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Utah inmate executed by firing squad after 25 years on death row

After a flurry of last-minutes appeals and swelling controversy, Utah inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner became the first man in 14 years to be executed by firing squad early Friday morning, ending a 25-year saga that in its final days stoked a national debate over the death penalty.

Gardner was pronounced dead at 12:20 a.m. local time, according to Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. He was killed in a hail of .30-caliber bullets fired by five marksmen, aiming at a target pinned to Gardner’s chest. Gardner had spent his final hours conferring with attorneys and his Mormon bishop, and watching the third movie in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. A spokesman for the Corrections Department described Gardner’s mood in his last hours as “calm.”

“People say that 25 years is too long. Sometimes, justice is long in coming,” Shurtleff said in a press conference after the execution. “That’s what this has been about — only justice. Justice for the victims and their families.”

Shurtleff acknowledged the debate that had been stirred by Gardner’s execution, saying, “In this country, we’ve shown that we don’t do this lightly. No state does it lightly.” He then directed his remarks toward those who might commit future crimes similar to Gardner’s. “They need to understand that while justice may be slow, it will come, and they will be held accountable for their actions. Right now, Ronnie Lee Gardner is being held accountable to a higher power.”

Gardner’s attorneys had sought a last-minute stay of his execution, saying new mitigating evidence regarding his psychological state, brain damage and history of physical and sexual abuse as a child warranted a commutation of his sentence to life in prison. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert denied a request for a last-minute reprieve, as did a federal appeals court. In a statement, Herbert said, “Mr. Gardner has had a full and fair opportunity to have his case considered by numerous tribunals.”

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor also denied three separate requests to stay Gardner’s execution late Thursday evening, although two other justices, Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens, indicated that they would have granted Gardner a last-minute reprieve, according to an order issued by the Supreme Court denying Gardner’s petition.

Gardner’s attorneys based their appeals in part on the fact that several jurors from Gardner’s 1985 trial and sentencing had come forward to say they would have preferred to vote for life in prison, which was not an option in Utah until 1992.

One juror, Colleen Cline, went further. Cline said that, based on the deliberations at the time, she believed the entire jury would have opted for life in prison rather than the death penalty.

“I think we all would have gone for life without parole if that had been an option. But in the state of Utah, it was not an option at that time,” Cline said in a telephone interview from her home in Midvale. Instead, the jury was forced to choose between capital punishment and a life sentence with the possibility of parole. Cline said the jurors found Gardner too dangerous to permit even the remote possibility of his release.

Cline’s affidavit, along with those of three other jurors who expressed similar reservations, was presented to a Utah state parole board last week in an attempt to stop Gardner’s execution and commute his sentence to life in prison. The four jurors said they would have preferred to vote for life without parole. One, Pauline Davies, wrote that she “felt coerced into voting for death.”

The parole board denied Gardner’s request, as did the state Supreme Court. U.S. Circuit Court judge Tena Campbell also rejected Gardner’s petition after a hearing Tuesday evening.

Gardner’s case had attracted worldwide attention because of his request to be executed by firing squad. Gardner became only the third death row inmate to be put to death by rifle fire since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. All three cases have been in Utah, where death by firing squad is legal as a secondary method of execution for death row inmates sentenced before 2004, when the practice was outlawed.

Attorneys for Gardner and anti-death penalty advocates had argued that new mitigating evidence regarding the defendant’s psychological state at the time of the murders, as well as the reservations of the jurors, warranted a commutation of his sentence. The lawyers had argued that a case of meningitis at the age of four may have caused Gardner considerable brain damage, debilitating his capacity for empathy and impulse control. He was also sexually abused, used drugs between the ages of six and 11 and had a troubled childhood, with two parents who were both alcoholics and physically abusive.

In a statement earlier this week, Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty argued that such evidence should have been discovered at the time of Garder’s original trial and been presented at the sentencing hearing in 1985, and would almost certainly have changed the outcome.

“Ronnie Lee Gardner never had a fair sentencing hearing,” Ralph Dellapiana, the organization’s director and a criminal defense attorney who has been working with Gardner’s lawyers, said in the statement. “His execution now would be unjust.  We are not asking that his conviction be overturned, only that he have a new sentencing hearing at which a jury can hear all of the relevant information before imposing a sentence. It’s only fair.”

Cline, for her part, said the decision to condemn Gardner to death had been a difficult one, and that its emotional toll had never quite faded, even after 25 years.

“I knew he was an anti-social sociopath who would have killed a lot of people. Even then, it was a horrendous decision to make,” Cline said. “I don’t think one really appreciates the magnitude of that until they’re actually in a position where that’s a decision that must be made.”

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