The shots rang out in Utah this morning as Ronnie Lee Gardner, who used a handgun to kill two men, died by the method he chose after his sentencing: firing squad. It was Utah’s first firing squad execution in 14 years.
Here’s the ABC News report:
As ABC News reports, witnesses gave accounts of their reaction to it that were not always quite the same. Here are a few press reports.
With two loud bangs in quick succession, Ronnie Lee Gardner’s quarter century on Utah’s death row ended.
At 17 minutes past midnight Friday, Utah Department of Corrections officials confirmed the death of a man whose life was defined by sex abuse, drug addiction, poverty, criminality and murder.
But in the final hours of his life, friends and family members said, Gardner was at peace.
And in his final minutes, witnesses said, the calm, condemned man exchanged private words with Utah’s prison chief before being strapped to the execution chair and asked if he had any final words.
“I do not. No,” he said.
Ahood was pulled over his head. An executioner counted back from five. The shots rang out.
If the man known as one of Utah’s most notorious criminals was a monster, family members said, it was only as a result of his abusive upbringing. And Gardner’s appellate attorneys long had argued that if his jurors had known more about his childhood, they would have sentenced him to life in prison, instead of death.
Ronnie Lee Gardner’s head, covered by a black hood, remained upright.
His body sat straight in the chair to which it was strapped.
As my eyes traveled down Gardner’s left arm, past his dark blue jumpsuit, I saw his pale white skin appear below his elbow. Half a faded blue tattoo, some kind of diamond shape, stuck out from the restraint around his wrist.
At the bottom of his restraint, I focused on his fist. Gardner died much the way he lived — with a clenched fist.
Yes, this was my first time witnessing an execution. I have been amazed at how many people asked me that.
Firing four bullets into a man’s chest is, by definition, violent. If it can also be clinical and sterile, then that also happened in this execution.
AND further down, after the hood is placed over Gardner’s head:
I watched Gardner. As the seconds passed, I grew anxious. I pivoted my eyes away from Gardner toward the slits.
… I heard “boom boom.” The sounds were as close together as you could spew them from your mouth.
My eyes darted back to Gardner and to his chest. The target, perfect just a second earlier, had three holes. The largest hole was in the top half of the circle and toward Gardner’s left side. It may have been where two bullets entered Gardner.
Below that hole, still inside the circle, was a smaller hole. Outside the circle, in the bottom right of the target, was a third hole. Each hole had a black outline. Utah Department of Corrections Director Tom Patterson would say later the target was fastened to the jump suit by Velcro and that may account for the black outline.
….I saw Gardner move his left arm. He pushed it forward about 2 inches against the restraints. In that same motion, he closed his hand and made a fist.
Then it happened in reverse. Gardner’s hand loosened, his arm bent at the elbow, straightened again and the fist returned. At the time, I interpreted this as Gardner suffering — clenching his fist in an effort to fight the pain.
….The next movement I saw from Gardner came from beneath his hood. I could see the bottom of his throat and it rippled as though Gardner moved his jaw.
..I squinted my eyes, looking for blood. I saw none through the holes in Gardner’s chest. None spilled on the floor. The jump suit slightly darkened around his waist and it appeared that’s where blood was pooling. But I never saw a drop
When an official checked to see if Garnder was alive, Carlisle could get a glimpse of the prisoner’s face:”His mouth was agape. His face was even whiter than it was before the hood covered him.”
Go to the link to read the account in its entirety.
At a press conference held about an hour after the execution, witnesses from various press agencies described in detail what they saw. Fields Moseley, a reporter for CBS affiliate KUTV, was a witness to the execution, and at the press conference he stated that he felt the shooting death was very violent and not at all clinical. Other reporters, however, felt differently and described the scene as almost sanitary.
All press witnesses made reference to Gardner clenching his hand from the moments right before the shooting and until the curtain was drawn on the witness viewing rooms. At one point after the shooting Gardner’s hand relaxed and then tensed up again according to witnesses.
In an eyewitness account, Associated Press reporter Jennifer Dobner wrote, “There was no blood splattered across the white cinderblock wall at the Utah State Prison. No audible sounds from the condemned. I couldn’t see his eyes. I never saw the guns and didn’t hear the countdown to the trigger-pull.”
To provide more context for what happened, Utah’s ABC4 news interviewed their station’s reporter Paul Murphy who attended two other firing squad executions in Utah. Here’s part of that interview:
What follows are some of Murphy’s thoughts about the executions he witnessed more than a decade ago.
Paul Murphy, execution witness:
“It was a hard decision but I thought for history’s sake it was important to be an eyewitness because so few people could see
the government’s severest penalty and I wanted to make sure I was a good eyewitness for the public.”
“The lethal injection – I was bothered by the fact I wasn’t bothered by it. It looked like I was coming into a hospital and watching a
very minor medical procedure, watching somebody being put to sleep.”
ABC 4: “You were shaken when you saw the firing squad execution?”
Murphy: “I was. I was disoriented, I couldn’t catch my breath, I had a knot in my stomach.”
“A firing squad is a more honest method of execution because it is what it seems to be – which is a man being put to death for his crimes.”
“I wish the public could see what I saw and that’s why I wanted to be there as a reporter because this is being done in their name.”
ABC 4:”Would you ever want to witness another execution?”
Murphy: “Uh, boy, I don’t know. I don’t know if I ever want to see that again.”
In this latest execution, Murphy, who now works for the state’s Attorney General, is involved in briefing reporters.
Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor raises the issue of whether firing squad exections are more humane than other methods — a rhetorical can of worms due to the fact that some Americans are completely against the death penalty. Here’s part of that piece:
There is some evidence that firing squad is less “barbaric” than lethal injection, says John Holdridge, director of the Capital Punishment Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which campaigns against the death penalty.
A Utah inmate who in 1938 agreed to be shot to death while hooked up to an electrocardiogram showed complete heart death within one minute of the firing squad’s shots. By contrast, research shows that a lethal injection – if done properly – takes about nine minutes to kill an inmate.
Polls show public support of the death penalty has been dropping steadily since the 1990s, partly because of the number of convictions shown to be wrong by The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.
Mr. Holdridge says the number of proven, wrongful executions has now reached 138. And Cleveland-based criminal defense attorney Elizabeth Kelley says that 250 exonerations of death-row defendants in recent years, coupled with medical procedural TV shows such as CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” have made the public more sophisticated about the fallibility of scientific evidence.
Holdridge says the Gardner execution by firing squad will be more dramatic and argues that it will raise more public opposition to the death penalty itself than would a lethal injection, which makes the death appear more humane and clinical.
“The Gardner execution really brings to the spotlight what we are doing – exterminating a human life in a deliberate, premeditated fashion,” Holdridge says. He notes that one of the five rifles is loaded with a blank round so that each shooter is uncertain about whether or not he fired a fatal shot.
Meanwhile, the BBC notes that this 21st century execution was also “Death by Twitter”:
It was a very modern way to announce a very old-fashioned death.
Shortly after midnight in the US state of Utah, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff picked up his Apple iPhone, opened up a Twitter “app” on his handset and began tweeting.
But Mr Shurtleff’s 134-character composition was no ordinary post. This was not a piece of miscellany from the 53-year-old’s home life, a link chosen to amuse or interest his followers, nor even a political prod at his Democratic rivals.
Instead, Mr Shurtleff used Twitter to announce that most important of all things: the death of a human being, convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner.
“I just gave the go ahead to Corrections Director to proceed with Gardner’s execution. May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims,” the attorney general wrote.
The message would have been seen by the 7,000 or so users who “follow” Mr Shurtleff on Twitter.
But thanks to the exponential way in which messages are spread on Twitter – being “retweeted” by those who find them interesting – the Utah politician’s words soon found their way to a wider audience.
Shurtleff sent two other execution related deaths as well. Meanwhile, nine more prisoners are now awaiting execution on Utah’s “death row.”
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.