‘The Firing Squad, Please,’ Says Prisoner
By ERIK ECKHOLM
Published: April 23, 2010
- Ronnie Lee Gardner had a quarter-century to ponder his choice, whether to die by lethal injection or take four bullets in the heart.
Pool photo by Francisco Kjolseth
Ronnie Lee Gardner, center, with his defense team at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Friday.More Photos »
In a Utah courtroom Friday, 25 years after he was sentenced to death for killing a man during an escape attempt, he declared his preference to the judge: “I would like the firing squad, please.”
With Mr. Gardner’s appeals apparently exhausted, Judge Robin W. Reese of Third District Court in Salt Lake City signed a warrant of execution and scheduled it for June 18.
Mr. Gardner’s lawyer, Andrew Parnes, said he would make a new appeal to the State Supreme Court, which previously upheld the death sentence, arguing that his client did not receive proper help with experts and research before his sentencing and that execution after such a long wait would be cruel and unusual punishment.
Mr. Gardner also has the right within the next seven days to ask the Board of Pardons to commute his sentence to life in prison.
For decades, Utah let condemned prisoners choose whether to die by hanging or the firing squad, then more recently between lethal injection and a firing squad. In 2004, the Legislature ended the practice, making lethal injections standard. But to avoid legal complications, the state has allowed pre-existing prisoners who had selected the firing squad to remain with that option if they want.
Mr. Gardner picked the firing squad at the time of his initial death sentence in 1985. In two later court appearances he seemed to have had a change of heart, switching his choice to lethal injection. But in 1996 — the same year that the last prisoner in Utah, and the country, was executed with bullets — he said he had switched only out of concern for his children, who were then young, and that he had always preferred death by gunfire.
“I like the firing squad,” he told The Deseret News at the time. “It’s so much easier … and there’s no mistakes.” In a telephone interview Friday, Mr. Parnes said that he would not comment on Mr. Gardner’s reasons for “his personal decision.”
By law, state law enforcement officers would be the ones to fire the shots, but officials have not publicly described how they would be selected. Earlier this month, as Mr. Gardner was considering his decision, officials allowed Mr. Parnes to brief him on the protocols for lethal injection and for the firing squad. Mr. Parnes said that the court had ordered him not to reveal the details.
Procedures for the last two such executions in Utah, which officials said would largely be followed with Mr. Gardner, had five unidentified officers using identical .30-30 hunting rifles from a distance of about 20 feet. One rifle — which one unknown to the shooters — was loaded with a blank. The condemned man was strapped into a seat while wearing a black jumpsuit and a hood, with a white cloth circle placed over his heart to provide a target.
Lethal injection has become the method of choice throughout the country, used in more than 1,000 executions since it was introduced in the early 1980s. It is widely seen as more humane than the alternatives, but numerous cases have been reported in which drugs have been injected incorrectly, causing severe pain and gasping for minutes or more.
Four other men now sitting on Utah’s death row were also sentenced before 1996 and initially selected the firing squad, so Mr. Gardner’s shooting death would not necessarily be the last. Utah is the only state where such an execution is at all likely; only Oklahoma keeps it as a backup in case other methods are legally rejected.
Utah is phasing out firing squads because of the media attention and bad image they cause, legislators and corrections officials said.
It was in Utah in 1977 that Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad, which he chose over hanging. His case became notorious, not only because it was the first execution in the nation after a 10-year legal hiatus, but also because he insisted on being put to death rather than pursuing appeals. “Let’s do it,” he famously said just before his death.
In 1996 in Utah, John Albert Taylor became the only other prisoner in recent history to be executed by firing squad. The event attracted hordes of reporters who often, to the chagrin of Utah officials, invoked images of raw, frontier justice. Mr. Gardner’s execution, if and when it occurs, appears certain to attract similar worldwide attention.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 28, 2010
A chart on Saturday with an article about a death-row inmate in Utah who asked to die by firing squad erroneously included one state among those that use lethal injection as a method for executions. New Mexico repealed its death penalty last year.