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As Utah inmate faces firing squad, jurors from original trial speak out

Updated | As lawyers for a Utah death row inmate vowed Wednesday to take their request for a stay of execution to the Supreme Court, members of the 1985 jury that condemned the man to death began to speak out against his sentence.

Colleen Cline, a juror who voted to sentence Ronnie Lee Gardner to death in 1985 for the shooting death of a bystander during an escape attempt in court, said in an interview on Tuesday that she would have preferred to sentence Gardner to life in prison rather than death.

Cline wrote in a signed affidavit last week that she would have voted for life without parole over the death penalty if the former had been an option in Utah in 1985. But in the interview Cline went further, saying 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 cautioned that she still considers Gardner a threat to public safety. But of the Circuit Court hearing, she added: “I don’t care at this point if they convert it to life without parole. I don’t have a big problem with that.”

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.” (All four affidavits, which were provided to Need to Know by Gardner’s attorneys, can be viewed here).

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 last-minute hearing Tuesday evening.

Gardner’s case has attracted worldwide attention because of his preferred method of execution: firing squad. Gardner would be 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 have 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, warrant a commutation of his sentence. The lawyers have 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 provided to Need to Know late Tuesday evening, 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,” said the statement, issued by Ralph Dellapiana, the organization’s director and a criminal defense attorney who has been working with Gardner’s lawyers. “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 she planned to follow the case closely. The decision to condemn Gardner to death was a difficult one, she added, and its emotional toll has 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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