Without reprieve, Utah man will face firing squad execution after 25 years on death row

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Midnight in the firing squad chamber approaches for Ronnie Lee Gardner — a self-described "nasty little bugger" — whose childhood of neglect, drug-addiction and ever escalating crime led to double murder by age 24 and a quarter-century waiting for his own execution.

Barring the success of any final appeals, that moment will arrive shortly after 12:01 a.m. Friday. Petitions are pending before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver and the U.S. Supreme Court.

If executed, Gardner will become the first person put to death by firing squad in the United States in 14 years.

Although he has spoken emotionally in recent days of his desire to start a program to help troubled youth, Gardner acknowledged to a parole board of his own tortured trajectory: "It would have been a miracle if I didn't end up here."

Gardner, 49, was sentenced to death for a 1985 capital murder conviction stemming from the fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell during an escape attempt. Gardner was at the court because he faced a murder charge in the shooting death of bartender Melvyn Otterstrom.

One pyschology professor testified before the parole board that Gardner was almost a perfect model for understanding "extreme or violent behavior."

He first came to the attention of authorities at age 2 as he was found walking alone on a street clad only in a diaper. At age 6 he became addicted to sniffing gasoline and glue. Harder drugs — LSD and heroin — followed by age 10. By then Gardner was tagging along with his stepfather as a lookout on robberies, according to court documents.

At 11, Gardner was sent to live in a state mental hospital. He had no diagnosed mental illness, but child welfare officials thought he was better off there than at home. He was released about 18 months later. A trouble-maker, he had difficulty at school and often looked for a fight and "ran away from every institution they put me in." In court transcripts Gardner says he only completed his education through the fourth grade.

There were stints in the state industrial school and a stay in a foster home, where he was sexually abused. He had his first child, a girl, at about 16. A boy followed a few years later.

Violent, easily angered and out of control, he killed for the first time — Otterstrom — at age 23. About six months later, at 24, he shot Burdell in the face as the attorney hid behind a door in the chaotic courthouse.

"I had a very explosive temper," Gardner said last week. "Even my mom said it was like I had two personalities."

Decades later, Gardner now says he is calmer, wiser and remorseful. He claims his desire is now to help young people avoid making the kind of mistakes that landed him on death row. He and his brother would like to run a 160-acre organic farm and residential program for at-risk youth.

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

But some doubt that Gardner is, or could ever be, reformed.

Tami Stewart's father, George "Nick" Kirk, was a bailiff at the courthouse the day of Gardner's botched escape. Shot and wounded in the lower abdomen, Kirk suffered chronic health problems the rest of his life and became frustrated by the lack of justice Gardner's years of appeals afforded him, Stewart said.

Stewart said she's not happy about the idea of Gardner's death, but she believes it will bring her family some closure.

"I think at that moment, he will feel that fear that his victims felt," she said.

Newspaper accounts of Burdell's funeral in Salt Lake City from 25 years ago, note that his friends and family had prayed for Gardner, asking that he might be transformed.

On Tuesday, Burdell's father, Joseph Burdell, Jr., said Gardner's desire to help troubled kids is proof that some tranformation has come. He said he has no need for any apologies.

"I understand that he wants to apologize. I think it would be difficult for him," he said by phone from his Cary, N.C., home. "Twenty-five years is a long time, he's not the same man."

At his commutation hearing, Gardner shed a tear after telling the board his attempts to apologize to the Otterstroms and Kirks had been unsucessful. He said he hoped for forgiveness.

"If someone hates me for 20 years, it's going to affect them," Gardner said. "I know killing me is going to hurt them just as bad. It's something you have to live with every day. You can't get away from it. I've been on the other side of the gun. I know."