Photo from the Salt Lake Tribune Francisco Kjolseth
Yes they do–at least, and if I’m not mistaken–only in Utah. I’m at the crossroads at the west, BYU’s commencement, and saw this story in the Salt Lake Tribune about convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner. Now, before I go any further, I don’t think Mr. Gardner is a very nice person, at all. If anyone deserves to be executed–he is very close to the top of a very short list. But, I suppose the point I would make, is that we as humans, given the current inequities of our criminal justice system, simply don’t have the right, in my view, to make that decision.
The solution, of course, is to keep Mr. Gardner and his ilk in state prisons, at hard work for their entire life without the possibility of parole. Research has shown that it is actually more cost effective to do this rather than execute the condemned. This also satisfies the moral argument of who is executed, generally the poor, and the racially diverse, i.e., meaning other than white.
I was in town, for the first one of these morbid death orgies, sanctioned by Utah, on 01/17/77, Gary Mark Gilmore. If you don’t recall that legal circus, you should check out The Executioner’s Song both a Pulitzer Prize winning novel and an excellent full length motion picture. At the very end, defense attorneys and Utah’s Attorney General were flying (in the middle of the night) to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeal in Denver to beat the judicially mandated execution warrant date in order to execute (state sanctioned murder in my view) a man just months earlier the same state (Utah) went out of its way, sparing no expense to save from not one, but two suicide attempts. Surreal seems too mellow a term, and we’re about ready now for the next round.
When asked his preferred method of execution, The Tribune reported that Mr. Gardner replied as though he were ordering the number 1 burger meal at In N Out:
Shackled at his ankles and wrists and wearing an orange jump suit, Ronnie Lee Gardner leaned forward in his chair Friday and uttered seven words that will place Utah in the international spotlight.
“I would like the firing squad, please,” Gardner said, his voice choking up.
Mr. Gardner, however, to his credit may not be trying to overly sensationalize his execution (if that’s even remotely possible with a firing squad execution in the United States in the 21st Century):
Choosing bullets over lethal injection may have nothing to do with making headlines for Utah — the first state to execute a killer after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 and the only to allow inmates to die by firing squad.
Gardner’s cousin, Jerry Hainsworth, said Gardner told him a few years ago: “I’d rather do it that way because I’ve been shot a bunch of times.”
That includes a bullet wound suffered during Gardner’s 1985 escape attempt from the since demolished Salt Lake County courthouse. Police shot Gardner in the neck while trying to apprehend him after he escaped from prison in 1981. Hainsworth said Gardner was shot in the leg with a .22-caliber rifle as a child, was once wounded in a shootout with a brother-in-law, and once accidently shot himself in the thigh.
This is not Mr. Gardner’s first date with death. But, his appeals appear to be drawing to a close:
After hearing Gardner’s request, 3rd District Court Judge Robin Reese on Friday signed a death warrant setting his execution date for June 18. The judge rejected Gardner’s latest appeal of his 1985 death sentence minutes earlier, leaving a Utah Supreme Court appeal or a commutation from the Utah Board of Pardons as Gardner’s only chances to avoid death.
And, so the circus begins anew, with all the protests, and accompanying media coverage:
Already on Friday opponents of capital punishment were anticipating the intense scrutiny Gardner’s death would generate for Utah.
“It’s so unusual and harks back to a whole other era,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. “This is a spectacle in a sense.”
The last Utah inmate to die by firing squad was John Albert Taylor in 1996, who said he selected the method to embarrass the state. Satellite trucks filled a large parking lot near the state prison in Draper.
Jack Ford, who was then the Utah Department of Corrections spokesman, on Friday read a list of reporters, photographers and other media personnel who were on the prison grounds. Ford estimated there were 150 media personnel in all, including major American news outlets and journalists from Great Britain, Denmark, Italy and Australia.
International journalists detailed how the shots rang out, Ford said, reporting the story as if to say, “You can’t believe what they do in the United States.”
The obvious question is: Firing Squad–in the 21st Century, United States? Really?
The current Corrections spokesman, Steve Gehrke, said as of Friday afternoon he had already received inquiries from several national media outlets. Visiting reporters will find the firing squad still has its proponents among Utah lawmakers. In 2004, when the Legislature was debating whether to eliminate the firing squad, then-Sen. David Thomas, R-South Weber, and others like him supported keeping the method.
“I know there are a lot who suggest getting rid of firing squad is more humane but we’ve had the firing squad since statehood and it’s effective,” Thomas told The Salt Lake Tribune Friday.
Of course, it’s effective–four bullets through the heart is quite an effective execution method. So, of course would beheading, hanging (which until recently was also an optional execution method in Utah) or a myriad of others.
Unfortunately the Church, which still has great influence in Utah secular life is ambivalent about Capital Punishment. In an official press release about firing squad executions specifically and capital punishment generally the Church has said:
A number of recent press reports regarding capital punishment in Utah have incorrectly implied that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints endorses the state’s practice of using firing squads to carry out the death penalty. Following is the Church’s position on capital punishment:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regards the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed processes of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment.”
Of course the statement cuts both ways. Opponents can point to the phrase neither promoting, and proponents can point to neither opposing, capital punishment. As a moral issue, I think the Church should take a stand, just as they have on same sex marriage, abortion, and other important moral issues of the day. Of course, I would hope that the Church would oppose the practice, regardless of the execution method. The Catholic Church has deemed the issue important enough for many, including Catholic Bishops to formally oppose capital punishment.
So, another media driven death penalty orgy is about to begin in Utah. And, after the condemned is executed and laid to rest, his victims and their families will still be without their own loved one. But, justice, as they say, will have been served—or will it? . . .
For other coverage see:
Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Death Penalty Neither just nor moral