After figuratively holding a gun to his own head for a week, Ronnie Lee Gardner has decided to keep talking instead of shooting.
In a hearing Wednesday afternoon, Gardner asked U.S. Magistrate Samuel Alba to delay action on his petition for a speedy execution for at least 60 days to give him time to work out his problems in prison.Gardner filed the handwritten petition May 7 in a bid to dismiss his battery of lawyers, drop his appeals and allow "petitioner's sentence of death to be carried out."
But in an interview with the Deseret News last week and again in court on Wednesday, Gardner said he doesn't want to die, he just wants better living conditions at the Utah State Prison.
Tightly shackled and guarded by a small army of law enforcement officers, the escape-prone Gardner sat smiling in the U.S. District Courthouse in Salt Lake City while attorney James Bradshaw explained his change of heart.
According to Bradshaw, Gardner has been suffering from depression since his transfer from one prison housing section to another. He also said Gardner hadn't anticipated all the publicity surrounding the petition, which has added to his stress.
Ironically, Gardner himself generated much of that publicity with telephone calls alerting news organizations, including the Deseret News, to the filing of the petition.
Bradshaw asked Alba to hold the petition in abeyance for 60 days to give the legal team time to resolve Gardner's problems. During that time, Gardner's mental health will also be evaluated. Alba granted the request and said a revised case schedule will be released within two weeks.
Earlier Wednesday, Department of Corrections spokesman Jack Ford said Gardner had been transferred from the death row housing unit to another section of the prison because of a history of bad behavior, including assaults on other inmates and guards, brewing alcohol and other offenses.
The move also deprived Gardner of certain privileges enjoyed by nine of the other 10 death-row inmates. For example, he is now restricted to his cell for 23 hours a day instead of 22.
Ford said prison officials are willing to return Gardner to the death row program, "but he has to earn it." That means demonstrating a willingness to comply with prison rules, Ford explained.
Gardner, 37, is best known for a half-lifetime of breaking the rules. He was sentenced to prison in 1980 for armed robbery. In 1983, he escaped by attacking a guard and fleeing during a medical visit to University Hospital. During the three months he was on the lam, he shot and killed bartender Melvin John Otterstrom during a robbery.
He was making a court appearance in that second-degree murder case in August 1985 when he shot and killed attorney Michael Burdell and wounded bailiff Nick Kirk during a botched escape attempt at the Metropolitan Hall of Justice.
In 1990, he staged a hostage situation and held a prison SWAT team at bay while he had sex with his girlfriend in the prison visiting area. In 1994, Gardner got drunk from an alcoholic brew he had mixed in his cell and stabbed inmate Richard "Fatts" Thomas six times.
Gardner has been fighting his death sentence since 1985, appealing it at every step through the state and federal court systems. Only ax-murderer Elroy Tillman has been on Utah's death row longer than Gardner. If Gardner drops his appeals, he could be executed this summer.