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Utah has interesting history of executions

Gardner will be only the third inmate to die by firing squad since 1976

Published: Wednesday, June 16 2010 10:02 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Ronnie Lee Gardner is scheduled to be put to death by firing squad just after midnight. He will become only the seventh person executed in Utah since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 and the third in the state, and the country, to die by firing squad.

While the method of execution is garnering as much publicity as the death row inmate himself, there was a time in Utah when a firing squad execution wasn't uncommon at all. In fact, there have been occasions where two people were executed at the same time by firing squads, sitting side by side.

Utah's history is filled with stories of execution folklore, many of which sound appropriately reminiscent of the Old West from which they came.

Not including Gardner, there have been 50 people executed in Utah since 1847 — 41 by firing squad, six by hanging and four by lethal injection. Utah has never executed a woman, nor has it ever had a woman on death row. If prosecutors in Davis County convict Stephanie Sloop and seek the death penalty, she could become the first. Sloop is charged with capital murder in the death of her 6-year-old son, Ethan Stacy.

Twice, Utah has had double executions with two men dying at the same time, and twice the state has had two executions on the same day with the inmates dying separately.

On May 11, 1956, Melvin Braasch and LeRoy Sullivan were executed while sitting side-by-side. Two sets of five-member firing squads were used. The inmates were allowed to have wine during their final meals.

It was also in 1956 that Utah had its last hanging.

No one under the age of 18 has been executed in Utah, although three people under the age of 20 have been put to death.

Weber State University criminal justice professor L. Kay Gillespie is the foremost leading authority on death row in Utah and the history of executions in the state. He has conducted countless hours of interviews with death row inmates and done extensive research into the history of the death penalty in Utah. His book, "The Unforgiven, Utah's Executed Men" looks into details about the history of executions in Utah.

Gardner has been on death row for nearly 25 years. By comparison, Robert Sutton of Tooele was executed just eight days after killing a man in 1866. In 1912, the Salt Lake Telegram wrote a story complaining about the amount of time it was taking between a homicide and the execution of the suspect — which at that point was two years.

"No wonder the public forgot what he is being shot for and cared less," the newspaper wrote.

The first two men to be officially executed in Utah were killed in 1854. Two Native Americans were hanged at the Jordan River Bridge for killing two young boys. The location of the execution was not released publicly so as not to attract a big crowd.

In 1868, one of Utah's youngest inmates was executed. Chauncey W. Millard, 18, was put to death by firing squad. Legend has it that just before dying, he sold his body to a surgeon for a bag of candy, which he was still eating from when he was placed in the execution chair and shot.

One of the more infamous executions was of John D. Lee on March 23, 1877. Lee was brought back to the site of his alleged crime, the Mountain Meadow Massacre, and was shot to death while sitting on top of his coffin which he fell back into after being shot.

His final words, according to Gillespie, were: "Center on my heart boys. Don't mangle my body."

That same year, executioners were left with an interesting predicament when the firing squad didn't kill the death row inmate right away.

Wallace Wilkerson had a paper target pinned to his chest. He was not blindfolded or tied down to a chair. After he was shot, he immediately stood up, walked two feet and fell to his side saying, "They've missed it."

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