Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
UTAH STATE PRISON — Ronnie Lee Gardner, who a quarter century ago put bullets into the heads of two good men, died in the earliest minutes of this morning with wounds from four .30-caliber rifle rounds in his chest.
He became the third inmate in Utah — and the United States — to be executed by firing squad since a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in 1976 and the first since John Albert Taylor's execution in 1996.
Just after midnight, five anonymous executioners raised their rifles and fired from behind curtains and a ported brick wall. One rifle held a blank round, leaving room for doubt in the minds of the marksmen. Gardner was pronounced dead at 12:17 a.m.
He died strapped in a chair, a hood over his head and a white target on his heart.
Gardner's path to execution began in 1985, when he was sentenced to death for shooting and killing attorney Michael Burdell during an attempted escape from a Salt Lake City courthouse in April of that year. An accomplice smuggled a gun to Gardner while he was in the courthouse on charges of killing Melvyn John Otterstrom during a 1984 robbery at Cheers Tavern.
In the escape attempt, Gardner also shot and wounded George "Nick" Kirk, a bailiff, whose family said he died 11 years later as a result of his injuries.
Though Gardner wavered at times in his efforts to fight his execution, he and his attorneys launched numerous appeals in state, federal and appellate courts.
During his final hours of life, both the U.S Supreme Court and Gov. Gary Herbert denied requests to stay Gardner's execution. Herbert twice denied last minute attempts by Gardner's attorney to spare his client's life.
"No court has given us a full and fair adjudication," attorney Andrew Parnes told reporters Thursday evening as he arrived at the prison to inform his client of the decision from the nation's high court. "It's a shame, because if they had, Ronnie Gardner would have a life sentence."
As he had numerous times in a courtroom, Parnes pointed to Gardner's troubled upbringing — a sordid history of physical and sexual abuse, neglect and a drug addiction that started when he was just 5 years old — as the reasons to spare his life.
"We as a society didn't give him the benefit we give a lot of people," Parnes said. "He really is a changed person. … He understands now what created him."
In a parking lot overlooking the prison where Gardner spent more than half his 49 years, friends and family hugged and wiped tears from their eyes as the execution approached.
"It's hard to say goodbye to somebody you love," said Brandie Gardner, who grew up with her father behind bars.
Gardner's brother, Randy Gardner, said his brother had changed over the last decade and had hoped to help start an organic farm to benefit troubled youths.
Gardner had been on Utah's death row since October 1985. He lived in a 6-by-12 cell in Uinta 1, a maximum-security facility in the prison. He slept on a thin mattress atop a hard bunk. His cell's only other amenities were a stainless steel toilet, a sink, a mirror and a small window that overlooked part of the prison yard.
Wednesday night, for the first time in about 25 years, Gardner was permitted to reach through the bars of his cell and touch his family.
"He's never touched no one but his lawyer's hand" since coming to prison, Randy Gardner said.
In the midst of those who loved Gardner, there were some who never knew him at all, but wanted to offer support — even if he had killed someone they had loved.
Donna Taylor, Burdell's niece, and her husband, Lynn, sought out Gardner's family early on, to let them know that there are people who care about them.
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