On Friday, Ronnie Lee Gardner, a death-row inmate in the state of Utah, was executed by a five-man firing squad. This is only the third time in 33 years that this method of execution has been used in the United States.
Mr. Gardner (49) was sentenced to death in 1985, after killing lawyer Michael Burdell in a botched escape attempt from a courthouse. At the time, he was facing a murder charge for shooting Melvyn Otterstrom, a bartender.
Shortly after midnight in the Utah Department of Corrections in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, five anonymous rifle marksmen fired from a distance of 25 feet at a target pinned on Mr. Gardner’s chest. Mr. Gardner, who wore a black hood over his head and was tightly strapped to a metal chair, was pronounced dead two minutes after the shooting.
In keeping with the practice of previous firing squads — the last such execution was in 1996 — one of the five .30 calibre Winchester rifles used was loaded with blanks. This was designed to create room for doubt regarding which marksmen had fired the lethal rounds.
According to reports, journalists from the local media who witnessed the execution reported that Mr. Gardner’s arm had “twitched up and down” after the firing squad had discharged their weapons. “It was cleaner than I expected. It was fast. But he moved. He moved a little bit, and to some degree that bothers me,” reports quoted Cheryl Worsley, a local radio reporter as saying.
Execution by firing squad was banned in Utah since 2004; yet Mr. Gardner had been permitted to opt for it as the law did not apply retrospectively and he had been sentenced prior to 2004.
The BBC quoted Gary DeLand, former executive director of Utah’s corrections agency and an acquaintance of Mr. Gardner during the early years of his imprisonment as saying that he was not surprised by Mr. Gardner’s request for the firing squad. Mr. DeLand said, “We don't know why Gardner chose this method but one prisoner who had chosen the firing squad basically said if he was going to die, he wanted someone to have to clean up the mess.”
He added that Mr. Gardner was a particularly violent man and was kept away from other inmates. “He was the kind of person who would harm others for the sport of it, and enjoyed causing trouble,” Mr. DeLand said.
The Gardner case has renewed the sometimes wrenching debate on the death penalty in the U.S., especially as the firing squad method was considered by many to be a medieval form of “Wild West-style justice”.
Yet there were strangely modern twists in the plot as Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff announced his final approval for the execution on the micro-blogging site Twitter. “I just gave the go-ahead to Corrections Department to proceed with Gardner’s execution,” Mr. Shurtleff said on posting to the website, adding, “May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims.”
No final words
Reports said that Mr. Gardner had been asked if he had any final words and said: “I do not. No.” He was also said to have had his final meal — steak, lobster, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7-Up — on Tuesday, embarking on a 48-hour fast before his execution.
On his final day, Mr. Gardner had said his goodbyes to his brother and daughter through prison bars after which he had met his attorney. He was said to have requested that none of his family members be present at the execution.
At a press conference after the execution, Mr. Shurtleff said, “For us, the fact that we have exercised the most extreme power that the state has, that the government has, to take life, was done very solemnly. It is a very sobering moment.”