Ronnie Lee Gardner requests firing squad; execution date set June 18

Judge signs death warrant

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

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.

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