Should killer get 'one last hurrah'?


Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Ronnie Lee Gardner doesn't deserve something as flashy as a final, brilliant blaze of bullets, like some bad guy in an old Hollywood western says a friend his victim.


Joe O'Connor, National Post · Thursday, Jun. 17, 2010

It bothers Craig Watson, because it is not right. Ronnie Lee Gardner does not deserve the attention he has been getting and he certainly does not deserve to die like this, in a final, brilliant blaze of bullets, like some bad guy in an old Hollywood western.

“I feel very strongly that he chose the firing squad just because of the notoriety he would get,” says Mr. Watson, whose cousin and best boyhood pal, Melvyn Otterstrom, was shot in the face and left to die by Mr. Gardner during a botched robbery in Salt Lake City in 1984. “He is getting a lot of attention by doing this, worldwide, and I think he is having his one last hurrah.”

Barring a last-minute reprieve, Ronnie Lee Gardner will be strapped to a chair in Utah’s State Prison shortly after midnight Friday. A black hood, unless he declines it, will be placed over his head, a white target pinned to his chest. Five marksmen, four with live ammunition, and one with a blank, will load their weapons, take aim and end the multiple-murderer’s life after 25 years on death row.

A near anomaly among the 35 death penalty states, Utah is a former frontier territory where the guilty choose how they want to die. [Their options: lethal injection or a five-man firing squad.] The state’s Wild West, guns-a-blazing alternative, is gradually becoming a relic from the past. Any killer sentenced to be executed since 2004 is limited to lethal injection, but Gardner was condemned long before that for murdering attorney Mike Burdell while attempting to escape from Salt Lake’s courthouse in 1985.

“I would like the firing squad, please,” the 49-year-old told a judge authorizing his death warrant in April.

Gardner will be the third person executed by firing squad in Utah — and the entire United States — since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the ultimate penalty 34 years ago. Gary Gilmore, immortalized by author Norman Mailer in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Executioneer’s Song, was the first to die in 1977. His famous last words: “Let’s do this.”

Albert Taylor faced the gun in 1996. Mr. Gardner was next in line. At least three other Utah inmates have requested a similar fate when their time comes. “We do things differently in the West and the firing squad has been a part of our history,” says Paul Ray, a Utah state representative and staunch death penalty advocate in a jurisdiction where 79% of the voters support it. “It is a part of our history that is coming to an end.”

It is a past entwined with Mormonism, a religion claiming 1.7 million followers in a state with 2.8 million people. Blood atonement is a Mormon belief that has been gathering dust with the passing of the generations. Back in the 1800s, when Joseph Smith’s fledgling church was just finding its feet, Mormons believed the only way murderers could be forgiven by God was to shed their own blood.

Excluding Gardner, 40 of the 49 executions in Utah since 1850 have been by firing squad. State legislators began contemplating the end of the practice in the wake of a sensationalist circus surrounding the execution of Taylor in 1996, an event that attracted 150 media outlets. Support for the ban was widespread, though not universal.

“A couple of people in prominent positions said to me, ‘We’ve got to have blood atonement,’” state representative Sheryl Allen told the Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview.

Gardner alluded to blood atonement in a 1996 interview when asked why he wanted to die by firing squad. “I guess it’s my Mormon heritage,” he said.

Mr. Ray, the politician, was raised in a Mormon household. He has never heard a sermon or reference made to divine forgiveness through spilled blood. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, meanwhile, has distanced itself from blood atonement and has no official position regarding the death penalty.

“I don’t think any of this [is rooted in blood atonement],” Mr. Ray said. “It’s more of a western issue, I think. Back in the day you stole a horse and they would either hang you or shoot you.”

Gardner made his choice. The Utah Supreme Court made theirs, rejecting his final pleas for clemency. Marksmen were selected. A guilty man’s reckoning had come.

Craig Watson plans to be there to witness Gardner’s final moments. Jason Otterstrom, the son Mel Otterstrom never knew, is going to be there with him.

“It will be bittersweet,” Mr. Watson said. “Bitter because another human being is going to lose their life, but sweet because once he has been executed our family won’t have to go through hell every time his name comes back up in the media and we have to hear stories about how his arthritis is bothering him and how cruel and inhumane it is for him to be locked up in prison for 25 years.

“Being frank with you, that is a bunch of nonsense. He is a damn murderer.”






Anger begets anger, violence begets violence. The notion of taking a life as "punishment" is not so much punishment as revenge to satisfy the political decrees of the day.

There have been countless examples of innocent men being executed and even more spending decades on death row only to be exonerated with DNA evidence. The number of cases where DNA evidence is available after decades is only a very small percentage of death row cases. To gain an idea of the wrongfully convicted and wrongfully sentenced to death, you can multiple those exonerated on death row by several times.

That means, there is always a risk that the person on death row, is innocent. In the present case, apparently those condemned have admitted their guilt. If they have the balls to admit their guilt, then perhaps they may have something to offer society rather than the satisfaction of revenge.

American notions of revenge dominate their justice system without apparently any concern for the value of a human life.