Published June 18, 2010
DRAPER, Utah – A barrage of bullets tore into Ronnie Lee Gardner's chest where a target had been pinned over his heart. Two minutes later, the twice-convicted killer was pronounced dead as blood pooled in his dark blue prison jumpsuit.
It was the first time in 14 years that an American inmate was executed by firing squad -- a method Gardner choose over lethal injection. But death penalty opponents around the world reacted with horror all the same, renewing an international debate about capital punishment in the U.S.
Gardner was the third man to die by firing squad since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Unlike Gary Gilmore, who famously said "Let's do it" before he was shot on Jan. 17, 1977, Gardner offered few words. Asked if he had anything to say before a black hood was fastened over his head, he said simply, "I do not, no."
The five executioners were police officers who volunteered for the task. They stood about 25 feet away, behind a wall cut with a gunport.
One of their .30-caliber Winchester rifles was loaded with a blank so no one would know who fired the fatal shots. Gardner was in a straight-backed metal chair, with sandbags stacked around it to keep the bullets from ricocheting around the cinderblock room at the Utah State Prison.
Nine journalists were permitted to observe the execution, including one from The Associated Press.
When the prison warden pulled back the beige curtain covering the witness room, Gardner was strapped into the chair, his head secured by a strap across his forehead.
Harness-like straps also constrained his chest. His arms were at his sides, handcuffed and strapped to the chair. Affixed to his chest was a white cloth square about 3 inches wide bearing a black target.
The AP reporter never saw the rifles and did not hear the countdown to the trigger-pull. Utah Department of Corrections Director Thomas Patterson said the countdown went "5-4-3..." with the shooters starting to fire at the count of 2.
Seconds before the bullets hit him, Gardner's left thumb twitched against his forefinger. When his chest was pierced, he clenched his fist. His arm pulled up slowly as if he were lifting something and then released. The motion repeated.
There was no blood splattered across the white cinderblock wall and no audible sounds from the condemned. Although the dark blue prison jumpsuit made it difficult to see, blood seemed to be pooling around Gardner's waist.
As the medical examiner checked for vital signs, the hood was pulled back, revealing Gardner's ashen face. His head was tilted back and to the right and his mouth slightly open. He was pronounced dead at 12:17 a.m.
About an hour later, reporters were allowed to inspect the chamber. There was a strong smell of bleach but no sign of blood. The only evidence that a man had been shot were four small holes where the bullets struck the black wood panels behind the chair.
Gardner was sentenced to death in 1985 for fatally shooting an attorney during a failed escape attempt from a Salt Lake City courthouse.
At the time, he was facing a murder charge in the 1984 shooting death of a bartender named Melvyn Otterstrom. Gardner pulled out a gun that had been smuggled into the courthouse and shot lawyer Michael Burdell in the face as Burdell hid behind a door.
In April, a judge ordered the execution to proceed, and Gardner politely declared, "I would like the firing squad, please."
He was allowed to choose the firing squad because he was sentenced to death before Utah eliminated it as an option. State officials scrapped it in 1984 after previous executions attracted unwanted publicity.
Of the 49 executions carried out in Utah since the 1850s, 40 were by firing squad. Before Gardner's death, the most recent was John Albert Taylor, who was executed on Jan. 26, 1996, for raping and strangling an 11-year-old girl.
Historians say the firing squad persisted in Utah long after the rest of the nation abandoned it because of the 19th century doctrine of the state's predominant religion. Early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believed in the concept of "blood atonement" -- that only through spilling one's own blood could a condemned person adequately atone for their crimes and be redeemed in the next life.
The church no longer promotes such teachings and offers no opinion on the use of the firing squad.
The European Union issued a statement Friday expressing its "profound regret" for the execution.
"The EU reiterates its universal opposition to the use of capital punishment and urges the immediate establishment of a global moratorium on its use with a view to abolition," the statement said.
The American Civil Liberties Union decried Gardner's execution as an example of the "barbaric, arbitrary and bankrupting practice of capital punishment." Religious leaders called for an end to the death penalty at an interfaith vigil Thursday evening in Salt Lake City.
"Murdering the murderer doesn't create justice or settle any score," said Rev. Tom Goldsmith of the First Unitarian Church.
Gardner, who once described himself as a "nasty little bugger" with a mean streak, spent his last day sleeping, reading the novel "Divine Justice," watching the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy and meeting with his attorneys and a Mormon bishop.
Members of his family gathered outside the prison, some wearing T-shirts displaying his prisoner number, 14873.
"I don't agree with what he done or what they done, but I'm relieved he's free," Gardner's brother, Randy Gardner, said after the execution. "He's had a rough life. He's been incarcerated and in chains his whole damn life. Now he's free. I'm happy he's free, just sad the way he went."
None of Gardner's relatives witnessed the execution, at Gardner's request.
"I would have liked to be there for him. I love him to death. He's my little brother," Randy Gardner said.
Burdell's family opposed the death penalty and asked for Gardner's life to be spared. Relatives of Otterstrom lobbied the parole board to reject Gardner's request for clemency and a reduced sentence.
Otterstrom's cousin, Craig Watson, witnessed the execution on behalf of his family.
A police officer with 35 years on the job, Watson said Gardner accepted the punishment "like a man." Gardner, he noted, seemed calm before the hood was slipped on.
"There was no crying, no wimpering," Watson said Friday. "When it was over with, I just had this feeling that he's gone and we can move on."