Ronnie Lee Gardner's life ends with hardly a word

Witnesses not certain he died immediately

Published: Friday, June 18 2010 4:00 a.m. MDT

Four bullet holes are visible in the wood panel behind the chair where Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed.

Trent Nelson

UTAH STATE PRISON — Following a flurry of last-minute appeals in a struggle to save his life, Ronnie Lee Gardner's life ended early Friday with hardly a word.

"I do not, no," Gardner said when asked if he had any final words, while slightly shaking his head as much as his restraints would allow.

A black hood was placed over Gardner's head, and less than a minute later, five guns made two booming sounds in quick succession — "ba-boom" — and Gardner became the third man in the United States — all of them in Utah — to be executed by firing squad since the moratorium on capital punishment in the United States was lifted in 1976.

The shots were fired at 12:15 a.m., and Gardner was pronounced dead two minutes later. From the time a curtain was opened to allow nine media members and five others to witness the execution to the time it was closed after the shooting was complete took about four minutes.

Gardner was strapped to a chair at six different places on his body: forehead, shoulders, chest, waist, wrists and ankles. On each side of the chair were 13 sandbags, nine of them stacked on top of each other. Behind the chair was a wood panel painted black. Each panel was 2 inches wide.

As the curtain opened, Gardner was fully strapped to his chair but his eyes wandered back and forth and seemed to focus on the reflective glass separating him and the media witness room. Warden Steve Turley asked Gardner if he had any final words and told him he had two minutes to make a statement.

But before the microphone was even put in front of Gardner, he said he did not have any final comments.

Gardner wore a dark blue jumpsuit and white socks, no shoes. A small, white, square target with a dark bull's-eye circle, and a dark circle around that, was Velcroed to his left breast. After the black hood was placed over his head, everyone else exited the room. About 30 seconds later, the fatal shots were fired, seemingly without warning.

"I think we were all struck as we were talking after how deceiving the sense of time was," KUER/KUED witness Doug Fabrizio said. "Particularly the time from when the warden left and Mr. Gardner was there alone to when the shots were fired. It's hard to get a sense of that. We didn't hear a command. It just happened."

Media members said they did not hear a countdown, but corrections department director Tom Patterson said the gunmen started at 5, counted down and fired when they got to 2. Patterson did not know if Gardner was able to hear their countdown.

Before the shots were fired, with his hands strapped to his side, Gardner was slowly moving his left thumb over his forefingers. He was cooperative, according to prison officials, but according to witnesses, did not seem completely relaxed.

After the shots were fired, Gardner's left hand clinched into a fist. The fist eased a little and his thumb stroked his forefingers again. But then his left hand clinched into a fist again and his arm moved up and down slightly and slowly, bent at the elbow.

"It convulsed. It seemed rubbery almost the way he hitched his arm," Fabrizio said. "And then, as has been said, he clenched his fist and then he let go and then clenched it again."

Gardner's arm and hand continued to move for about two minutes, leaving some media members to wonder for a brief moment if he would have to be shot again.

But someone from the Utah State Medical Examiner's Office entered the room a short time later and declared him dead. The examiner checked for a pulse on both sides of Gardner's neck after lifting his hood, and then lifted his hood even more to use a flashlight to look at Gardner's eyes.

When the hood was lifted, witnesses could see that Gardner's mouth was open, his head slightly back and tilted to the right, and the coloring in his face had turned ashen.

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