Paul Vallely: Does it matter how they killed him?

Ronnie Lee Gardner's death by firing squad in Utah raises more questions about legalised killing

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I went into a death chamber once. What unnerved me most about the room in Huntsville prison in Texas was how like a hospital it was. It was clinically clean. The death table looked, apart from the broad fawn straps to hold the convict down, like an operating table. There were medical catheters and tubes. There were antiseptic swabs with which to wipe the arm of the condemned man, as if stopping him from getting an infection were an issue. The ceiling had been painted powder blue, because a psychologist had told them that was a relaxing colour and would minimise the urge to struggle.

It was like the world turned upside down, an inversion of the Hippocratic oath. All the human ingenuity which had gone, over the years, to perfecting processes for giving and maintaining life had been perverted to its very contrary. The drip tubes through which a hospital passes the waters of life would here carry Pavulon (a muscle relaxant), potassium chloride (to stop the heart) and sodium thiopental (the lethal poison). It was like some grotesque parody of the progress which modern medicine had brought us. It was as if the authorities were saying: We kill nicer here. Have a good day.

So perhaps there was something more honest about the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner in Utah last week. There is a primitive brutality to a firing squad which is not much lessened by the fact of giving one of the five marksman a wax bullet so that, later in life, he has the comfort of knowing that he might not have fired a fatal shot. The crack of the rifles, and the twitching body from which the blood begins to seep, at least confront us with the reality of what we are doing when we kill a healthy human being.

Does it matter how someone is killed? The authorities in Utah clearly think so. They outlawed the firing quad in 2004, but Gardner had chosen his method of death before then, and stuck with it, though not – as many commentators suggested – out of some macho Maileresque "Let's do it" apeing of the gun glamour of Gary Gilmore, shot by a Utah firing squad in 1977. Rather Gardner's lawyer said he was alarmed at the number of botched lethal injections in America in recent times.

The dark side of human ingenuity has come up with some exquisitely cruel forms of execution over the years. The ancient Persians practised scaphism, in which the condemned man was laid in a narrow rowing boat with another boat placed on top with his head, arms and legs protruding. He was then force-fed milk and honey to induce diarrhoea, to draw flies, and his limbs painted with honey to attract wasps. The boat was then left to float on a stagnant pond in the exposed sun till the man was dead from insect bites, dehydration, starvation and septic shock.

The medieval Chinese tried to go one better as the end of the Tang dynasty with ling-chi: fastening victims to a frame and then "slow slicing" off parts of their body – the death of a thousand cuts. According to Confucian beliefs, if your body was not whole when you died, you would be less than whole in the spiritual afterlife. So their punishment continued even after death.

In Britain, it was only in 1814 that we officially dropped being hung, drawn and quartered as the penalty for treason – in which the victim was dragged through the streets on a hurdle, hanged till nearly dead and then disembowelled and beheaded with the four legs and arms sent to the far corners of the kingdom pour discourager les autres.

Yet if some methods are more inhumane than others, there is always something about the business of killing a healthy conscious person that is shocking. George Orwell gave a hint of why in his account of an execution when he was a policeman in Burma in the 1920s. On his way to the gallows the prisoner stepped aside to avoid a puddle. In that moment, Orwell said, he saw "the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide". He was about to die, but he did not want to get his feet wet. Karla Faye Tucker, one of the last women executed in the United States, requested a last meal of a banana, peaches and a tossed salad – healthy eating to the end.

Ronnie Lee Gardner's last dinner was of lobster tail, steak and ice cream pie on Tuesday night. Thereafter, brought up a Mormon, he fasted till his death. He spent his final day watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Then he had a nap. Until half an hour before his death he was asleep, suggesting he was a man at peace or reconciled to his fate.

His daughter declined the chance to watch her father die strapped to a steel chair, a black hood drawn over his head. "Who wants to witness a murder?" she asked. Many would not agree. They would call it justice for a man who shot dead a lawyer in 1985 while attempting to escape from a courthouse while already facing a first murder charge. His crimes are not disputed, though the last was committed when he was 24 and he was 49 when he was put to death. And killing a killer does not end the vicious circle of victimhood from which Gardner emerged: he first came to the notice of the authorities, aged two, walking alone down a street in only a nappy; by six he was sniffing glue and by 10 taking heroin; by 11 he was in a Utah mental hospital; in his teens he was sexually abused in a foster home; by 16 he was a father and by the age of 23 he was a murderer.

His was a crummy life. Our ability to empathise with that is part of what makes most people different from sociopaths for whom lack of empathy is a key distinguishing feature. It is why many people would also be disturbed at the 25 years' solitary confinement he endured until his death. Even his priest could talk to him only through the feeding hole in his cell door. Only in the week before he was executed was his daughter granted two "contact visits". It was his first physical contact with any family member for two decades. They were not allowed to hug, but only to hold hands through the bars in the death row visiting room. Cruel and unusual punishment in Utah is clearly not limited to the method of execution.

The state has now dropped the firing squad for fear of looking barbaric and backward. But in the end it is not the method which is at issue. It is whether a civilised society wants to lower itself to the level of the killers who are its aberrant minority. Vengeance and retribution may be the currency of the poetic justice of the Hollywood movie. But in a country which aspires to what Bobby Kennedy called "the right to the moral leadership of the planet", real life demands something better.

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