19 June, 2010

The death by firing squad of Ronnie Lee Gardner: how our civilized society perpetuates barbarism

Bullet holes in the wood panel after Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by a firing squad

by Jorge Reyes

On Friday, June 18, 2010, the state of Utah ended the life of Ronnie Lee Gardner by firing squad. Shortly before the shooting, Gardner was strapped into a chair and a team of five marksmen aimed their guns at a white target pinned to his chest.

At 12:20 a.m. he was pronounced dead.

Utah adopted lethal injection as the default execution method in 2004, but Gardner was one still allowed to choose the controversial firing squad option because he was sentenced before the law changed. He told his lawyer he did it because he preferred it — not because he wanted the controversy surrounding the execution to draw attention to his case or embarrass the state.

Whatever your personal views on the death penalty, I personally consider this type of execution as barbaric. It is barbaric.

The executioners, all certified police officers, volunteered for this task. All of whom, of course, remain anonymous. They carried the execution standing about 25 feet from Gardner, behind a wall cut with a gunport, armed with a set of .30-caliber Winchester rifles. One was loaded with a blank so no one knows who fired the fatal shot. Sandbags stacked behind Gardner's chair kept the bullets from ricocheting around the cinderblock room.

About nine journalists were allowed to witness the execution. One wrote that before the barrage of bullets killed him, Gardner's left thumb twitched against his forefinger. When his chest was pierced, he clenched his fist, his arm pulling up slowly as if he were trying to lift something.

Gardner was sentenced to death for a 1985 capital murder conviction stemming from the fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell during a failed escape attempt. He was at the Salt Lake City court facing a 1984 murder charge in the shooting death of a bartender.

Last-minute appeals failed
A flurry of last-minute appeals and requests for stays were rejected Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Gov. Gary Herbert.

The Supreme Court turned down three appeals late Thursday, although one of its orders showed that two justices, Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens, would have granted Gardner's request for a stay.

"We are disappointed with the court's decisions, declining to hear Mr. Gardner's case," one of his attorneys, Megan Moriarty, said in a statement to The Associated Press. "It's unfair that he will be executed without a full and fair review of his case."

After a visit with his family, Gardner was moved from his regular cell in a maximum security wing of the Utah State Prison to an observation cell Wednesday night, Department of Corrections officials said.

On Thursday, they said Gardner was spent time sleeping, reading the novel "Divine Justice," watching the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy and meeting with his attorneys and a bishop from the Mormon church. Gehrke said officers described his mood as relaxed.

Quench that thirst!
Although officials had said he planned to fast after having his last requested meal Tuesday, Gardner drank a Coke and a Mountain Dew on Thursday night. His Tuesday meal consisted of steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7UP.

Attorney Andrew Parnes, who has represented Gardner for 12 years, had his last visit with Gardner around 10 p.m. MDT (1 a.m ET Friday). Parnes said Gardner had been focused on other people and programs he wanted to start, including one for at-risk youth.

"He's concerned about how his family is doing. He's concerned about how I'm doing," Parnes said. "He's just really strong. Now is that bravado? I don't know."

Gardner was the third man killed by firing squad in the U.S. since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Although Utah altered its capital punishment law in 2004 to make lethal injection the default method, nine inmates convicted before that date, including Gardner, can still choose the firing squad over lethal injection.

Troubled Life
I don't mean to excuse anyone's bad behavior, especially when this involves murder. But in trying to piece together the tortured life of this man, I found some interesting, if disturbing, biographical information which might help to explain the destiny he was slated to fulfill. Gardner 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.

Not necessarily a perfect childhood. 

After spending 18 months in a state mental hospital and being sexually abused in a foster home, he killed 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 courthouse.

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

Many of us come troubled and dysfunctional family lives. Luckily, few of us decide to take on a gun and become serial killers or murderers. I've always been fascinated by the troubled minds of those few who do. It seems that somewhere in the deep recesses of one's mind, something snaps, something turns into a cauldron of passion which leads to the desire to destroy and annihilate another human being. What that psychic decision is, no one will probably know. What's so frightening for me to come to grips is that, perhaps, all of us are capable of it. The big mystery remains, though, why some do and others don't.

Either way one looks at this, it is a sad, and tragic, ending to a life. Whatever symbolisms and lessons one may learn about the path of destruction Ronnie Lee Gardner left behind, everyone, including himself, is a victim: to the family he destroyed just as much as himself by the death sentence carried by the state against one of its own citizens.

After the execution, reporters were allowed into the execution chamber. There was only the strong smell of bleach, no blood. The only evidence that a man had been executed in here an hour earlier were four small holes in the black wood panels behind the chair.

I ask: after the state carried out its sentence against Gardner, will this bring closure to the families torn asunder by the killing?  will it help us understand why an abused 6 year old kid became a killer?  will it help deter the crime of other 6 year olds in the future?  Those questions won't even start to answer why we even allowed the precious life of a 6 year old fall through the cracks of the system until it was too late.