Reactions to the Ronnie Lee Gardner Execution by Firing Squad

In 2010, 46 people were executed in America (seven fewer than the number of murders in the town of Flint, Michigan): 44 of the condemned received a lethal injection, one died in the century old electric chair in Virginia, and one, Ronnie Lee Gardner, was killed by a firing squad.

There had never been any doubt that Gardner was guilty, first of the shooting murder of a bartender in Salt Lake City, and then of a lawyer during an escape attempt. These killings looked to be the inevitable culmination of a life marked by institutionalization, drug abuse, and increasingly serious crime. His was an all-too-familiar story, and the ending of it would have been unremarkable, were it not for the way he chose to die.

Ronnie Lee Gardner was the kind of man that proponents of judicial homicide like to use as models for their arguments: he was apparently an irredeemably bad human being, and his second murder was seen by many as proof that some people are simply too dangerous to let live. When four bullets pierced his heart in the early minutes of June 18, it seemed as though justice had been served. Things are rarely that simple, of course.

This article offers a few personal reflections on Gardner’s execution, and is not intended as a case study either for or against capital punishment. Make of it what you will.

The firing squad

In a country where someone is executed almost every week, Gardner’s judicial killing stood out because of its method. No-one had been executed by firing squad for fourteen years, and this was only the third since 1976, when Gary Gilmore’s case reintroduced capital punishment to America. Gardner claimed to have opted for a shooting death because of his Mormon faith and the doctrine of blood atonement. “I lived by the gun, I murdered with a gun, I will die by the gun,” said Gardner. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints quickly distanced itself from this comment, stating that although, historically, it had preached blood atonement it no longer did so.

There were five shooters who aimed at the white circle over Gardner’s heart. They were anonymous, of course, and volunteers. What went through their heads as they took aim? Did they feel hatred, or resolve, or regret? Four guns were loaded with live .30 caliber ammunition; one with a wax bullet that apparently simulates actual recoil. This age-old tactic, like the hooding of the condemned, is designed to reduce the likelihood of guilt in designated executioners.

A firing squad death is rather more dramatic than a lethal injection. There is noise and blood, and signs of life for a few seconds after the blast. It doesn’t have the clinical appeal of an injection, although it certainly kills faster. In 1938, John Deering volunteered to have himself connected to an electrocardiogram during his execution. The test indicated that Deering’s heart continued to beat for about 15 seconds, with other signs of life continuing for a further minute. In Gardner’s case, he was officially pronounced dead two minutes after the gunshots. It is not known whether execution by firing squad is more or less painful than death by lethal injection.

In China, it is customary for the condemned to be billed for their own execution, a tab that is usually borne by their family. In the United States, the bill is passed on to all taxpayers. For Ronnie Lee Gardner’s trial, appeals and eventual execution, this amounted to more than $3 million. That pays for a lot of playgrounds and social services.

Forgiveness and closure

It is often claimed that an execution brings closure to the families of victims, a concept that was first mooted in the 1990’s. The evidence for it is contradictory, and there is also debate about whether it is better to subject these sufferers to years of appeals and media attention, or to lock up a killer and forget about them.

Certainly, opinions were mixed regarding Ronnie Lee Gardner’s execution. The family of Nick Kirk, a bailiff shot and seriously wounded during Gardner’s escape attempt, just wanted to “get it over with”. Donna Nu, the fiancé of murdered lawyer Michael Burdell, pleaded for leniency, saying that “Michael would not have wanted this.’

The son of Gardner’s first victim, barman Melvyn Otterstrom, had mixed feelings about the state sanctioned killing. Jason Otterstrom could not escape feeling for Gardner’s family. “It’s a penalty that’s going to tremendously affect Ronnie Lee Gardner’s family,” he said. “I can’t help but think about them, because of what happened to me.”

One cannot but wonder about the effect that any execution has on the condemned’s family. Where is their closure? And it must surely be asked whether an execution acts to cleanse the soul of a community, or simply creates more victims.

A tough life

Ronnie Lee Gardner spent about half of his 49 years on death row. They were probably the best years of his life, a point that should be of enormous concern to any civilised country.

Gardner’s childhood was a litany of horrors: emotional and sexual abuse, poverty, and a complete absence of guidance or role models. At two, he was found wandering, nearly naked and starving, on the streets of Salt Lake City. Welfare workers returned him to his wretched mother and six siblings. By ten he was addicted to drugs and had been arrested for the first time, for stealing cowboy boots. Mother Ruth had married again, this time to an ex-con who used the children as lookouts during burglaries. At fourteen, after a series of brief incarcerations in juvenile detention, he found a foster parent in the form of a pedophile who dressed as a woman. Gardner has stated that he worked as a prostitute at this time. Two years later, he fathered a daughter. And so it goes.

Craig Haney, a psychologist who has studied violent criminals for 30 years, told Gardner’s parole board that “abused and neglected children grow up to be impulsive and violent. Ronnie Lee Gardner is a perfect model for someone who grows up to commit horrendous crimes.” It must be said that not every child from this sort of background grows up to be a murderer, and that Gardner certainly made some very bad choices along the way, but even the most casual of sociologists can draw connections between poverty, drugs, and ‘horrendous crime’. Earlier, the town of Flint, Michigan was mentioned. This town, featured in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary “Roger and Me”, has the highest murder rate in America as of 2010, a generation on from the closure of the Ford plant that brought so much misery.

Ronnie Lee Gardner was not a good man, but there seems little doubt that he was a better man towards the end of his 25 year death sentence than he was at the start. People change over time, and it is questionable whether the man who was executed was much like the beast who committed the murders of Otterstrom and Burdell. In their official statement, Gardner’s church stated that “We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.” Perhaps it should have been added that this is only possible after death.

Would a sentence of life without parole have served the community better? (Several of Gardner’s original jurors signed affidavits that they would have recommended this option, had it been available to them.) As it stands however, there is still a popular preference for a sentence of death for the odd, occasional murder, in order ‘to encourage the others’, perhaps. It is a strange society indeed that shoots a man in order to deter others from shooting their fellows.

It is clear from this case and from a thousand others that poverty, unemployment and drug abuse will always have a more profound effect on violent crime than haphazard and long-delayed executions. Perhaps there are more important community targets to take aim for than a little white circle pinned over a pounding heart.