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‘I would like the firing squad please. There are no mistakes.’

A condemned man chose death by bullets rather than lethal injection—and he’s not alone


 

Update: Ronnie Lee Gardner’s execution went ahead and he was pronounced dead at 12:17 a.m. on June, 18 after being shot by a firing squad.

Just before midnight on June 17, barring any successful last-minute appeal, convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner will be strapped to a chair in the special execution chamber in Utah’s state prison. A black hood will be placed over his head; a white target pinned above his heart. At 12:01 a.m., five anonymous sharpshooters will cock their .30 calibre rifles, and open fire.

The execution, if it goes ahead, will be the third by firing squad in the U.S. (and Utah) in more than 40 years. And it will have been Gardner’s choice.

Since lethal injection was first introduced in the late 1970s, it has become the primary execution method in all of the 35 states that still have the death penalty. But in several jurisdictions, those sentenced to death can choose something more primitive: in California, for instance, the condemned can opt for the gas chamber; in Washington state, they can elect to be hanged. The macabre firing squad, however, is the rarest. In 2004, Utah, one of the only states to have ever had it on the books, removed it as an option for all those sentenced to death thereafter. (It’s the fallback method in Oklahoma if lethal injection is deemed unconstitutional.) But for those condemned prior to the change, the firing squad is still on offer—and is proving to be a surprisingly popular choice. Including Gardner, five of the 10 men on Utah’s death row have chosen to die by gunfire.

As most Utahns understand it, the firing squad has its roots in the state’s territorial past, and “blood atonement,” a radical 19th-century Mormon concept believed to have required repentance through the spilling of one’s own blood. (The Mormon Church denies propagating this teaching, maintaining that the “atonement of Jesus Christ . . . makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.”) But choosing the firing squad, at least in more modern times, appears to have very little to do with religion. As death penalty opponent Dee Rowland, who represents the Catholic diocese, told the Salt Lake Tribune, death by firing squad “enables [the condemned] to go out in a literal blaze of glory.”

This perception is due, in large part, to the legacy of Gary Gilmore, whose now-infamous 1977 firing-squad execution was the first death sentence carried out in the U.S. in a decade. (Capital punishment was temporarily outlawed after the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional.) At the time, Utah gave the condemned a choice between firing squad or hanging; he chose the former, “because he thought it was a better way to go out than dangling at the end of a rope,” says Michael Esplin, the Utah defence attorney who represented him. The notoriety he gained, however, had more to do with his bravado: though he hadn’t exhausted his appeals, he chose to forge ahead to execution. “He wasn’t going to show fear,” says Esplin. “He was very macho to the end.”

Nearly two decades passed before Utah rounded up the firing squad again. By then, Gilmore’s story had been immortalized in popular culture (Norman Mailer’s book, The Executioner’s Song, won a Pulitzer). Meanwhile, the widespread adoption of lethal injection, a decidedly more clinical method, increased the perception of the firing squad as a relic of Old West-style justice. No fewer than 150 camera crews descended on Utah for the 1996 execution of John Albert Taylor, a child-killer who’d chosen gunfire over injection, which had by then replaced hanging as the other option offered to the condemned, because, a reporter recalls him saying, he didn’t want to “lay on the table and flip around like a fish out of water.” (The international attention prompted Utah legislators to amend the law.)

Gardner appears to have been motivated by similar concerns. Sentenced to death in 1985 for killing Utah lawyer Michael Burdell during an escape attempt at a Salt Lake City courthouse, he initially chose death by firing squad. Though he has, over the years, changed his mind on several occasions, apparently out of concern for his children, he reverted to gunfire in 1996, telling the Deseret News, “there are no mistakes.”

According to his attorney, Andrew Parnes, Gardner’s most recent declaration—when the current death warrant was issued on April 23, he told a judge, “I would like the firing squad, please”—came after pondering both methods again. “Being aware of the problems that have happened with lethal injections,” says Parnes, “he just thought that [the firing squad] would be quicker; more sure.” (Gardner is also serving a life sentence for a 1984 Utah murder.)

To others, however, the firing squad is also a means to a political end. White supremacist Troy Kell, who has chosen to die in a hail of bullets when his death sentence, imposed for killing a fellow inmate in 1994, is carried out, “understands that it’s going to bring a lot of negative media attention,” says attorney Aric Cramer, who used to represent him. “He wanted to choose the thing that would make the state the most uncomfortable.” Similarly, Cramer says his former client Ron Lafferty, another death-row inmate who has opted for the firing squad, reasoned: “If you’re going to make me choose, I’m going to choose the worst thing possible.”

According to Sheryl Allen, the Republican representative who was behind the push to remove the firing squad as an option, legislators opted not to make the amendment apply to death sentences rendered prior to its passage, because “it would prolong the appeals” of those who’d already chosen to die by gunfire. But the reality, says Kent Hart, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is that those cases are already so tied up by appeals that it could be decades before all of their death sentences are carried out.

Gardner’s time, however, is running out. If the courts aren’t convinced that he deserves clemency, he will be executed later this month, presumably amid a flurry of media attention; the gruesome event will be attended by his family, his victims’ families and journalists—which, says Parnes, was never his client’s intention. “This is not a show,” says Parnes. “If he could choose, he would certainly do it privately.” That, however, is one choice that’s not his to make.


 

‘I would like the firing squad please. There are no mistakes.’

  1. Baffling; how is the firing squad any worse than lethal injection? Were I in the convict's shoes and had a choice, I'd always choose a firing squad. Better on several grounds: less puerile for the condemned, probably faster, and (to this guy's point), fewer errors with five guys shooting and one with a pistol ready for the coups de grace. Better for the state, too; hell, it might even be cheaper all in.

    I understand it's a great media story, but if you're going to execute people I'm not sure I see the controversy over using guns to do it.

    • Lethal injection often fails to be entirely lethal, or quick, and leaves the executed in agony. If we were looking for a humane way to kill people, we could look at the way we euthanize animals. The lethal injection protocol was not designed to be humane or effective.

      • Let them suffer

      • I read a while ago that the method used for lethal injection on humans isn't actually a legal method of euthanizing animals in , because it is too unreliable and because it causes undue suffering when it fails.

    • Because the injection is a faster method of death. It just spreads within your body almost instantly whereas guns wouldn’t kill instantly unless aimed at the right places and they would also be the cause of much more pain before death than an injection. Aside from that, what is being argued is whether or not we should allow the condemned to go out in a “blaze of glory” as they say and attrct the media’s attention or not. Lastly, a death by firing squad is more entertaining to people and we should begin to worry about how this violence could influence the minds of those around us.

    • I guess it is in the eye of the beholder.

  2. Having been a sniper in the 101st Airborne in Vietnam (1968-69), I can tell anyone who's reading this that death by a well-placed 7.62mm is the way to go. I've probably seen more deaths-by-gun than any member of an LA or Chicago street gang. It's fast and painless, if a little messy. I would choose firing squad over lethal injection in, as it were, a heartbeat.

  3. It's ironic. The methods of execution for which the public has the least appetite, presumably for being the most gruesome, are the most humane.

    Guillotine, while messy and gory, is said to be, medically speaking, the least painful way to die with the fewest mistakes. Good luck on ever having it institutes as a means of execution, though. Lethal injection, on the other hand, has suffered set-backs from concerns over mistakes.

    Go figure. Personally, I'm in favor of capital punishment. These creeps who think they can manipulate the system to draw scrutiny towards the death penalty have absolutely none of my sympathy. May God have mercy of their souls, but on this earth, they've worn out their welcomes.

    • Americans are obsessed with bloodless executions. If you're going to have state-sponsored murder, you should be prepared to accept a little spilled blood.

    • Amen

      • praise the lawd

    • I, however, find myself to be against the capital punishment because I strongly believe that the people who are executed do not end up suffering too much. The whole idea of the capital punishment is to make the person suffer as he/she did with others. And, generally, these people have murdered many others. I stand firmly in my belief that they should be given a life sentence, but a true full life sentence so that they end up rotting in jail. Then and only then will they understand the suffering that they have caused others. Also, during this life sentence they should not be allowed to have any contact with their families the reason being that they’ve deprived others of their family members.

  4. Firing squad is too good for guys like this – it's the method of execution used for spies…and there is nothing inherently dishonorable about being a spy.

    I'm not a fan of capital punishment in our society – in my view we've lost that right – but if people are going to do it I think the method should be something specific to convicts like hanging, electric chair, or lethal injection.

    • If the idea is to make it painful, I'm sure we could do something more imaginative than the electric chair. We could draw and quarter, disembowel, drop them in a vat of acid, etc. You could make the process of killing them an excrutiating 72 hour ordeal.

      Frankly, the idea that people want state-sponsored murder and torture is disturbing in the extreme. I sure as hell don't trust that power in anyone's hands.

      • "If the idea is to make it painful, I'm sure we could do something more imaginative …Frankly, the idea that people want state-sponsored murder and torture is disturbing in the extreme. "

        Are you replying to someone in particular? Because I don't see anyone here advocating what you seem to be arguing against.

    • I'm interested in why you think we've lost the right in our society to impose capital punishment. Can you take that idea a bit further?

      • Good question.
        I view societies much the same way I view individuals: the authority one wields should be proportional to the maturity one has.

        We don't allow 10-year-olds to drive a car – not because they can't do it, but because we don't think they are mature enough to handle that kind of responsibility without endangering themselves and others.

        Likewise with our current society: we have lost the understanding that human life is precious, and that innocent human life cannot be terminated out of convenience. In terms of ethics, we have regressed to a very infantile stage of selfishness and irresponsibility. A society like this is not equipped to handle the responsibility of meting out death in punishment.

        • thanks – I tend to agree with you, at least as far as the assessment of society's maturity, for sure. Our Canadian judicial system seems to struggle more and more as time goes on, which supports your concern.
          I always get stuck on the big question though – if our society is increasing in maturity (or progressing, to use another word) should we head towards capital punishment or away from it, ultimately?

  5. if people are going to do it I think the method should be something specific to convicts like hanging, electric chair, or lethal injection

    I think we should use the method that causes the least pain, and ends things the quickest, whoever we're executing (though, I oppose capitol punishment based largely, though not entirely, on the large number of innocent people who've almost been executed, and the fact that innocent people have surely been executed in the past, and will continue to be, however rarely). If capitol punishment is on the books though, and one can't be certain which method is truly fastest and least painful (and I'm not sure that we can) then I don't disagree with giving convicts the choice of whatever are considered the "best" options.

    When it comes to execution though, given the obvious flaws in our system (as good as it is), I say, "Shoot none of them, and let God sort it out".

  6. I've never cared for the idea of lethal injection. Death shouldn't be a medical procedure, it seems so much more sinister, same thing with the gas chamber. A firing squad, a scaffold or a guillotine all, though more violent, seem more honest.

  7. I think there should be an element of uncertainty, so that God can have some input. If they were to be pushed out of an airplane without a parachute for example, then two things are accomplished; they have time in free fall to consider their sins, and seek repentence, and then there is always the element of uncertainty, as some have fallen from airplanes and lived. Therefore death is not certain should God so will, and this should appeal to the liberal.

    • You're a nutjob.

  8. I strongly oppose the idea of giving criminals their choice of death, it makes it seem as though they are the ones in the power position instead of the judges. I think there should one way of execution, and the firing squad seems like a good idea because it is a fast way to die without mistakes as opposed to a different method of killing like the lethal injection where the people "flop like a fish out of water" and because of this, the people watching would think this was unnatural and undignified. Everyone should die with (some) dignity left and peacefully because whether you know it or not, everyone is affected when a person dies.

  9. Believe it or not, from everything I've ever read about all the methods
    ever used in this country (which excludes the guillotine) – firing squad,
    hanging, electric chair, gas chamber, or lethal injection – the one that
    seems to be the most painless and cleanest, if you will, is the gas chamber. It's nothing like you see on TV, where the condemned is jerking and kicking. You just take 1 or 2 breaths of that cyanide, and
    it literally knocks you out, and you're dead in a minute or 2. You might
    vomit or drool from the mouth, but supposedly it's quite painless and
    not very messy.

  10. Gun-crazy right to the very end. :)

  11. This reminds me of that old Far Side cartoon, where a guy is strapped in the electric chair, and the two prison guards have just flipped the switch, but nothing happened. One guard says to the other, "The contact points must be a little dirty. Just flip it up and down a few times."

  12. Okay. I am almost finish with my degree in Criminal Justice. My question to this case is where was the treament for this prisoner when he was a child. Has anyone ever thought that if treament had taken place that he might have gotten over a lot of the anger that he had for people and himself.
    I understand the fact that he had taken a life and I agree with the punishment as well. I have nothing against Capital Punishment at all. However, with that being said, I would like to read more into this story and just seek out what type of treatment and or programs that were given to him as a child.
    There are times when adults do "nothing" to help the childs anger, negativity, emothions, ect. because they are too damn caught up with theirselves. Therefore, over the years with no treatment………….Who fault is it really? Did we just lock him up all those times just to do time or did we lock him up and provide therapy, treatment, medications. Better yet……was he ever assigned a mentor, therapist that truly cared, someone just to listen……Hummmm, probably not if truth be know.

  13. umm, when he was a child? he didnt commit the crime as a child did he? and i think that murderers, pedofiles, rapists etc. should be tortured before death

  14. I have lived in Utah for 59 years. The Mormon church is not telling the truth when it says it did not propagate the donctrine of "blood attonement". In fact, up until 1989 they still had mock slitting of throats and disembowling themselves if they did not live up the to commitments they made because blood attonement was the only way. Also, in the Journal of Discourses we hear Brigham Young say,"There is not a man or woman who violates the covenants made with their God, that will not be required to pay the debt. The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it;…."

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