Debussy, four bullets, a dozen balloons: a Utah firing squad does its job

After 25 years on death row, Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed yesterday. David Usborne reports on the disturbing details

A dozen white balloons were all that announced the rag-tag group in a car park opposite Utah State Prison. White is for mercy. But these folks in Draper expected none on this starry evening.

Exactly which of the squat buildings held the firing squad chamber was hard to discern from the other side of the wire and high walls. And the roar of the cars on the six-lane highway separating parking lot from prison meant that when the midnight hour arrived there was no audible fusillade of bullets. To most Utahans, the condemned man was merely a very bad madman and two-time murderer. To the people gathered here, he was also father, grandfather, brother and uncle.

In the end, the execution – by firing squad – of Ronnie Lee Gardner, convicted in 1985 for killing a Salt Lake City lawyer during a botched courthouse escape attempt, happened a little later than advertised. At 12.15 am, a prison spokesman informed reporters in a nearby media room, the "death warrant was served".

It was a coy way of telling us that Gardner's heart had been pierced by four bullets fired by the five marksmen with 30/30 calibre rifles – Winchester 94s – John Wayne's rifle of choice and more usually used in these parts for the hunting of moose, bear and deer. The state requires that one of the guns carries a blank so the men, if afflicted by conscience, can imagine their shot did not do the killing. Gardner was pronounced dead at 12.17 am.

Before the order to fire was given, the warden of the prison asked him if he had any "thoughts or feelings" he wished to express. "I do not, no," he said, moments before his head, already strapped to the death chair, was covered with a hood.

For those reporters inside the death chamber, death did not appear to come instantly. They spoke afterwards of watching the 49-year-old clench and unclench his left hand and jerk his arm up and down. Radio reporter Sheryl Worsley was among them. "Even after he was shot, he moved. I don't how much that was reflex and he seemed to be clenching. Some of that had to be reflex but I am not sure all of that was. He moved, he moved a little bit, to some degree that bothers me."

Nate Carlise, a reporter with The Salt Lake Tribune, described Prisoner Number 14873 as "Utah's own ghost of Hannibal Lecter", and described hearing not one round of gunshots as they had been told to expect, but rather two. "Boom, boom. The sounds were as close together as you could spew them from your mouth," he said.

Most of the witnesses also noted that at least one of the bullet holes in the 2in white square target – attached to Gardner's chest, directly over his heart, with Velcro – appeared to have been outside the bull's eye circles.

Yet while the spectacle of a firing squad death was surely grisly, it was a procedure that seemed surgical and sanitised. There was no visible spilling of blood or shattering of skin and bones. Gardner had six different restraints attaching him to the specially designed chair, fitted with anchors and a tin tray for the collection of any blood that did escape.

For the scores of reporters not in the chamber but nearby, the second clue that the execution had happened was the switching over on the PA system from Supertramp, Phil Collins and the Eagles to Debussy. A pithy press pack also offered other details of the firing squad, a means of execution that is practised only in Utah and has only happened twice before since the death penalty was reintroduced in the US in 1976. Section five explained execution procedures: "Organ donation is not an option for condemned inmates."

"I didn't doubt this day was coming, but it's been hard to get through," noted Randy Gardner Jr, a nephew of the condemned man out in the car park. He saw no justification for what was happening. "I just don't believe one murder deserves another one. He knows, we all know, that what he did was wrong but he is remorseful and 25 years of solitary confinement is punishment enough for any man."

When confirmation arrived from the wardens that Gardner was gone, Randy was ready to release the white balloons. They were meant "as a symbol of setting him free and his going to meet his Maker," he said. "And He is the only one who can judge him. No one else has the right."

Since mid-evening, the family members had had the support of three priests, who arrived on the off-chance they could help. "We are here in silent testimony to the terrible thing that is happening here tonight," explained Jessica Hatch, an Episcopalian minister from Salt Lake City, 20 minutes north of Draper. "With all the media attention, I think this may be the start of Utah thinking about the death penalty again and eventually repealing it. That would be the only good thing that could possibly come out of this."

Bulletins from the death chamber issued to the press in the hours leading up to the execution ranged from banal to baffling. At 11.50 pm – minutes before the original scheduled execution time – Gardner was reported to be sleeping. One hour earlier he was apparently watching the third DVD in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He had also been reading the novel Divine Justice. He was not eating and had not eaten since Tuesday, when he dined on steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7Up. The reasons for his subsequent fast were not given.

Quizzed about the condemned man's ability to sleep in the last moments of his life, the state director of corrections was brief. "Mr Gardner has been sleeping throughout the process off and on," Tom Patterson said, before paying tribute to his staff for successfully carrying out the execution. "This has been an onerous responsibility. Done with absolute dignity and reverence for human life and also reverence for the other lives that have been lost at the hands of Mr Gardner." He added that Gardner himself had been "completely compliant" throughout. "One of the statements he had made was that he wanted to make it easy on our staff. He did co-operate to the fullest."

Utah's attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, chose to announce the execution via Twitter. He wrote: "I just gave the go-ahead to corrections director to proceed with Gardner's execution. May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims."

When Gardner murdered lawyer Michael Burdell, he had been on trial for the earlier murder of a Salt Lake bar tender, to which he later confessed. Also wounded in the 1985 court shoot-out was a bailiff, George Kirk, who was to suffer years of poor health because of his injuries. Members of Mr Kirk's family occupied a different part of the car park. They supported Gardner's execution from the start.

Of the witnesses in the death chamber not working for a news outlet, none was a member of Gardner's family. Standing in the car park, Dede Larsen, 60, explained that she had adopted Gardner years after he was first convicted of murder in 1985 and sent to death row. "Don't get me wrong, I don't want to see Ronnie out of prison because he can't control himself," she said. "But it's hard to know that he is not going to be there any more."

On Sunday and again on Wednesday, the authorities had allowed Gardner his first "contact" visits in nearly 27 years. "It was pretty spiritual. There was a lot of crying and a lot of 'I'm sorrys'. I think he was at peace," his daughter, Brandie Gardner recounted. Her daughter and the condemned man's granddaughter, Darian, 15, added: "When we got to touch him, that is when it hurt the most." She then pointed to two people standing to the edge of their group, a husband and wife not part of the Gardner clan.

The woman, Donna Taylor, 36, identified herself as a niece of the slain court lawyer, Mr Burdell. But she had no interest in eye-for-eye justice for Gardner. "I don't want to say that I'm opposed to the death penalty in all cases, but in this case I don't see how killing him is doing any good and I don't think it's necessary. I don't think the guy is evil, I think he is damaged."

Coming from a relative of a victim, it was a powerful statement. But here not enough people would agree. This is Utah and the founders of the Mormon Church – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – believed in blood atonement for grave crimes. And blood atonement is what was delivered.

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