UTAH STATE PRISON — After spending nearly a quarter century, more than half his life, on death row, Ronnie Lee Gardner says he is a changed man.
In 90 minutes of testimony before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole on Thursday, Gardner painted himself as a remorseful and repentant man — far removed from the child of a broken home who went on to kill two men in the mid-1980s — and asked the five-member board to spare him from a firing squad next week.
"I can do a lot of good," Gardner said when asked why the board should change his sentence to life without the possibility of parole. "First of all, I'm a good example. There's no better example in this state of what not to do."
Gardner said he has taken to counseling fellow inmates and believes he can help troubled children with an organic farm he and his brother want to create on 160 acres of land in northwest Box Elder County.
Gardner's attorney, Andrew Parnes, read a letter the inmate wrote to talk-show host Oprah Winfrey in 2008, in which Gardner asked for money to fund the project.
Gardner spoke calmly as he detailed the killing of Melvyn Otterstrom at a downtown Salt Lake tavern and the courthouse escape that ended with Gardner injuring bailiff Nick Kirk and killing defense attorney Michael Burdell.
While board members thanked Gardner for his candor, members of the victims' families were left uneasy.
"There's no remorse in that boy," said Veldean Kirk, the bailiff's widow.
"He has no conscience," added Sandy Police Lt. Craig Watson, Otterstrom's cousin. "That's how he can talk so matter-of-fact."
Gardner told the board he had stopped making wine in his cell and had learned to control his temper, as evidenced by his lack of serious write-ups over the past five years.
But board members reminded him of his involvement in prison riots, escapes and stabbings. They called him "hell on wheels" and wondered if his efforts to turn things around weren't "too little, too late."
Earlier in the day, witnesses called Gardner's childhood "a truly horrendous upbringing" that contributed to his crimes as an adult.
Psychology professor Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz said Gardner's childhood was marked by abject poverty, parental neglect, sexual abuse and exposure to drugs that left Gardner addicted to inhalants by age 11.
A stepfather taught Gardner to be a lookout during burglaries and boasted about the experiences "the way a father might be proud of teaching his son how to fish or play baseball," Haney said.
Gardner said his upbringing gave him a skewed sense of right and wrong.
"I think there was a time I couldn't stop," he said. "I think there was something in my brain that wouldn't let me. … Even in the courthouse, when things started getting ugly, I don't know why I couldn't stop."
Donna Nu, who was Burdell's fiancée, asked the board to commute Gardner's sentence.
"I'm not sure how all of this works, but if there are any so-called victim's rights, Michael would not have wanted Ronnie Lee killed. I'm asking to have his wishes honored."
Assistant attorney general Tom Brunker, meanwhile, said Gardner was not sentenced to death only for killing Burdell.
"Mr. Gardner was sentenced to death and earned that death penalty because of his unflagging history of violent crime," Brunker said.
Gardner, 49, is scheduled to die by firing squad just after midnight on June 18.
The death row inmate still has a post-conviction appeal before the Utah Supreme Court, his only other chance to avoid death.
Attorneys will give closing arguments in the commutation hearing today, and board members said they would announce their decision Monday morning.
For the families of Gardner's victims, some sort of closure is long overdue.
"I wish it was clear to me which is best," execution or life without parole, said Jason Otterstrom, who was 3 years old when Gardner shot and killed his father. "But it is not clear to me. I am torn. … What is clear to me, is that our families deserve peace."
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