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The weight of guilt: Executed killer Ronnie Lee Gardner's remorse

Before he was executed, a killer expressed remorse

Published: Sunday, July 17 2011 12:12 a.m. MDT

After Bradshaw was released as prison bishop in 2002, the meetings with Gardner grew less frequent. The church called Bradshaw to serve as assistant director of corrections for the Salt Lake Area. This required him to visit corrections facilities throughout the valley, and whenever he was at the state facility he made a point of visiting Gardner. After Bradshaw was released from that position in 2007, the visits stopped completely, although he received an occasional letter or a collect call from Gardner.

On March 27, 2010, two weeks before a hearing to have Gardner's execution warrant signed, the killer's brother, Randy, called Bradshaw to tell him that Gardner wanted to meet with his old confidant. When Bradshaw showed up at the prison as requested, Gardner told him, "It looks like this (execution) is going to happen. You're the only person I feel comfortable with. Would you be willing to come out and spend time with me until I'm executed?"

Bradshaw agreed to visit as much as prison officials would allow. Bradshaw was so moved by the remarkable changes that he witnessed in Gardner that he felt compelled to record these visits, but that proved difficult. Prison officials forbade him from recording his conversations with Gardner while inside the prison, whether it was with pen and paper or a recording device, so as soon as Bradshaw returned to his car after each visit he wrote everything he could remember in a notebook while sitting in the prison parking lot. Gardner got caught up in the project, as well. There were times he would repeat something several times to help Bradshaw remember. "Did you get it?" he would say. Gardner was eager to talk publicly about incarceration, his change of heart and so forth, which is why he tried to arrange interviews with the Deseret News and Larry King, but both were denied by prison officials. Bradshaw's notes would be his only voice.

During this time, Gardner and his attorney asked Bradshaw to appear at a commutation hearing to have his sentence changed from death to life in prison; they wanted him to testify about the changes Gardner had made. Bradshaw felt obligated to consult with LDS Church leaders first and was advised against voluntary testimony; the church, which strives to maintain neutrality in these matters, had concerns his testimony might be interpreted as an official church position. This weighed heavily on Bradshaw, and he felt relieved when the vote came back from the Board of Pardons 5-0 against clemency; his testimony likely wouldn't have mattered.

The following are some of the observations Bradshaw recorded following his visits with Gardner leading up to his execution:

APRIL 9, 2010

I met with Ronnie for two hours, and he seemed happy to see me. We talked about the longhorn cows I raise, and he asked me to send some pictures of some of our cows. He loves to dream about being on a horse, working with livestock and the earth.

Ronnie also told me that he was asking for resumes on those individuals who are going to be his executioners either by lethal injection or by firing squad. He would like to make sure that those pulling the triggers or pushing the plunger can handle it. "This ain't no joke," he told me. "I've been on the other side of the gun, and I know what they are going to have to live with." He also told me, "I don't want to die, but I'm not afraid to die."

We talked a few more minutes about life after death and what LDS beliefs are on this subject. Ronnie hopes for an understanding God and a chance to meet with his victims.

APRIL 17

I visited with Ronnie for an hour and a half. While I was in the waiting room, I met the mother of an inmate housed next to Ronnie. Her son suffers from mental illness and drug addiction and has been in protective custody for 3 ½ years because of something he saw in the Gunnison facility. She told me that since Ronnie has been talking to him he is more sensitive to her. She can talk to her son without him losing control when she gives him advice. When I finally got in to see Ronnie, the same woman came by the visiting booth and thanked Ronnie personally. After she closed the door, I told Ronnie, "The opinion that people have of a crazed killer would be damaged if they knew of the change that had taken place in him."

"Well, they do call it the Department of Corrections, you know," Ronnie replied.

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