A Utah inmate facing the death penalty for a violent 1985 escape attempt is scheduled to die on June 18 by firing squad, an execution method that has been phased out in nearly every state, including Utah.
Ronnie Lee Gardner elected Friday to face a firing squad under a provision of state law that exempts five death row inmates who signaled their preference to die by firing squad before Utah all but banned the old, frontier-style practice in 2004.
"I would like the firing squad, please," Gardner, 49, told District Judge Robin Reese during Friday's hearing in Salt Lake City.
The case has renewed calls among death penalty opponents in Utah for an end to executions by all methods, and particularly those by firing squad.
"Even Utah has decided that it's so barbaric that it actually is no longer an option for people sentenced to death today," said Ralph Dellapiana, death penalty project director for High Road for Human Rights, one of a coalition of death penalty opponents in Utah.
"It's kind of a shock to the community when there's actually going to be somebody put up against a wall and killed," he said.
Utah is the only state that still actively uses firing squads. A state law in 2004 ruled out such executions except if death by lethal injection is found to be unconstitutional. Oklahoma has a similar provision, but that state allows firing squads only if both lethal injection and electrocution are ruled unconstitutional.
"In the future, convicted felons will not have a choice," Utah State Rep. Sheryl Allen, a Republican who carried the 2004 legislation, said in an interview. "Number one, I believe it should be the decision of the state, and not the executed criminal; and number two, the firing squad just attracts an inordinate amount of attention. Execution is unfortunate, period, but in this case people concentrate on the method, rather than the victims."
Tom Brunker, head of the state attorney general's capital punishment appeals section, said death by firing squad would still be allowed if the U.S. Supreme Court declared lethal injection unconstitutional on its face, or if a defendant with medical constraints connected to lethal injection successfully argued that it would be unconstitutional to force him to undergo the procedure.
The law phasing out firing squads was not retroactively applied to Gardner and four other inmates who had already signaled their preference to die by firing squad before 2004 because lawmakers did not want to provide them with additional grounds for appeals, Allen said.
Utah's most famous inmate to die by firing squad was Gary Gilmore, whose demand to be executed for two murders he committed in Utah led to his execution in 1977, the first execution of any kind after the U.S. Supreme Court effectively reinstated capital punishment in 1976.
The nation's only other firing squad execution since was in 1996, when another Utah inmate, John Albert Taylor, died after being found guilty of raping and strangling an 11-year-old girl.
Gardner, who fatally shot a lawyer and wounded a court bailiff during an attempted courthouse escape in 1985, initially requested a firing squad, later changed his mind and asked for lethal injection, but on Friday confirmed his initial decision.
He told the Deseret News in 1996 that he would sue for the right to die by firing squad. "I guess it's my Mormon heritage," he told the paper. "I like the firing squad. It's so much easier … and there's no mistakes."
His lawyer, Andrew Parnes, said he would not comment on his client's selection.
"That's his personal decision. Under Utah law, he gets to choose," he said.
Parnes said he is filing a notice of appeal with the Utah Supreme Court arguing that the court failed to adequately consider the defense's earlier complaint that Gardner was not provided with the resources to present a full mitigation defense when his death sentence was under initial review.
His lawyers later were provided with the resources during Gardner's federal appeals.
Parnes also presented statements from friends and relatives of the lawyer slain during the escape attempt, Michael Burdell, that Burdell would not have advocated the death penalty.
"Michael Burdell was basically a generous and law-abiding and pacifist-type person who would not have wanted the death penalty for him," Parnes said.
But Reese on Friday concluded that the defendant had exhausted his legal remedies. "There is nothing in the arguments today to cause further reflection," he said, according to local news reports.