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Ronnie Lee Gardner's life ends with hardly a word

Witnesses not certain he died immediately

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 5 2015 5:24 a.m. MDT

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

The execution chamber at the Utah State Prison after Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad Friday. (Trent Nelson) The execution chamber at the Utah State Prison after Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad Friday. (Trent Nelson)

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.

In this Thursday, June 10, 2010 picture, Ronnie Lee Gardner listens to proceedings during his commutation hearing at the Utah State Prison. Gardner died early Friday as Utah carried out its first firing squad execution in 14 years. He was pronounced dead at 12:17 a.m. (Trent Nelson) In this Thursday, June 10, 2010 picture, Ronnie Lee Gardner listens to proceedings during his commutation hearing at the Utah State Prison. Gardner died early Friday as Utah carried out its first firing squad execution in 14 years. He was pronounced dead at 12:17 a.m. (Trent Nelson)

"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.

The execution chamber at the Utah State Prison is seen  after Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad Friday, June 18. Four bullet holes are visible in the wood panel behind the chair. Gardner was convicted of capital murder in 1985. (Trent Nelson) The execution chamber at the Utah State Prison is seen after Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad Friday, June 18. Four bullet holes are visible in the wood panel behind the chair. Gardner was convicted of capital murder in 1985. (Trent Nelson)

"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.

Media witnesses field questions during a press conference in Draper following the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner early Friday morning at the Utah State Prison. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Media witnesses field questions during a press conference in Draper following the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner early Friday morning at the Utah State Prison. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

The target on Gardner had three holes after he was shot — a large one near the bull's-eye and two smaller ones underneath. No blood came out of his chest. The only sign of what appeared to be blood was a small pool that collected after a minute near his lap.

When the curtains to the witnesses' rooms were closed again, corrections officials removed Gardner's body and cleaned the area before allowing media members inside.

A strong smell of bleach still filled the room when media witnesses were allowed to tour the area. In the wood paneling behind the execution chair were holes from the four bullets that had apparently traveled through Gardner's body. Only 4 inches separated all the holes.

Reaction from the nine media witnesses and three witnesses from family members of Gardner's victims was mixed.

"Everybody said it would be gruesome and it would affect me," said Jamie Stewart, the 27-year-old granddaughter of Salt Lake County sheriff's bailiff Nick Kirk. "But it wasn't bad whatsoever. You didn't see hardly any blood. He was dressed all in black. I just feel like justice has finally been served. He deserved it."

Associated Press reporter Jennifer Dobner listens during a question and answer panel press conference where media witnesses talked about their experience of watching the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner early Friday morning. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Associated Press reporter Jennifer Dobner listens during a question and answer panel press conference where media witnesses talked about their experience of watching the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner early Friday morning. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Kirk was shot and wounded during Gardner's escape attempt from the old Salt Lake courthouse in 1985.

At Gardner's request, no members of his family witnessed the execution.

Jennifer Dobner, from The Associated Press, said Gardner's execution was not like the kind one would typically find in the movies.

"It was fast. It was almost clinical and very sanitary," she said.

KUTV reporter Fields Mosely, however, found the execution to be slightly worse than he anticipated.

"I found it very violent. … It was exactly what I expected and a little bit worse. The loudness of the guns shocked me. Even though I grew up with a Winchester 30-30 in my home and shot it many times. … It was violent, and I didn't find it to be clinical at all."

KSL's Sheryl Worsley, KUER/KUED's Doug Fabrizio, Fox 13's Ben Winslow and Deseret News' Pat Reavy sit after the execution. Reactions varied among members of the media. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) KSL's Sheryl Worsley, KUER/KUED's Doug Fabrizio, Fox 13's Ben Winslow and Deseret News' Pat Reavy sit after the execution. Reactions varied among members of the media. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

"I think Ronnie Lee Gardner's last words will probably stick with me, even if they were very simple," commented Fox 13 reporter Ben Winslow.

Contributing: Aaron Falk, Emiley Morgan

e-mail: preavy@desnews.com

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