David Shepherd: News Blog

Journalist's Notebook

Utah Executes Man By Firing Squad; First in 14 Years

By: David Shepherd [dshepherd@wtwo.com]

Witnesses to the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner say it happened very quick as four out of the five marksmen fired .30-caliber bullets into his chest shortly after midnight Friday, marking the first time an inmate has been executed by firing squad in Utah in 14 years.

Four of the guns used live ammo while one shot blanks so none of the marksmen knew who actually fired the fatal shot.  An unidentified journalist who witnessed the execution told NBC News he was expecting Gardner to flinch as he was executed.  Instead, he described the process as so quick that, for a split second, he wondered if it had actually happened.

The first thing witnesses saw when the warden pulled back the curtain of the execution chamber was the 49-year-old Gardner strapped to a metal chair; his head held in place by a strap across his forehead and straps across his chest.  A target was placed over his heart and his hands were handcuffed at his sides.

Moments before the shots were fired, Gardner’s thumbs twitched.  As the bullets pierced his chest, his fist clenched.  His blood pooled through his dark blue prison jumpsuit. At 12:20 a.m, Gardner was pronounced dead.

One witness said, “The silence was deafening.”

A Life Of Crime and Turmoil

Ronnie Lee Gardner’s life was filled with turmoil.  Most of his life was spent behind bars.  Court documents show Gardner became addicted to sniffing gasoline and glue when he was only 6-years-old.  By age 10, he was addicted to LSD and heroin.  Around the same time in his life, court documents revealed his stepfather used him as a lookout on robberies.

Gardner spent much of his teen life in a foster home where he says he was sexually abused.  At age 23, he spent 18 months in a state mental hospital.  Six months after his release, at the age of 24, he shot and killed a bartender.  In 1985, while on trial for the bartender’s murder, Gardner shot and killed attorney Michael Burdell using a gun smuggled to him in an attempt to escape.

O. Wallace Kasteler / AP

In 2004, Utah adopted lethal injection as the default method of execution.  Because Gardner was sentenced before the law changed, he was able to choose being executed by firing squad.  According to NBC News, Gardner told his lawyer he preferred to be executed by firing squad.  Though he made that choice, he spent the following years aggressively fighting his capital sentence.

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June 18, 2010 - Posted by | News & Current Events, Polls, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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