Firing squad vs. lethal injection? Ronnie Lee Gardner may get to pick

Published: Friday, April 23 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Appealing a death sentence

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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.

Firing squad

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.

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