Utah firing squad highlights death-penalty debate
Ronnie Lee Gardner, the murderer executed by a firing squad in Utah early Friday, died in a manner that even the state that killed him no longer wants to use.
Los Angeles Times
DENVER — Ronnie Lee Gardner, the murderer executed by a firing squad in Utah early Friday, died in a manner that even the state that killed him no longer wants to use.
Utah, which has been the only state to use a firing squad since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1977, banned its use in 2004. It allowed only a handful of inmates already on death row, including Gardner, to opt for the method to avoid appeals that could further delay the convicts' executions.
The state did not have any qualms about the legitimacy of the practice when it enacted the ban.
"We had come to a point in Utah where execution by firing squad was overshadowing the victim and the crime," said Ron Gordon, who was then director of the state's Sentencing Commission, which recommended the ban. "It attracts a lot of attention. A lot of people talk about how this is the wild, wild West and Utah is shooting people."
Yet several who study the death penalty say the firing squad may be a more humane way to be executed than the more bloodless method that has replaced it in Utah, lethal injection.
Legal challenges to lethal injection essentially stalled all executions in the United States for seven months until the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 issued guidelines on the practice.
Problems persist; in September, executioners spent two hours unsuccessfully trying to inject lethal drugs into a death-penalty inmate, who at one point tried to help medical workers find the right vein. It's unclear whether the courts will allow him to be brought into the death chamber a second time.
Yet the firing squad generates much more revulsion, said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University who has studied execution techniques over the centuries.
"The anti-death-penalty people think it's barbaric, and the pro-death-penalty people think it detracts from capital punishment," she said. "But when you think of all the methods, the firing squad would be the most dignified."
To some, Utah's reluctance to continue using the firing squad highlights the paradox of capital punishment.
"It's this conundrum that U.S. society is faced with; we want a system of justice that will put people to death, but we want it to be palatable," said Laura Moye of Amnesty International, which campaigns against the death penalty. "If you want a system of justice that takes human life, you can't do it palatably."
Gardner, 49, was killed early Friday. He was strapped to a chair inside a state prison, his head hooded and a target affixed to his chest. Asked if he had any final words, he said: "I do not. No."
Five marksmen fired and Gardner slumped. Within two minutes, a medical examiner declared him dead.
In 1985, Gardner was facing trial for killing Melvyn Otterstrom, a bartender in Salt Lake City, when a girlfriend slipped him a gun at the courthouse. He shot his way out, wounding a bailiff and killing defense attorney Michael Burdell. He was sentenced to life in prison for the Otterstrom murder and to death for Burdell's.
Burdell's family pleaded with the state to spare Gardner's life, arguing that his second victim, an ardent pacifist, opposed the death penalty. Four jurors told the state Board of Appeals they would vote to give Gardner life in prison if they had the option today.
But Gardner's pleas for clemency and a new sentence were swiftly denied this week, all the way to the Supreme Court. Four other inmates on Utah's death row could be executed by firing squad.
Along with hanging, the firing squad was once the customary way to execute criminals in the U.S., Denno said. It has persisted in Utah as a vestige of the old Mormon belief of blood atonement for sins, she said.
In the rest of the country, Denno said, the firing squad began to be phased out at the start of the 20th century with the introduction of the electric chair, which was viewed as more humane. That method is often frowned upon nowadays, after some high-profile problems, including a string of cases in Florida in the 1990s, when flames shot out of prisoners' heads as they were executed.
Lethal injection is by far the most common form of execution currently.
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