The state of Utah is going to allow death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner to choose how he dies--as long as he chooses either lethal injection or a firing squad. Gardner is one of a shrinking groups of condemned prisoners, in more than a dozen states, who are still permitted to make a final, macabre choice between lethal injection and a second method of execution--which might be the firing squad, the electric chair, the gas chamber, or the noose.
Gardner has been on death row since 1985, when he was convicted of killing an attorney during an escape attempt at the Salt Lake Metro Hall of Justice. A judge will likely sign Gardner’s death warrant next week, with an execution date set in June. Under Utah law, he is among a handful of longtime death row inmates who has the right to choose between the state's current means of executing prisoners and its previous one.
According to Terry Lenamon’s Death Penalty blog, “In Utah, it was only recently that their state legislature nixed the option of a death penalty by firing squad--and when it acted, four men sat on Death Row for whom the new law did not apply. These four men were ‘grandfathered’ into the prior law, and the execution methods that were options when they were sentenced are legally still available to them today. Ronnie Lee Gardner is one of these men.”
After a hearing on Monday, assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker said the state would not contest Gardner’s choice. “And to help him decide,” the Salt Lake City Tribune reports, ”the Utah Department of Corrections has agreed to release general information about the execution methods to Gardner’s lawyers.” In response to a request from Gardner, the DOC will provide his attorneys with “relevant documents [that] detail the training and expertise of the execution team. The identity of the team members and other information affecting security will not be included.”
Tom Patterson, executive director of the DOC, said the department is prepared to muster a firing squad, if need be. “If Mr. Gardner would like to be executed in that format and the court orders that, then we will carry that out,” he said. But according to a report by Fox 13 in Salt Lake City, corrections officials are concerned about a death by firing squad creating a media ”circus.” An execution by this method would be “novel” even for Utah, Patterson said. What’s more, “We are the only state that has firing squad at this point, and so yeah, it does become a bit of a novelty, nationwide and even worldwide.”
The most famous U.S. execution by firing squad in modern times also took place in Utah: In 1977, multiple murderer Gary Gilmore was killed by five men with rifles, while strapped to a chair with a hood over his head and a target pinned over his heart. (Gilmore’s choice had been between firing squad and hanging.) He was the first person to be executed in the United States for nearly ten years, after the Supreme Courts lifted an effective ban on capital punishment. Since that time, one other man, John Albert Taylor, has chosen to die by firing squad, also in Utah. According to the New York Times, Taylor chose this method for his 1996 execution “to make a statement that Utah was sanctioning murder.”