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.
"We put it behind us 25 years ago when it happened," she said. "We didn't like that they kept saying he's being killed because he killed Mike. … This is the last thing (Burdell) would have wanted. I just hate that his family has to go through this now."
She said many members of her family have felt angry "like they were shut out" when they constantly tried to point out that Burdell wouldn't have wanted to see Gardner die on his behalf. But she is certain that the two men will meet, and there will be no qualms between them.
"I think Mike will be right there to welcome him home," she said. "You just forgive, you just do, and if you don't forgive, it just hurts you. Michael is at peace. He's fine."
Gardner's family said they would not witness the execution.
"He don't want that to be our last image," Randy Gardner said. "He don't want us to have nightmares and bad dreams."
Gardner fasted from food in the 36 hours leading up to his death, drinking only vitamin water, Sprite, Coke, 7UP and Mountain Dew, prison officials said. Gardner ate his last meal Tuesday evening — a feast of steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7UP.
Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said Gardner was moved to a smaller observation cell after meeting with family Wednesday night.
In the hours leading up to his execution, prison officials described Gardner's mood as "reflective" and "calm." Gardner slept, read mail and David Baldacci's "Divine Justice," a novel about a former CIA assassin. Gardner intermittently slept and watched "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
By 8:45 p.m., Gehrke said Gardner had met with an LDS bishop, a person he had known for several years and whom he trusted. Gardner sat on a bunk in the observation cell and spoke to the bishop through a small port used for handcuffing inmates. Gardner finished meeting with his clergy and attorneys by 9:30 p.m., Gehrke said. As the execution neared, family and friends of the condemned killer held a candlelight vigil outside the prison.
They sang along to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," held each other and wept.
Gardner, meanwhile, slept and waited alone until he was escorted 90 feet down a hallway and around a corner to the prison's execution chamber just before midnight.
At 12 a.m., Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff spoke with prison officials by telephone and told them there was no legal reason not to go through with the execution.
Families of Gardner's victims and others waited at the Utah State Capitol. The nervous sounds of tapping feet or whispered conversations were all that remained as a small crowd waited for the attorney general to re-emerge. "Ronnie Lee Gardner will never kill again. He will never assault anyone again," Shurtleff said to a silenced audience.
Gardner was pronounced dead at 12:20 and 25 seconds.
"Now Ronnie Lee Gardner will be held accountable to a higher power, and I pray he will find more mercy than he showed his victims," Shurtleff said.
Contributing: Pat Reavy, Josh Smith, Lana Groves