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Death by firing squad spotlights old execution method

Utah essentially banned the practice in 2004, but some death row inmates, such as Ronnie Lee Gardner, have been allowed to opt for it.

June 18, 2010|By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Denver — Ronnie Lee Gardner, the convicted double-murderer executed by a firing squad in Utah in the predawn hours Friday, died in a manner that even the state that killed him no longer wants to use.

Utah essentially banned firing squads in 2004. "We had come to a point in Utah where execution by firing squad was overshadowing the victim and the crime," said Ron Gordon, who was the director of the state's Sentencing Commission, which recommended the ban.

Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University who has studied execution techniques, said: "The anti-death-penalty people think it's barbaric, and the pro-death-penalty people think it detracts from capital punishment. But when you think of all the methods, the firing squad would be the most dignified. Someone's standing up and facing their death."

The state has allowed a handful of inmates already on death row, including Gardner, to opt for the method if it would avoid further court appeals that could delay the executions.

Gardner, 49, was killed just past midnight after spending his final day reading a spy novel and watching the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. He was strapped to a chair inside a state prison, his head hooded and a target affixed to his chest. Asked whether he had any final words, he said: "I do not. No."

Five marksmen fired, and Gardner slumped down. To ease the psychological burden on the executioners, one of them was given a blank round, but none knew who. Within two minutes, a medical examiner declared Gardner dead.

In 1985, Gardner was facing trial for killing Melvyn Otterstrom, a bartender in Salt Lake City, when a girlfriend slipped him a gun at the courthouse. He shot his way out, wounding a bailiff and killing defense attorney Michael Burdell. He received a life sentence for the Otterstrom murder and the death penalty for Burdell's.

Burdell's family pleaded with the state to spare Gardner's life, arguing that Burdell, an ardent pacifist, opposed the death penalty. Four jurors told the state Board of Appeals they would vote to give Gardner life in prison if they had the option today.

But Gardner's pleas for clemency and a new sentence were swiftly denied this week, all the way to the Supreme Court.

After Gardner's case, four inmates on Utah's death row could be executed by firing squad.

Along with hanging, the firing squad was once the customary way to execute criminals in the U.S., according to Denno. It persisted in Utah as a vestige of the old Mormon belief of blood atonement for sins, she said, which is why the Beehive State has been the only one to use it since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Killer Gary Gilmore was shot by a firing squad in 1977 — made famous in the book "The Executioner's Song" — and child killer John Albert Taylor was executed the same way in 1996.

In the rest of the country, Denno said, the firing squad began to be phased out at the start of the 20th century with the introduction of the electric chair, which was viewed as more humane. That method is now frowned upon after some high-profile problems — including a string of cases in Florida in the 1990s, when flames shot out of prisoners' heads as they were executed. Lethal injection is now the most common form of execution.

The procedures vary from state to state, but generally lethal injection involves a multiple-drug cocktail given to convicts that first numbs them, then stops their heart.

"If the protocol is implemented as written, there's no chance that the person can suffer," said Dr. Mark Dershwitz, an anesthesiologist who has testified in support of the method.

Critics contend that the technique rarely works as planned. Sometimes convicts' veins are damaged by decades of drug abuse, making it hard to properly inject them.

Legal challenges to lethal injection essentially stalled all executions in the U.S. for seven months until the Supreme Court in 2008 issued guidelines on the practice.

Problems still persist: In September, executioners in Ohio spent two hours trying to inject lethal drugs into a death penalty inmate, who at one point tried to help medical workers find the right vein. It's unclear whether the courts will allow him to be brought into the death chamber a second time.

Older methods of execution may actually be more humane, said Dr. Jonathan Groner, a pediatric surgeon and death penalty opponent. Groner cited the firing squad and the guillotine, invented by a surgeon in the 18th century to improve upon the unreliability of hangings and beheadings.

"The guillotine … is the quickest way to sever a life that we know of," Groner said. But no one would dare use it today, he said. "As long as it's not messy," he said, "we're OK with it."

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