Ronnie Lee Gardner Faces Firing Squad in Utah

Convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner will be executed in early-morning hours.

June 17, 2010— -- Sometime after midnight Friday, Ronnie Lee Gardner is to be strapped into a chair in the execution chamber at the state prison in Draper, Utah. A black hood is to be slipped over the bald head of the 49-year-old convicted killer, if he wishes. A small circular target will be pinned over his heart.

After a reprieve was denied by Gov. Gary Herbert late Thursday, Gardner is all but guaranteed to become 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 has 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 written statement released through his office.

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.

In his final hours, a fasting Gardner was seen reading a book called "Divine Justice" by David Baldacci and watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He had been visited by family members, his attorney and a clergyman. The prison was locked down at 4 p.m. MT.

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 monitor him round-the-clock.

Gardner ate his final meal Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. and elected to fast before his execution. His last meal included steak, lobster, 7-Up, apple pie and vanilla ice cream at a cost of $35 to the state, corrections officials said. He did not request a cigarette.

Utah corrections department guidelines said the meal was prepared on site by prison personnel.

"Alcohol will not be served or used in the cooking of the meal," the guidelines state.

Still, the condemned are indulged to a point.

"If they asked for escargot to be flown in from Paris, we would have said no," said Gary DeLand, who ran Utah's prison system from 1985 to 1992 and crafted the state's 200-page manual for carrying out executions. "One final meal was a hamburger and fries from a particular fast food place."

Utah last used the firing squad in 1996 to execute John Albert Taylor, who was convicted of the 1989 rape and strangulation of an 11-year-old girl. He ordered pizzas "with everything" for his last meal, according to press accounts.

Reporter Amy Donaldson witnessed Taylor's execution.

"The gunshots went off," Donaldson said. "It was silent, his fists clenched, clenched again, then his head went down."

The final cigarette is mythical -- in Draper, at least. DeLand said he oversaw two executions by lethal injection and neither inmate requested a smoke.

"We were a non-smoking institution when I was there," DeLand said.

DeLand was supposed to supervise Gardner's execution in the 1990s, but it was halted by court order.

Gary Gilmore's Execution Was Marred by Photos, Drinking

In Utah, the weapon of choice for firing squads is the .30-caliber rifle, which uses powerful .30-30 cartridges designed to take down big game such as black bear, deer and moose.

"Word was put out that we needed five rifles," said DeLand. "We selected a firing squad and provided them a good deal of ammunition. They went out and practiced, making sure they could shoot on proper cadence, making sure they could keep all the shots inside a pattern that would be easily covered with a quarter."

A court order prolonged Gardner's life until now. After the customary last meeting with visitors and a minister, Gardner will be manacled and escorted to the execution chamber. His head, arms, legs and torso will be strapped to a winged, black metal chair that last was used for Taylor's execution.

The chair sits on a raised platform that is like a small stage. A tray beneath the chair collects the blood that runs from the prisoner's body. Sandbags stacked behind the chair are meant to stop stray bullets.

"The death chair, painted a deep midnight blue to neutralize the color of blood into an indistinguishable glistening hue, was made of steel and mesh," the late reporter Hal Schindler wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune. "Velcro strips secured the condemned's ankles, wrists, arms and body. It was a far cry from the piece of ordinary office furniture used when the notorious Gary Mark Gilmore faced a firing squad in 1977."

It was Gilmore's poorly planned and sloppy execution that prompted DeLand to craft a manual with protocols for firing squad executions. At Gilmore's execution, a camera had been smuggled into the death chamber and photos snapped.

Alcohol also was smuggled into Gilmore's cell the night before. Photos surfaced of Gilmore sipping whisky from miniature bottles.

The circular patch that was pinned over Gilmore's heart was attached backwards, making it hard for the firing squad to take aim on the vital organ.

"A friend on the Gilmore firing squad said it was one of the most poorly organized events he had ever been to," DeLand said. "The whole situation with Gary Gilmore was a mess."

In observation rooms surrounding the death chamber, about two dozen witnesses will view the execution, including relatives of the victims, state representatives, the news media and five people selected by Gardner. He was convicted of capital murder 25 years ago for the 1985 fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell during an escape attempt.

One of the Five Gunmen Will Fire a Blank

Once Gardner is strapped into the death chair, the prison warden will open the curtains to the observations rooms. Gardner will be asked for any last words.

The five anonymous riflemen, all state law enforcement officers, will stand behind a brick wall with a gunport. They will aim at the target on Gardner's heart from about 25 feet away. Four of the five rifles will be loaded with live rounds. The weapon with the blank round is unknown.

"It's a very easy shot," DeLand said. "It's not like you need to be much of a marksman. If you couldn't hit that target from that distance, you have no business owning a gun."

Execution by firing squads date back as far as firearms themselves, but they are rare in the United States. Utah is one of the last states with the practice -- using firing squads in 40 of its 49 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 and barbaric. In fact, the guillotine and the electric chair were introduced because they were seen as more humane than facing a firing squad.

"Firing squad conjures certain graphic images in people's minds that are especially disturbing," said Laura Moye, director of Amnesty International's death penalty abolition campaign. "At the end of the day, we think there is no humane way to kill a human being... You're condemning a person to death. You're keeping them on death row and telling them, at one point we're going to take you into a chamber, strap you down and kill you."

Still, some 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.

"No man who has ever lived on this earth could survive four rounds from a .30-30 rifle to the chest," DeLand said. "You can almost almost shut your eyes and hit him from that distance."