DRAPER — One of Utah's most notorious death row inmates, Ronnie Lee Gardner, may be asked to choose today how he wants to die.
An execution warrant will likely be signed during a court hearing this morning, and if so, Gardner will be asked to choose if he wants to die by firing squad or lethal injection.
Because Gardner was convicted and sentenced to death prior to 2004, Utah law gives him the option of choosing his form of execution. If he chooses the firing squad, as he once said he preferred, his execution will be the third to occur by firing squad in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The other two also occurred in Utah.
Utah, for now, is the only state in the nation that still uses the firing squad as a primary form of execution. The Utah Legislature outlawed the firing squad in 2004 after the execution of John Albert Taylor in 1996 but allowed those already on death row to be grandfathered in, including Gardner.
After Gardner, there are four Utah inmates on death row who still have the option of choosing firing squad as their form of execution.
Oklahoma still allows use of firing squad as a secondary form of execution if, for whatever reason, the use of lethal injection and electrocution in a case is determined to be unconstitutional. Idaho banned the use of firing squads in 2009.
When a judge signs a death warrant, the Department of Corrections begins what former corrections officials call "a massive undertaking."
Former Utah Department of Corrections director Gary DeLand planned three executions from the time he took over in 1987, although only two were actually carried out. He oversaw the execution of Pierre Dale Selby and Arthur Gary Bishop in 1987 and 1988, respectively.
He also planned a firing squad execution for Gardner in the late '80s, but two days before it was scheduled, the courts issued a stay.
When DeLand became head of corrections, it was nearly a decade after Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad, marking the return of the death penalty in the United States after a 10-year ban.
"What I'd studied of the Gilmore situation was it had been pretty haphazard," said DeLand, who literally wrote the book on how to carry out a court-ordered execution in Utah. "I wrote a manual. … I think it ended up being about 3,000 or 4,000 pages long. We looked at every aspect of it. … We looked at everything you're supposed to do at every point along the way."
DeLand said it is a sobering but necessary part of the job to carry out a state-ordered execution.
Gardner actually came close to dying by firing squad in the late '80s. He said he wanted to abandon his appeals and a death warrant was signed. Two days before his scheduled execution, he changed his mind and sought help from the courts. A stay was issued and he has been fighting his execution since that time.
The firing squad is made up of five riflemen, all certified law enforcement officers.
"It has always been five 30-30 rifles," DeLand said. "We had to round some up because by the time we were planning Gardner's, the weapons in our towers were AR-15s."
It's a popular weapon used in hunting so officials had no trouble finding five rifles and no trouble finding five certified officers to pull the triggers. DeLand's deputy director interviewed and selected the officers who would act as executioners, which by statute is supposed to remain secret.
"It was quite a ballet trying to get the people who were participating in the execution into the prison without people seeing who they were," DeLand said.
The exercise included corrections officers picking up decoys, he said.
Four of the guns are loaded with live ammunition and one gun is loaded with a blank. The team prepared in order to fire the shot in unison.
"That took a lot of practice," said DeLand. "To make sure they'd get the cadence down, so that when we said 'Ready, aim, fire,' they'd all know when to shoot. You want everything to go well."
He'd heard of problems in the Gilmore execution, including an issue with the target, which is pinned over the condemned inmate's heart.
"One of the people told me that when they pinned the target over his heart, they put it on backwards," he said. "So it was all the same color. They'd practiced shooting so much and they were all good marksmen so it was OK."
Prison officials practice every aspect of the execution, including taking the inmate (usually an officer posing as the condemned) to the table or chair, depending on the method.
DeLand said he always made it a point to visit with the condemned inmate before the execution.
"I go down about 30 minutes or so before the execution," he said of the conversation. "I just feel if you claim to believe in capital punishment and you're not pulling the trigger, you need to be able to look the guy in the eye that's going down and spend some time talking with him."
The last person to be executed in Utah was Joseph Parsons, who died by lethal injection in 1999. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Utah has executed six people, four of them by lethal injection.
The first lethal injection execution in the United States was in Texas in 1982. Selby, convicted of the Ogden Hi-Fi murders, was the first person to be executed in Utah by lethal injection in 1987.
Some say lethal injection is a more humane form of execution than the firing squad. Others, such as Amnesty International, which opposes all forms of execution, say lethal injection can cause "excruciating pain," according to the group's website.
During a lethal injection execution, the death row inmate is strapped down to a gurney with arms spread out to the side. Two straps hold his arms and two secure his legs. A needle is then inserted into each arm. Tubes from the IV run into a backroom, typically behind a wall or curtain, where the lethal dose of drugs is administered.
Utah uses a three-drug system. The first drug administered is sodium thiopental, an anesthetic designed to calm the inmate.
"Next flows Pavulon or pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the entire muscle system and stops the inmate's breathing. Finally, the flow of potassium chloride stops the heart. Death results from anesthetic overdose and respiratory and cardiac arrest while the condemned person is unconscious," according to the Death Penalty Information Center's website.
"Basically it's the same drugs you're given when you go in for surgery," said DeLand. "It's just a dose that you'd use on an elephant."
Because of the Hippocratic Oath, doctors are not involved in administering the fatal drugs. Instead, "… two or more persons trained in accordance with accepted medical practices to administer intravenous injections, who shall each administer a continuous intravenous injection, one of which shall be of a lethal quantity of sodium thiopental or other equally or more effective substance sufficient to cause death," are selected, according to Utah law.
"Even though everyone was a volunteer … we had two entirely separate systems. One was injecting saline solution, one with the real drugs. So no one who participated could say with surety that they were the executioner," DeLand said.
Unlike execution by firing squad, the Utah State Prison has a permanent chamber for lethal injection executions located in the Uinta complex. The permanent execution chamber was completed in 1998.4 comments on this story
Andrews talked to prison officials about his final moments before dying by lethal injection. He suggested they could spruce up the chamber, which was then still a makeshift, non-permanent part of the prison. According to a 1992 Deseret News article, "He criticized the ceiling of exposed girders and heating ducts, coated with grimy insulation. The ceiling was a repulsive last view, Andrews said.
"He talked … about the movie 'Soylent Green,' where those who died were surrounded with music and the sounds and sights of nature. Andrews suggested the prison paint a mural on the ceiling and pipe music into the silent death chamber."