Utah inmate set for execution by firing squad makes his final appeal for clemency

DRAPER, Utah (AP) — A Utah man set to die by firing squad next week makes his final appeal for clemency Friday, with his attorneys asking the state pardons and parole board to change his sentence to life in prison.

Ronnie Lee Gardner's two-day commutation hearing comes to an end a week before he is set to die for fatally shooting an attorney during a botched escape attempt at a Salt Lake City courthouse in 1985.

On Thursday, Gardner acknowledged that for most of his life he was an impulsive, unapologetic person who looked for trouble. That changed in 1999 as he met with psychologists and began to understand the damages wrought by his dysfunctional family life, Gardner said.

"I'm really remorseful," he said, acknowledging that he had no reasons for killing either the attorney or a bartender, Melvyn Otterstrom, the previous year.

Three members of the five-member board would have to vote for clemency for the sentence to be commuted. The panel plans to announce its decision Monday.

Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker said Gardner "earned his death sentence for an unflagging history of violent crime."

Gardner, 49, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1985 for the fatal shooting of attorney Michael Burdell earlier that year. Gardner shot Burdell while trying to escape from custody at a Salt Lake City courthouse; he was at the courthouse for a hearing on charges that he murdered a Otterstrom the previous year.

Utah law allowed him to chose a firing squad rather than lethal injection because he was sentenced before 2004, when lethal injection became the state's default execution method.

The commutation hearing is one of several avenues Gardner's attorneys have pursued since a warrant for his execution was signed in April.

Earlier this week, attorneys for Gardner asked the Utah Supreme Court to vacate his sentence and order a new sentencing hearing so that a jury could consider mitigating evidence from Gardner's troubled life — early drug addiction, physical and sexual abuse and possible organic brain damage — uncovered during a federal appeal in 1999.

Gardner's attorney, Andrews Parnes, said he believes that a jury's knowledge of that information could have produced a different sentence.

It's unclear when the high court will rule.

Gardner told the board that over the past 10 years, he and his brother have developed plans for an organic farm and residential program for troubled youth on a 160-acre parcel in northern Utah. He said he had earned some $1,300 from selling his artwork and handmade crafts to fund the program and tried garner support for his idea from Oprah Winfrey in 2008.

"I don't want to live for the sake of living," Gardner said. "If I can help somebody and be a positive influence, that's what I want."