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Convicted Killer’s Execution by Firing Squad

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The moral of this story : Do NOT break the Law in Utah!


Convicted Killer's Execution Choice: Firing Squad
Published: April 23, 2010

"I would like the firing squad, please."

So said Ronnie Lee Gardner to a Utah judge on Friday, words that seemed from another time, uttered 25 years after he was sentenced to death for killing a man during an escape attempt.

Mr. Gardner, 49, had a quarter century to ponder a choice that exists in no other state: whether to die by lethal injection or by a team of five anonymous officers firing bullets into his heart.

With Mr. Gardner's appeals apparently exhausted, Judge Robin Reese of the 3rd district signed a warrant of execution Friday and officials tentatively scheduled it for June 18.

Mr. Gardner's lawyer, Andrew Parnes, said he would make a new appeal to the state supreme court, which rejected a previous petition, arguing that his client did not receive proper help with experts and research before his sentencing and that execution after such a long wait did not serve a public purpose, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment.

For decades, Utah let condemned prisoners choose whether to die by hanging or the firing squad, then more recently between lethal injection or the firing squad. In 2004, the legislature stopped offering a choice, making lethal injections standard. But to avoid legal complications, the state has allowed pre-existing prisoners who had selected the firing squad to stick with it if they wanted.

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, changing 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 then-young children, 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 the decision was a personal one of his client's and that he would not comment on Mr. Gardner's reasons.

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 will not necessarily be the last. Utah is the only state where such an execution is 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 frenzies and bad image they cause, legislators and corrections officials have said. It was in Utah in 1977 that Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad. 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. Just before he was hooded, he famously said, "Let's do it."

In 1996 in Utah, John Albert Taylor became the only other prisoner in recent history to be executed by gunfire, an event that attracted hordes of reporters who often, to the chagrin of Utah officials, evoked images of raw frontier justice. Mr. Gardner's execution, if and when it occurs, appears certain to attract similar worldwide attention.

By law, state law-enforcement officers will fire the gunshots, but officials have not publicly described how they will be selected. Earlier this month, as Mr. Gardner was pondering his choice, officials allowed Mr. Parnes to brief him on the protocols for lethal injection and the firing squad. Mr. Parnes said that the court ordered him not to reveal the details.

In the last two such executions, five unidentified officers used identical .30-.30 caliber rifles from a distance of about 20 feet. One of the rifles - which one was unknown to the shooters - was loaded with a blank. The condemned men were seated wearing black jumpsuits and hoods, and had white circles placed as targets over their hearts.
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