June 18, 2010— -- When a prison official opened a curtain to reveal the death chamber to witnesses early Friday, convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner was already strapped to the execution chair.
His eyes darted around the room at a prison in Draper, Utah, but he appeared calm, even at peace, witnesses said. This was a stark contrast from a troubled life marred by drugs, sexual abuse and indiscriminate violence. Asked by a prison official if he wanted to say anything, Gardner responded simply: "I do not, no."
A black hood was slipped over his bald head; a small circular taget attached over his heart. A barely audible countdown was interrupted by two loud bangs in quick succession. It was 12:15 a.m.
After a quarter of a century on death row, Gardner, 49, became the first man to die by firing squad in Utah in 14 years.
"He clenched his fist and then let go," radio talk show host Doug Fabrizio, one of a small group of witnesses, said. "And then he clenched it again."
A medical examiner checked Gardner's pulse on both sides of his neck. When the black hood was lifted to check Gardner's pupils with a flashlight, his ashen face was briefly revealed.
He was pronounced dead at 12:17 a.m.
"Ronnie Lee Gardner will never kill again," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff later told reporters. "He will never assault anybody again."
Gardner was sentenced to death for the 1985 killing of attorney Michael Burdell during an attempted escape from a Salt Lake City courthouse. Burdell's family opposed the killer's execution. At the time of the slaying, Gardner was in court, accused of killing Melvyn John Otterstrom during a 1984 robbery at a bar.
In the escape attempt, Gardner also shot and wounded George "Nick" Kirk, a bailiff, whose family said he died 11 years later as a result of his injuries.
Gardner had the choice between the firing squad and lethal injection because he was sentenced to death before Utah eliminated the firing squad as an option in 2004. Opponents say firing squads are archaic and barbaric, and about two dozen members of Gardner's family, including his brother and his daughter, held a vigil outside the prison. The inmate asked that they not attend his execution.
Gardner's execution highlights the many raw issues about the death penalty debate, ranging from its exorbitant costs to crime deterrence to the humaneness of killing an inmate by firing squad. Those issues revealed themselves in the descriptions of Gardner's final hours and witness accounts of the death by firing squad.
At exactly midnight Friday, the inmate who spent more than half his life behind bars was awakened from a nap for his execution. He was escorted to the nearby execution chamber, where he was strapped to a metallic, winged chair. He wore a dark prison jumpsuit and no shoes.The chair was raised on a small black platform, like a stage. Relatives of his victims and members of the media witnessed the execution in separate rooms nearby.
A team of five anonymous marksmen armed with .30-caliber Winchester rifles, standing just 25 feet away behind a brick wall cut with a gun port, aimed their weapons at Gardner's chest. The Utah law enforcement officers volunteered for the assignment. One rifle was loaded with a blank so no one knew who fired the fatal shot.
Gardner repeatedly rubbed his left thumb and forefinger moments before the shooting. The rifles exploded and four bullets perforated his heart and lungs. The straps held his head up. A metal tray beneath the chair collected his blood.
Sandra Yi, a reporter with KSLTV in Utah, said Gardner fidgeted even after the barrage of gunfire.
"When he was shot, some of us weren't sure if he had passed away because we could see movement," she said. "He had his fist clenched and we could see his elbow move up and down."
Sheryl Worsley, a reporter with KSL News Radio in Utah, described the moments after the execution as disturbing.
"He moved a little bit and, to some degree, that bothers me," she said. "To some degree that mirrors the last few weeks of his life because he was fighting to stay alive the last few weeks and that seemed to continue on."