Fiancee, father of victim Michael Burdell don't want death sentence for Ronnie Lee Gardner
They say execution of killer would be another victory for violence
SALT LAKE CITY — His was a life of peace, shattered by senseless violence.
But family and friends of slain attorney Michael Burdell say executing his killer would mean another victory for the violence that Burdell sought to curb.
Peace, laughter and service are the words used over and over to describe Burdell, who was gunned down by convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner during a bloody escape attempt at the old Salt Lake County courthouse in 1985.
"His laugh was so infectious," said Donna Nu, who was his fiancée. So infectious, in fact, she can't help laughing as she recalls the person she considers her soulmate, nearly three decades after his death.
"When he laughed, there was no way I couldn't laugh," she said. "He was so willing to lighten my day. He always wanted to give more than he received, if that's possible."
Now it's the memory of Burdell's generous nature that inspires Nu to plead for clemency for Gardner.
As time runs out on what may be Gardner's last days, Nu and other members of Burdell's family say he would have never wanted Gardner to die.
Burdell's father, Joseph Burdell Jr., pleads for Gardner's life and remembers his son as someone "easy to get along with" — someone he says would have forgiven Gardner.
"He was always laughing and joking," Joseph Burdell recalled. "Just a great person to be around."
Growing up the second of 10 children, Michael Burdell got an early start helping people as he looked out for his siblings, his father said.
After serving in Vietnam, where he refused to use a weapon, Michael Burdell put himself through law school while he worked for Motorola.
He met Nu, formerly Donna Gray, in Mesa, Ariz., in the mid-1970s at a local philosophical discussion group. Both had been married previously, but Nu said she has never found anyone else like Michael Burdell.
"He was very inquisitive and he always tried to live his personal philosophies," she said.
That inquisitive nature led both of them to the Utah-based Summum religious group, where they sought to help others as a way to personal peace.
In 1981, the couple moved to Utah to be closer to the Summum pyramid in Salt Lake City, and Michael Burdell took the name Summum Bonum Menthu Sesh.
Through this group, Burdell and Nu helped grow vegetables for less-fortunate people, an act for which they received a commendation from the state Legislature.
At the time, Summum founder Summum Bonum Amon Ra said Burdell had achieved the pinnacle of love in all faiths.
"Michael was a Christ. He was a Krishna. He was a Buddha. He lived it," Ra said.
In Utah, Burdell worked as a defense attorney, often representing people no one else wanted to help, and usually on a pro bono basis, Joseph Burdell said.
"Money never did mean much to him," Joseph Burdell said. "His goal in life was just to help people out."
On the day he died, April 2, 1985, Burdell was representing an incapacitated Vietnam veteran pro bono.
After his death, family and friends found that Burdell had only $5.97 in his checking account.
At his memorial service, his sister prayed for Gardner. "We ask that you would touch his life and send into his life that light which is the light of the world," she prayed.
Now Nu and Joseph Burdell are asking the state not to execute Gardner, saying Michael Burdell would have personally fought against the sentence if he were alive today.
After the hearing where Gardner's execution warrant was signed, an emotional Nu said 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.
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