capitol punishment: death by firing squad

For the last few weeks my partner’s family has been reliving the murder of Mike (brother & son) in 1985 in a courthouse in Salt Lake City, Utah, while the parole board decides the fate of Ronnie Lee Gardner. Mike was an attorney preparing to present a case when Ronnie Lee was given a gun from a woman watching as he was escorted to the sentencing for the death of another man, bartender Melvyn Otterstrom. Here’s how the Salt Lake City Tribune described the incident:

Gardner has never divulged his accomplices, but on April 2, 1985, two prison guards escorted Gardner to a hearing at Salt Lake City’s Metropolitan Hall of Justice. A woman thrust a gun at him and Gardner turned, pointing the weapon at the guards. One guard, Luther Hensley, said it appeared Gardner was trying to shoot him but couldn’t get the gun to fire. Hensley drew his .38-caliber pistol and fired one bullet into Gardner’s upper right chest. Gardner took cover behind a Coke machine, then retreated a few feet away to the courthouse’s archives room. After exiting the room and trying to board an elevator, he fired at Michael Burdell. The bullet pierced the attorney’s right eye. Burdell said, “Oh, my God,” and collapsed. He died at Holy Cross Hospital about 45 minutes later. Nick Kirk, an unarmed bailiff, ran toward the room worried about the safety of the judge for whom Kirk worked. Gardner fired another shot, striking Kirk in the lower abdomen. By then, dozens of police officers had converged on the courthouse as Gardner attempted a frenzied escape. He had made his way to the sidewalk between the street and the complex when they drew their guns and moved toward him. But Gardner surrendered before they reached him. He threw the revolver away, dropped to his knees and fell face first into the grass. “Don’t shoot,” Gardner yelled. “I don’t have a gun.”

Melvyn Otterstrom was a part-time bartender at Cheers tavern in Salt Lake City. The Salt Lake Tribune describes the robbery and murder:

First killing » Murder remained about the only crime for which Gardner had not been convicted, but not for long. High on cocaine on the night of Oct. 9, 1984, he went to Salt Lake City’s Cheers Tavern with Darcy McCoy, the sister of a cousin’s wife, intent on robbing the place, according to McCoy. Melvyn Otterstrom, a 37-year-old comptroller tending bar to earn extra money, was on his back behind the bar when Gardner pressed the muzzle against one of his nostrils and fired, killing him. Gardner has complained Otterstrom fought back when robbed, but investigators found nothing to suggest the larger and special forces-trained Otterstrom put up a fight, said John Johnson, the Salt Lake City police detective who investigated the murder. “My opinion is, it was an execution,” Johnson said. Three weeks later, police acting on a tip arrested Gardner at a cousin’s home. Gardner was charged with first-degree murder and other escape-related felonies. Gardner knew he would never be released from prison. He considered his options. “One was escape,” Gardner testified later. “The other was possible suicide if I had to spend the rest of my life in prison.” He chose escape.

Panel denies Gardner’s request for mercy

Ronnie Lee Gardner’s firing squad execution became much more likely when a state board on Monday refused to commute his death sentence.

Gardner, who is scheduled to die early Friday, still has an appeal pending with the Utah Supreme Court, but that appeal makes arguments that already have been rejected by other courts and judges.

Gardner’s lawyer, Andrew Parnes, has said he may also file an appeal elsewhere, including with the U.S. Supreme Court, but at this point an order halting the execution would be a surprise.

On Monday, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole met for only a few minutes to announce it was denying Gardner’s request to lessen his sentence to life in prison without parole. Board Chairman Curtis Garner, reading from a written decision, noted Gardner made no claims of innocence and the original sentence was “not inappropriate.”

The announcement elicited quiet exclamations of “yes” from the family of Nick Kirk, the bailiff Gardner wounded during his 1985 escape attempt at a Salt Lake City courthouse.

Outside the prison after the announcement, Kirk’s daughter, Tami Stewart, said she expected the board to commute, and she was pleased it did not.

“I do feel sorry for [Gardner],” Stewart said, “but he made that choice. He made that choice to shoot those people.”

As Stewart spoke, prison inmates could be heard shouting at her and reporters in the parking lot, though no one could discern what they were saying.

In testimony and arguments Thursday and Friday before the board, Gardner and his supporters said he was a changed man who wanted to help start a farm in Box Elder County where troubled youth can learn organic gardening. He also said the jury, which sentenced him to death in 1985, did not know enough about Gardner’s bad childhood and possible brain damage. Four of those jurors this month submitted affidavits saying their votes would have or might have been different if they had the information. Gardner’s appeal with the state Supreme Court makes similar arguments.

Gardner’s death sentence was issued for wounding Kirk and killing attorney Michael Burdell at the courthouse. However, an aggravating factor in his sentence was his 1984 murder of Melvyn Otterstrom at Cheers Tavern in Salt Lake City.

Craig Watson, Otterstrom’s cousin and a Sandy police lieutenant, called Gardner the “worst” bad guy he’s seen.

“Maybe his death will help these kids that he keeps talking about walk the straight and narrow,” Watson said.

Watson said he plans to view the execution with Otterstrom’s 28-year-old son.

“It’s gonna be kind of a bittersweet experience for me,” Watson said.

Parnes said he is optimistic about the appeal with the Utah Supreme Court.

“I think they [the board] did listen,” Parnes said. “I’m just disappointed by the outcome.”

I was so certain that I knew where I stood about the death penalty, but everything changes when the issues become more personal. I believe that America has made yet another commodity out of prison, and this commodity has become a  part of our economy. Last week I heard a prison guard being interviewed in upstate NY, worried that he might loose his job. There are not a lot of jobs upstate NY, not that pay a decent wage. Ronnie lee Gardner has been in prison now longer then he lived outside of prison. He has no skills to function in society. But do we want to keep paying his way until he dies? After all, Gardner had no consideration for those he killed, he only cared about his own survival. He didn’t have to kill either man to escape.

When you read about gardner’s life, it couldn’t be any more depressing. Everything was against him, an alcoholic mother, a brother who abused him, mental issues, no one to look up to, poverty . . .  It couldn’t really be worse. In this country of second chances he never really had even one. That coupled with his inability to get along even with others in prison made the appeal process seem futile. It would be criminal to let this man out in public.

The real travesty, I think, was the appeal process that has taken on a life of its own. Twenty five years of appeals when it was clear early on that Gardner could not function in society. Twenty five years of an inability to get along with other prisoners. And the whole time a death sentence hanging over his head. I think the only place for Ronnie Lee is prison. He doesn’t deserve to die.

The quotes in this post were taken from the online edition of the Salt Lake Tribune, written by Pamela Manson, and Nate Carlisle. Ronnie Lee Gardner will face a firing squad on Friday, June 18th.

Here is a list of the appeals brought by Gardner:

  • January 1989 » The Utah Supreme Court affirms Gardner’s 1985 conviction and death sentence.
  • July 1990 » Gardner takes his case back to state court for review, filing a petition that claims his rights were violated because he was not provided with state money to hire experts and investigators for appeals.
  • July 1991 » Third District Judge Raymond Uno reverses Gardner’s death sentence, ruling his trial attorneys were ineffective.
  • November 1994 » The Utah Supreme Court reverses Uno and orders the death sentence reinstated.
  • September 1995 » Gardner files a federal appeal and is granted funds for expert witnesses. U.S. Magistrate Samuel Alba eventually hears testimony from mental health experts who evaluated Gardner and other witnesses.
  • April 2000 » Alba issues a recommendation that Gardner’s claim of ineffective assistance by his appellate counsel return to state court. Part of the federal case is on hold while that litigation proceeds; a state judge rules against Gardner and the Utah Supreme Court later upholds that ruling.
  • August 2003 » Alba issues a recommendation to U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell that Gardner’s federal claims be rejected.
  • November 2005 » Campbell sends a question about state law to the Utah Supreme Court, which responds in January 2007.
  • April 2007 » Campbell dismisses Gardner’s appeal.
  • June 2009 » The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turns down Gardner’s challenge of Campbell’s ruling.
  • March 2010 » The U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear Gardner’s latest petition.
  • April 2010 » A execution warrant is issued for June 18.

3 thoughts on “capitol punishment: death by firing squad

  1. Some idiots just don’t understand, like my little brother who couldn’t visualize the real meaning of this section on your article “…, an alcoholic mother, a brother who abused him, mental issues, no one to look up to, poverty . . .  …” this is it, you just nailed it down buddy.

    1. thanks for taking the time to write. This was a really difficult realization, but our society created Ronnie Lee just as much as his own family (or lack of a caring family environment did.)

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