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Journalists from around globe descend on Ronnie Lee Gardner execution

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 1:36 p.m. MDT

News media vehicles crowd the parking lot of the Fred House Training Center near the Utah State Prison prior to the execution. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) News media vehicles crowd the parking lot of the Fred House Training Center near the Utah State Prison prior to the execution. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

UTAH STATE PRISON — The first firing-squad execution since 1996 predictably attracted media from around the world Thursday.

Reporters from across the globe staffed the pressroom set up across the freeway from the maximum-security prison where convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner was to be executed.

News agencies at the prison included more than 59 reporters from such organizations as CNN, FOX News Channel, New York's Daily Beast and newspapers and TV stations from as far away as Japan and Great Britain.

"There is certainly a macabre fascination, a kind of black humor about it," said Giles Whittell, Washington bureau chief for The Times of London. "My editor has been pushing for the smallest details, that's what people are interested in."

Journalists focus on Corrections Department spokesman Steve Gehrke at one of his many news conferences Thursday. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Journalists focus on Corrections Department spokesman Steve Gehrke at one of his many news conferences Thursday. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Utah's use of the firing squad has drawn attention for decades: The last execution Whittell covered was Utah's 1996 execution of John Albert Taylor. At that execution, however, 168 news crews came to Utah from around the world — far more than arrived Thursday. When Joseph Mitchell Parsons was killed by lethal injection in 1999, only 12 news organizations were represented.

The firing squad also drew the attention of The Asahi Shimbun, which calls itself "Japan's leading newspaper."

"I've watched Western movies, like John Wayne, you know, but I never really realized you could die by firing squad in the United States," said Asahi Shimbun staff writer Koh Tanaka, who flew in from New York City to cover the execution.

Japan, which still allows execution by hanging, doesn't publicize the executions beforehand, so the transparency of the American system is striking, Tanaka said.

News media vehicles crowd the parking lot of the Fred House Training Center near the Utah State Prison prior to the execution. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) News media vehicles crowd the parking lot of the Fred House Training Center near the Utah State Prison prior to the execution. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Other foreign reporters had other ways to describe Utah's system of capital punishment.

"It really is such a Wild West way of dispatching people," said David Usborne, the U.S. editor for Great Britain's The Independent newspaper.

Usborne flew to Utah Thursday after covering BP executives testifying before Congress in Washington, D.C.

He said the fact that his newspaper sent him to cover Gardner's execution in the middle of the BP oil spill highlights the high level of attention.

While the media attention is the most he's experienced, Utah Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said new technology allows many news organizations to cover the execution remotely.

News media report from the Fred House Training Center near the Utah State Prison prior to the execution. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) News media report from the Fred House Training Center near the Utah State Prison prior to the execution. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

As the top public affairs officer for the corrections department, Gehrke had fielded requests from media outlets around the world.

Despite the focus on the method of execution, Gehrke said foreign and national reporters largely focused their questions along the same lines as local media.

"They really just want to know the facts about the case. Who Gardner is, what happened, things like that," he said.

e-mail: jsmith@desnews.com

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