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LDS bishop recounts Ronnie Lee Gardner's final days before execution

Published: Monday, July 18 2011 12:12 a.m. MDT

I met with Ronnie. He apologized for not showing up last week. He is anxious about the commutation hearing tomorrow. He wants to apologize, but has heard the families don't want to hear it. He also worries about showing emotion. If he expresses regrets, people will think he is just trying to gain sympathy; if he doesn't express regret, he will be seen as cold and uncaring. "If the families get any relief out of facing me and unleashing hate, anger or pain at me, I understand and hope that it helps them find peace."

Ronnie has changed his mind again. He wants the state to claim his body and have it cremated, then give the ashes to his daughter, Brandy. He also wants no one at the execution. He got tears in his eyes. "Dan," he said, "I could really use you being there, but I love you too much to put you through it."

I told him that I will ask the warden to arrange for more frequent visits. He has already told me that I am supposed to be out of the prison by 9 o'clock on Thursday night, but that we will play it by ear. Ronnie said he would like to play chess or something that night to keep his mind occupied. I told him I would request a chessboard.

I asked Ronnie if he was still comfortable with his choice of a firing squad. He said he was. The newspapers don't seem to understand his decision. Ronnie thinks the firing squad is quicker and less painful than the lethal injection and less likely to have something go wrong.

I noticed that he had shaved his little goatee. He said that he was looking in the mirror the other day and said something like, "It is a little stupid looking."

He shook my hand and told me how much our time together helps. Counseling with him has been an all-consuming effort that has taken priority in my life. But having him say it has been helpful makes it worthwhile.

JUNE 14

The Board has denied clemency. The vote was 5-0. I feel anxiety building up. The warden called. Starting tomorrow I can visit Ronnie from 4 p.m. until whenever the administration needs him or we are bored with each other.

JUNE 15

The son of one of Ronnie's victims called me today – let's call him Mike. Prison officials arranged for Mike to visit Ronnie face to face yesterday, and Ronnie gave him my phone number. Mike wanted to know about my relationship with Ronnie and how I felt about his confessions, repentance and sorrow. During their visit the previous day, Ronnie told Mike that he had tried to contact Mike's family years earlier to apologize. Mike asked me if this was true. I said it was true, and that I had been told by a family member that they wanted no contact with Ronnie. Mike told me that he had doubted Ronnie's story, but now that I had confirmed it, he had to rethink his feelings.

"Oh, how I wish they would have let me know," he said.

He is understandably skeptical of some things Ronnie told him. We agreed that over time Ronnie may have told himself some version of events that, even if untrue, he might very well believe. We'll never know for sure. I assured this young man that I think Ronnie is sincere, at least in his regret.

While I was visiting Ronnie this afternoon, a prison official came by and said he had arranged another conversation between Mike and Ronnie, this time by phone. Ronnie was left alone so he could talk in private. The conversation lasted about 20 minutes. When I returned to the visiting booth, Ronnie was higher than a kite. He said that Mike had talked about several issues and at the close of the conversation he told Ronnie, "I accept your apology and I forgive you." Ronnie was very emotional as he expressed how grateful he was for that opportunity and how kind and gracious it was of Mike to make this extreme effort.

A short time later, the warden brought in Ronnie's last meal: a steak, two lobster tails, a large slice of Marie Callender apple pie and a pint of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. As Ronnie ate, his eyes lit up. He said the taste and flavor were overpowering. He teased the warden that the pie was cold, so the warden asked an officer to heat it in a microwave. Along with a couple of corrections officials, I stayed and talked and laughed with Ronnie while he finished his meal. Afterward, we talked for a few minutes about the arrangements for tomorrow.

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