SALT LAKE CITY — After years of speculation and debate, it came down to one simple sentence, and the words choked Ronnie Lee Gardner as they came out of his mouth Friday.
"I would like the firing squad, please."
Whether prompted by emotion or by hours of sitting in silence, Gardner's voice broke as he made the polite request to 3rd District Judge Robin Reese just before the judge signed his execution warrant ordering that Gardner be put to death on June 18.
Reese heard last-minute arguments by defense attorneys hoping to convince him to review the case "afresh" and consider changing the sentence to life in prison. But the judge was unfazed by the pleas and refused, signing the warrant authorizing the Utah State Prison to execute him.
"There is nothing in the arguments today to cause further reflection," Reese said, adding that none of the new defense arguments constituted a legal reason to stay the execution.
Gardner, 49, sat forward, at rapt attention every time Reese spoke.
"It is my belief that the defendant has exhausted all legal remedies," Reese said. "There are no appeals pending, no petitions outstanding. … It's my conclusion not to second-guess the courts."
Gardner was shackled and surrounded by 11 armed guards during the hearing. He had requested to appear via video feed from the prison, as his arthritis is aggravated by handcuffs, but Reese ordered him to attend in person.
Utah law allowed Gardner to choose between death by lethal injection or firing squad. Out of the 10 inmates on Utah's death row, he is one of five who have the option of choosing because he chose death by firing squad at his initial sentencing. Though a law passed by the 2004 Utah Legislature eliminated death by firing squad, those who requested such a death are still allowed the option.
In 1990, Gardner changed his mind and told a judge he preferred to die by lethal injection. The change was made, he said, for the sake of his children who "didn't understand" the firing squad decision. Then in 1996, he told the Deseret News he would go so far as to sue for his right to die by firing squad — an option he always favored.
"I guess it's my Mormon heritage," Gardner said at the time. "I like the firing squad. It's so much easier … and there's no mistakes."
Defense attorney Andrew Parnes said his client knew he would be making such a choice.
"I don't think he was shocked or surprised," Parnes said. "He's been coming to grips with it, and it's his personal choice."
Parnes had hoped to convince Reese not to sign the execution warrant Friday, but to review the case further. He argued that the 25-year appeals process was not Gardner's fault and that he is the only death row inmate who didn't receive state funding to present mitigating evidence at his sentencing — factors which his attorneys say would classify an execution as cruel and unusual punishment.
"We're not questioning the guilt phase; that's done. We're asking you to not execute the warrant, and say this is a life sentence," Parnes said.
Gardner has been on Utah's death row for 25 years. He was sentenced to die in 1985 for a botched escape attempt on April 2, 1985, during which Gardner shot and killed Michael Burdell, a defense attorney, and injured court bailiff George "Nick" Kirk. Gardner, in court on charges stemming from the 1984 robbery and shooting death of Melvyn John Otterstrom, used a gun that had been smuggled into the old Salt Lake County Courthouse by his girlfriend.
Assistant attorney general Tom Brunker argued that if the execution was postponed for another hearing on mitigating evidence, the court would see Gardner's "lack of remorse" as evidenced by his calling one guard a "coward" for not preventing him from shooting Burdell. Brunker was adamant that there was no legal basis to prevent the judge from signing the warrant — especially based on a claim that the process has taken too long.
"No state has ruled that a murderer will not be executed if he avoids execution long enough," he said. Donna Nu, who said she and Burdell had planned to get married, told Reese that she does not want to see Gardner executed and said Burdell would not have wanted him to die, either. She said her boyfriend was a peaceful man who was drafted during the Vietnam War, but refused to carry a gun and instead worked on communications equipment.
"Knowing Michael as I did, he would not have wanted Ronnie Lee to be executed, and further, he would not have wanted to be the reason Ronnie Lee was executed," Nu said after displaying a photo of her and Burdell.
After the hearing, an emotional Nu went so far as to say that Burdell would have represented Gardner himself, had he lived to do so. "If Ronnie Lee had just wounded (Burdell), he would have defended Ronnie Lee," she said.
Defense attorneys also showed a video of Burdell's father during Friday's hearing, who not only said his son was "a very generous sort of person," but said courthouse deputies were more at fault for the shooting death than Gardner.
"The event of Michael's death was a knee-jerk reaction. … It was not premeditated; it happened in the spur of the moment. It could have been prevented if the state of Utah had taken the proper precautions," Joseph Burdell, Jr. said.
But family and friends of both other victims, Kirk and Otterstrom, felt differently about Gardner's fate.
Craig Watson, who spoke Friday for Otterstrom's wife and son at the hearing, said he was pleased with the judge's decision and said Gardner's death would bring "closure" to the family.
"It's not going to give me back anything, but it will give me some closure knowing that there's been some justice done," said Watson, who is a close friend of the Otterstroms.
He said while he considers members of Gardner's family — some of whom left the courtroom in tears — victims as well, he believes the "system worked."
"There are a lot of victims from Gardner's work," he said. "But (Gardner) has no redeeming features. There is no reason he should be alive."
George Kirk's widow, Veldean, said her husband never fully recovered from his gunshot wounds.
"After he was shot, he was never without pain. And that's something (Gardner) should share," she said after the hearing. "With as many lives as he's upset, he belongs in the same place that he sent them. I'm in favor of the death penalty."
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff — who exchanged pleasantries with Gardner before the hearing began — said he was "pleased" with the judge's decision.
"I believe justice has been served," Shurtleff said. "It's taken way too long; I agree with (Gardner) on that point."
Gardner has appealed his conviction at every level possible, submitting his case to the U.S. Supreme Court as many as three separate times. The top court rejected his case again in early March, prompting prosecutors to seek Friday's execution warrant.
Parnes made it clear he intends to file a new appeal. Gardner also has the option of asking the Board of Pardons and Parole to commute his sentence from death to life without parole. A request for such a hearing must be made within seven business days.
"We're not happy the judge didn't accept our arguments and we will go to the Utah Supreme Court," Parnes said. "We absolutely believe there was a reasonable probability had that evidence been presented, at least one of those jurors would have returned a verdict of life. We believe strongly in that and believe that is a strong basis for an appeal."
Brunker said the state is determined to see the execution carried out.
"We will vigorously oppose any further stays of execution," he said. "Our position will be that they cannot appeal this, but there are avenues available for review. … We will try to expedite it to have that process completed without an execution stay."
Friday's ruling means the Department of Corrections can begin preparing in earnest.
"Since we've seen this coming down the pike, we haven't known whether it would be lethal injection or firing squad. This gives us some certainty now," spokesman Steve Gehrke said.43 comments on this story
This will be the first execution for the department's executive director, Tom Patterson, who said the process leading up to the execution will be defined by "well-ingrained" policies, and he expects the execution to go smoothly.
"It's definitely an additional duty that will require extra staff and extra effort, but we have resources that help us with this rare occurrence," he said.
Gehrke said preparation will include logistical planning, finalizing the firing squad itself, and planning for the expected worldwide media onslaught.