SALT LAKE CITY — Ronnie Lee Gardner is scheduled to be put to death by firing squad just after midnight. He will become only the seventh person executed in Utah since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 and the third in the state, and the country, to die by firing squad.
While the method of execution is garnering as much publicity as the death row inmate himself, there was a time in Utah when a firing squad execution wasn't uncommon at all. In fact, there have been occasions where two people were executed at the same time by firing squads, sitting side by side.
Utah's history is filled with stories of execution folklore, many of which sound appropriately reminiscent of the Old West from which they came.
Not including Gardner, there have been 50 people executed in Utah since 1847 — 41 by firing squad, six by hanging and four by lethal injection. Utah has never executed a woman, nor has it ever had a woman on death row. If prosecutors in Davis County convict Stephanie Sloop and seek the death penalty, she could become the first. Sloop is charged with capital murder in the death of her 6-year-old son, Ethan Stacy.
Twice, Utah has had double executions with two men dying at the same time, and twice the state has had two executions on the same day with the inmates dying separately.
On May 11, 1956, Melvin Braasch and LeRoy Sullivan were executed while sitting side-by-side. Two sets of five-member firing squads were used. The inmates were allowed to have wine during their final meals.
It was also in 1956 that Utah had its last hanging.
No one under the age of 18 has been executed in Utah, although three people under the age of 20 have been put to death.
Weber State University criminal justice professor L. Kay Gillespie is the foremost leading authority on death row in Utah and the history of executions in the state. He has conducted countless hours of interviews with death row inmates and done extensive research into the history of the death penalty in Utah. His book, "The Unforgiven, Utah's Executed Men" looks into details about the history of executions in Utah.
Gardner has been on death row for nearly 25 years. By comparison, Robert Sutton of Tooele was executed just eight days after killing a man in 1866. In 1912, the Salt Lake Telegram wrote a story complaining about the amount of time it was taking between a homicide and the execution of the suspect — which at that point was two years.
"No wonder the public forgot what he is being shot for and cared less," the newspaper wrote.
The first two men to be officially executed in Utah were killed in 1854. Two Native Americans were hanged at the Jordan River Bridge for killing two young boys. The location of the execution was not released publicly so as not to attract a big crowd.
In 1868, one of Utah's youngest inmates was executed. Chauncey W. Millard, 18, was put to death by firing squad. Legend has it that just before dying, he sold his body to a surgeon for a bag of candy, which he was still eating from when he was placed in the execution chair and shot.
One of the more infamous executions was of John D. Lee on March 23, 1877. Lee was brought back to the site of his alleged crime, the Mountain Meadow Massacre, and was shot to death while sitting on top of his coffin which he fell back into after being shot.
His final words, according to Gillespie, were: "Center on my heart boys. Don't mangle my body."
That same year, executioners were left with an interesting predicament when the firing squad didn't kill the death row inmate right away.
Wallace Wilkerson had a paper target pinned to his chest. He was not blindfolded or tied down to a chair. After he was shot, he immediately stood up, walked two feet and fell to his side saying, "They've missed it."
Apparently when the executioners were giving the commands "Ready, aim …," Wilkerson tensed up, thus raising the target on his shirt. The bullets hit the target, but the paper was now an inch above his heart. Three shots hit his chest and a fourth his arm.
Gillespie said Wilkerson lay on the ground 15 minutes before dying, and at one point officials feared they would have to shoot him again.
The spectacle prompted a newspaper editorial calling for use of the guillotine as a form of execution in Utah. The guillotine was actually approved by lawmakers, but never used.
In yet another spectacle, a newspaper wrote of Enoch Davis' firing squad execution in 1894: "He died like a dog: in fact, the most despicable mangy canine whelp that ever met an ignominious fate could not have whined itself out of existence in a more deplorable, deceny-sickening state than was Enoch Davis' last hour."
It was because of accounts like that, that in 1912, the first newspaper reporter was officially allowed to view an execution and act as a pool reporter for other newspapers. The Board of Corrections reportedly hoped to stop what it considered "lurid accounts" of executions. Previously, only law enforcers were allowed to witness executions, so reporters and others had been appointed as special "sheriff's deputies" so they could view the event.
Executions in Utah weren't always private. In 1903, tickets were handed out to the public to witness a firing squad execution at the old Sugar House Prison.
In 1915, death row inmate Joe Hill gave the final command to "fire" himself.
In 1951, Eliseo Mares was executed by firing squad, becoming the first person executed at the Utah State Prison's current location at the Point of the Mountain. The execution didn't go completely as planned, however. According to a Salt Lake Tribune article, the five gunmen — positioned about 15 feet away — missed twice, hitting Mares in the stomach and hip. Mares did not die for several minutes.
Gary Mark Gilmore became the first person executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 when he was killed by firing squad on Jan. 17, 1977. It was also the first indoor execution in Utah since 1951.
Gilmore was seated in an office chair when he was shot. Nineteen years later, a custom-made firing squad execution chair was built and used for John Albert Taylor's execution.
While Utah has almost always had a five-man firing squad, the distance between the gunmen and the inmate has varied anywhere from 15 to 180 feet. When Gardner is executed, the distance between the gunmen and him will be 23 feet.
In a five-man firing squad, one person is given a gun loaded with a blank. The thought is that each gunman can walk away not really knowing if they fatally shot the inmate.
In the same sense, a hanging execution in 1912 in Utah was conducted by three ropes being pulled, with only two of them releasing the trap door. Hanging was outlawed in Utah in 1980.
Utah executioners are also always paid in cash so there's no paper trail from a check or credit card. The idea is to preserve their identity.
While the Taylor firing squad execution on Jan. 27, 1996, drew worldwide media attention to Utah, the execution of Bill Bailey by hanging in Delaware just two days earlier was barely a blip on some news channels. Bailey was the last person to be executed by hanging in the U.S.
Utah has never used the electric chair for executions, though at one time it was approved by lawmakers. In Virginia, Paul Warner Powell was put to death by use of the electric chair on March 18 of this year.
Ogden Hi-Fi killer Pierre Dale Selby was the first person in Utah to die by lethal injection, in 1987.
In 1923 the total cost of an execution was $200, according to Gillespie. By 1944, it was $653. A 2004 memo issued by the Department of Corrections showed the approximate cost of an execution then when supplies, manpower and overtime pay were considered, was more than $45,500.
According to Utah law, executions cannot be held on a Sunday, Monday or a legal holiday. Pregnant women are not allowed to be executed in Utah, although that law has never been put to the test.
Although a physician typically declares the inmate dead after an execution, doctors will not administer the drugs used for lethal injection. According to Utah law, corrections officials must find people "trained in accordance with accepted medical practices."
Editor's note: The Deseret News will be tweeting information from the Utah State Prison before and after the execution. Go to Twitter.com and follow @DNewsCrimeTeam.
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