SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - A Utah firing squad shot to death a convicted killer early on Friday in the third U.S. execution by that means since 1976.
Ronnie Lee Gardner, 49, was pronounced dead at 12:20 a.m. Mountain Time after being shot in the chest by a five-man firing squad at the Utah State Prison in Draper, a suburb of Salt Lake City.
Gardner was condemned to die for the 1985 courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell during an escape attempt. Gardner had been in court to face a charge of murdering a bartender.
He chose the firing squad as his means of execution before it was banned by the state and replaced by lethal injection.
His last hope for a reprieve was dashed when the U.S. Supreme Court denied his 11th-hour appeal.
As the execution neared, Gardner, who was dressed in black, was strapped to a black metal chair and hooded and a target was placed over his chest. He declined to make a last statement before he was shot by the five-person firing squad.
“We heard the gun report and it sounded like one gun it was so simultaneous. You could see the bullets go into the suit and then he was gone,” Craig Watson, the cousin of bartender Melvyn Otterstrom, one of Gardner’s victims, told Reuters.
Gardner was also convicted of Otterstrom’s murder.
One of the .30 calibre rifles used in the execution contained a blank, allowing the executioners to retain some doubt over whether or not they fired a fatal round into Gardner’s chest.
Gardner ate his last meal of steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7UP soda on Tuesday, having chosen to fast for the remaining time until his execution.
Gardner’s supporters said he had been abused as a child and suffered mental illness before the murders but had changed while in prison. Gardner recently told a parole board that he hoped to start an organic farm program for at-risk youth.
“Ronnie had a dream and we had a dream as a family to put together a program to help abused kids and kids like Ronnie,” an emotional Randy Gardner, the killer’s brother, told reporters after the execution.
On Thursday, Utah Governor Gary Herbert, who does not have the power to commute a death sentence or pardon a condemned prisoner, denied Gardner’s request for a temporary stay of execution.
Like all other U.S. states where the death penalty is in use, Utah now uses lethal injection as its primary means of putting a condemned man to death. Only Oklahoma still offers the firing squad as an alternative.
Utah’s firing squad made international headlines in 1977, when double murderer Gary Gilmore was executed.
Gilmore, who demanded that the state carry out his death sentence, was the first person executed after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty a year earlier.
“I find it barbaric,” Bishop John C. Wester of The Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City said in an interview.
“If you’re going to do the death penalty, lethal injection would be the more humane way,” Wester said, adding in reference to the firing squad, “It emblazons in our consciousness the violence that guns wreck on our lives.”.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, however, said the state was committed to seeing that murderers faced justice and were never allowed to threaten society again.
“It’s always good to debate the issues of (the) death penalty, but you need to understand that Ronnie Lee Gardner will never kill again,” Shurtleff said in a press conference after the execution.
Writing by Dan Whitcomb