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."
Prison officials said Gardner spent his final hours sleeping, reading the spy thriller "Divine Justice," and watching the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy. He also met with his attorneys and a Mormon bishop. He appeared relaxed. He had fasted after eating his last requested meal -- steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7-Up -- two days earlier.
"He was at peace," his attorney, Tyler Ayres, told The Salt Lake Tribune. "He even laughed a few times ... and that helped put me at ease."
Outside the prison, members of his family -- some wearing T-shirts displaying his prisoner number, 14873 -- gathered to pay their respects. They were joined by dozens of death penalty protesters. Around the time of the execution, family members cranked up a car stereo playing Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird."
"He didn't want nobody to see him get shot," said Gardner's brother, Randy Gardner. "I would have liked to be there for him. I love him to death. He's my little brother."
To the end, Gardner's attorneys argued the jury that sentenced him to death in 1985 heard no mitigating evidence that might have spared him with a life sentence. They described him as a disturbed man whose life was marked by early drug addiction, physical and sexual abuse and possible brain damage.
"I had a very explosive temper," Gardner admitted in court.
After a reprieve was denied by Gov. Gary Herbert late Thursday, Gardner became the third person to die before a firing squad in Utah or anywhere else in the nation since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
It had been 14 years since rifles last were fired in a state execution.
"Upon careful review, there is nothing in the materials provided this morning that has not already been considered and decided by the Board of Pardons and Parole or numerous courts," Herbert said in a statement.
Utah is the last state that still conducts executions by firing squad.
The simple mechanics of an old-fashioned execution by firing squad are cold blooded, efficient and have just a hint of consideration for the person living his last moments.
Gardner's final procession toward this moment began earlier this week. He was moved at 9 p.m. Wednesday from his 6-by-12-foot cell on death row to a death watch cell near the execution chamber. Prison guards monitored him round-the-clock.
Execution by firing squads date back as far as firearms themselves, but they are rare in the United States. Utah has used firing squads in 41 of its 50 executions in the last 160 years.
In 2004, Utah lawmakers made lethal injection available in death penalty cases but inmates condemned before then were given the choice of a firing squad. In April, a judge asked Gardner for his preference.
"I would like the firing squad, please," he politely replied.
Execution by firing squad, long associated with military tribunals, has been criticized by human rights groups as archaic. In fact, the guillotine and the electric chair were introduced because they were seen as more humane than facing a firing squad.
But some experts say the firing squad isn't as barbaric as one might think.
"People think lethal injection is more human because it's related to medicine and doctors and a peaceful way of death, but in reality, it's not," said Deborah Denno from Fordham University. "It is an irony isn't it that the method we think is most barbaric to our perception and in our history is in fact the method that is most humane."
Modern firing squad executions in the U.S. have gone smoothly, but it was not unusual in the past for several rounds to strike the prisoner without killing him. In such cases, a final shot was fired at close range to put the inmate out of his misery. Witnesses in Gardner's execution were warned that he would be shot again if the first round of shots didn't kill him.
"No man who has ever lived on this earth could survive four rounds from a .30-30 rifle to the chest," Gary DeLand, former head of corrections in Utah, told ABCNews.com. "You can almost almost shut your eyes and hit him from that distance."
Despite the assertions of Gardner's lawyers, some people doubted that the man could ever be reformed.
Tami Stewart's father, George "Nick" Kirk, was a bailiff who was shot and wounded in Gardner's botched escape. Kirk suffered chronic health problems until his death in 1995. He became frustrated by the lack of justice Gardner's years of appeals afforded him, Stewart told the Associated Press.
She's not happy about Gardner's death, she said, but believes it brings her family some closure.
"I think at that moment, he will feel that fear that his victims felt," Stewart said.
But Burdell's father, Joseph Burdell Jr., said Gardner's expressed desire to help troubled kids was evidence that some transformation had occurred.
"I understand that he wants to apologize. I think it would be difficult for him," he told the Associated Press by phone Tuesday from his Cary, N.C., home. "Twenty-five years is a long time. He's not the same man."
Shortly after midnight Friday, Shurtleff, the state attorney general, took out his iPhone and opened the TwitBird Twitter application to annouce by tweet that he "just gave the go ahead to Corrections Director to proceed with Gardner's execution. May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims."