SALT LAKE CITY — Only a few short hours before the scheduled execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner, frustrated members of the public and family members of Gardner lined the steps outside the Utah State Capitol in protest.
Carrying signs saying "Not Fair, Not Just," two of Gardner's cousins stood and listened as members of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a coalition of religious and secular Utah organizations and concerned individuals, proclaimed how the firing squad execution should not go forward at the Utah State Prison.
"God says, 'I'm a vengeful God,' not that 'I'll kill you,' " said Richard Hainsworth, one of Gardner's cousins, while surrounded by his wife and other family members.
Another cousin, Jerry Hainsworth, said he's known Gardner since they were both "in diapers" and described the execution as "horrible."
"It didn't need to be this way," his wife, Stephanie Brown, said. "He's our blood."
Protestors of the execution said they knew the rally Thursday night would not make a difference but hoped their actions would make Gardner's execution the last one in Utah.
"It's just the beginning of awareness," said Robert Wood, president of the board of directors of the local chapter of American Civil Liberties Union. "There are very few civilized countries that have the death penalty. We just have to keep it in peoples' consciousness that life without the possibility of parole is a better punishment."
Erin Day said she still remembers the last execution by firing squad execution and it haunts her memories.
"I remember standing outside the window that night and thinking someone was going to die," said the Draper woman. She and her family are staying in Salt Lake City Thursday so they don't have to see helicopters flying overhead as occurred in 1996 or think about Gardner's death.
Earlier on Thursday, Utah residents filled the pews in St. Mark's Cathedral praying Gardner would be spared from execution — what many described as the murder of a murderer that would solve nothing.
"Vengeance can never be disguised as justice," Rev. Tom Goldsmith of the First Unitarian Church said to more than 100 people listening and hoping the execution planned for midnight would be called off. "When we start despising wrongdoing more than we love the good, society unravels."
Sitting in a middle pew, John and Jeanne Galliher of Columbia, Mo. said they've been following news of the execution since they first heard the date was set for Gardner, who shot and killed defense attorney Michael Burdell and wounded sheriff's bailiff George "Nick" Kirk during an escape attempt at the courthouse in Salt Lake. Gardner had been in court that day to face charges in the murder of Melvyn Otterstrom during a robbery.
The Gallihers visited family in Logan but decided to drive down to Salt Lake for an interfaith prayer vigil at the cathedral to protest the taking of a life. The vigil came just hours before the execution at the Utah State Prison.
"All human life is sacred," John Galliher said. "I don't think there's anything controversial about that."
Salt Lake couple Don and Beth Granberg said their reason for prayer is simply because "it's wrong to kill people," Beth Granberg said.
"This seems like the state is committing the same kind of violence that Ronnie Lee Gardner did to people," she said. "That doesn't make it right."
The Right Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish, 10th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, said that she was "distressed" about the execution and prayed for Gardner, his victims, their families and for the members of the firing squad.
"As Christians we condemn the taking of a human life, recalling that Jesus himself was the victim of a state-sponsored murder," the Rev. Irish said in a prepared statement. "His death holds before our eyes the poverty of capital punishment and its capacity to dehumanize those who carry out its sentence."