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.