Gardner's attorney said the decision was based on preference - not a desire to embarrass the state or draw publicity to his case.

Members of Gardner's family gathered outside the prison Thursday, 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, 49, was sentenced to death for a 1985 capital murder conviction stemming from the fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell during an escape attempt. Gardner was at the court because he faced a 1984 murder charge in the shooting death of bartender Melvyn Otterstrom.

Gardner made a final effort to convince the world he was a changed man, speaking emotionally in court of his desire to start a 160-acre organic farm and program for at-risk youth. He acknowledged his own tortured trajectory to a parole board last week, saying: "It would have been a miracle if I didn't end up here."

Gardner first came to the attention of authorities at age 2 as he was found walking alone on a street clad only in a diaper. At age 6 he became addicted to sniffing gasoline and glue. Harder drugs - LSD and heroin - followed by age 10. By then, Gardner was tagging along with his stepfather as a lookout on robberies, according to court documents.

After spending 18 months in a state mental hospital and being sexually abused in a foster home, he killed Otterstrom at age 23. About six months later, at 24, he shot Burdell in the face as the attorney hid behind a door in the courthouse.

"I had a very explosive temper," Gardner said last week. "Even my mom said it was like I had two personalities."

The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday decried Gardner's imminent 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.

Some doubt that Gardner is, or could ever be, reformed.

Tami Stewart's father, George "Nick" Kirk, was a bailiff who was shot and wounded in Gardner's botched escape. Kirk suffered chronic health problems until his death in 1995 and became frustrated by the lack of justice that Gardner's years of appeals afforded him, Stewart said.

She said she's not happy about the idea of Gardner's death but believes it will bring her family some closure.

"I think at that moment, he will feel that fear that his victims felt," Stewart said.

Burdell's father, Joseph Burdell Jr., said Gardner's desire to help troubled kids was proof that some transformation has come.

"I understand that he wants to apologize. I think it would be difficult for him," he said by phone Tuesday from his Cary, N.C., home. "Twenty-five years is a long time. He's not the same man."

At his commutation hearing, Gardner shed a tear after telling the board his attempts to apologize to the Otterstroms and Kirks had been unsuccessful. He said he hoped for forgiveness.

"If someone hates me for 20 years, it's going to affect them," Gardner said. "I know killing me is going to hurt them just as bad. It's something you have to live with every day. You can't get away from it. I've been on the other side of the gun. I know."

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Associated Press Writer Paul Foy contributed to this report.


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