Utah parole board denies clemency to condemned man set to die by firing squad

DRAPER, Utah (AP) — A condemned Utah inmate has lost his bid for clemency from a state parole board, making his execution by firing squad on Friday more likely than ever.

Ronnie Lee Gardner had asked the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole to show mercy and commuted his death sentence to life in prison without parole. The board denied the request on a unanimous vote, chairman Curtis Garner said Monday at hearing inside the Utah State Prison.

In its written rationale, the board said the jury's verdict imposing Gardner's death sentence 25 years ago was not inappropriate and that no sufficient reason exists to grant clemency or to commute the convicted killer's sentence.

Gardner was sentenced to death in 1985 after being convicted of fatally shooting an attorney during a botched escape attempt at a courthouse. Gardner was in court that day to face murder charges in another slaying.

"Gardner makes no claim of innocence and admits that he is guilty of each of the crimes of which he has been convicted," Garner said Monday.

Commutation was just one of several legal options attorneys have pursued on Gardner's behalf since a state judge signed an execution warrant in April.

Family members of several of Gardner's victims sat holding hands as Garner read the board's decision.

"I really thought they would change it over to life," said a relieved Tami Stewart, whose father, George "Nick" Kirk, was shot and wounded by Gardner in 1985. "I don't feel happy, but it needed to be done. That's hard for me to say, because I feel sorry for him, but the jury made their decision."

Gardner, 49, testified last week at the parole board's hearing but was not present when the decision was announced.

"We're obviously disappointed in the outcome, but we'll forge ahead," his attorney Andrew Parnes said before heading back inside the prison to talk to his client.

The last time Utah granted clemency to a condemned man was in 1962. The board's decision cannot be appealed, but Gardner's lawyers can challenge the process, and they already have in federal court.

Gardner still has an appeal pending before the Utah Supreme Court, and Parnes has said he may still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The execution is set to take place early Friday. Gardner chose a five-member firing squad over lethal injection. It's an option that is no longer available to death row inmates in Utah, but Gardner's case was among those grandfathered in before the law changed in 2004.

At a two-day commutation hearing last week, the five-member parole board heard nearly eight hours of testimony about Gardner's troubled life and history of violent crime.

For more than two hours, they questioned Gardner and heard about his plans for an organic farm and residential program for at-risk youth. He said he believes he could help young people avoid making the kind of mistakes that landed him on death row.

"There's no better example in this state of what not to do," Gardner told the board.

Gardner was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die in the 1985 fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell. The shooting came during a botched escape attempt Gardner had planned over several months with an accomplice. He was in court that day to face murder charges for the 1984 shooting death of bartender Melvyn Otterstrom.

Burdell's family opposes the death penalty and had asked the board to spare Gardner's life. The Otterstrom family, and relatives of a bailiff, George "Nick" Kirk, who was shot and seriously injured during the courthouse incident, lobbied against a reduced sentence of life in prison without parole.

Gardner expressed his remorse and said he's spent much of the last 10 years learning to overcome a dysfunctional family situation riddled with physical abuse and drug use.

Kirk's widow, VelDean Kirk, said she doesn't believe Gardner has changed "for a minute" and she was happy when she heard the board's decision. Nick Kirk, who was working as bailiff during the courthouse shooting, was left with chronic health problems after being shot in the lower abdomen by Gardner. He died in 1995.

"I feel like on Thursday night, Friday morning, it will all be over with. It will be real, real closure," said VelDean Kirk, who plans to watch Gardner's execution. "I've wanted that for a long time."