June 19, 2010 in Nation/World

Firing squad killing reignites debate

How, not just whether, of capital punishment roils
Nicholas Riccardi Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

Clare Hogenaver, a lawyer from New York City, protests the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner by firing squad in Salt Lake City. Gardner, 49, was sentenced for a 1985 murder conviction and declared dead at 12:20 a.m. Friday.
(Full-size photo)

DENVER – Ronnie Lee Gardner, the convicted double-murderer executed by a firing squad in Utah in the predawn hours Friday morning, died in a manner that even the state that killed him no longer wants to use.

Utah, which has been the only state to deploy a firing squad since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1977, banned its use in 2004. It allowed only a handful of inmates already on death row, including Gardner, to opt for the method to avoid more court appeals that could further delay the convicts’ executions.

The state did not have any qualms about the legitimacy of the practice when it enacted the ban. “We had come to a point in Utah where execution by firing squad was overshadowing the victim and the crime,” said Ron Gordon, who was then director of the state’s Sentencing Commission, which recommended the ban. “It attracts a lot of attention. A lot of people talk about how this is the wild, wild West and Utah is shooting people.”

Legal challenges to lethal injection essentially stalled all executions in the U.S. for seven months until the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 issued guidelines on the practice.

Yet the firing squad generates much more revulsion, said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University who has studied execution techniques: “The anti-death penalty people think it’s barbaric, and the pro-death penalty people think it detracts from capital punishment.”

Gardner, 49, was killed just past midnight Friday morning after spending his final day reading a spy novel and watching the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. He was strapped to a chair inside a state prison, his head hooded and a target affixed to his chest. Asked if he had any final words, he said: “I do not. No.”

Five marksmen fired and Gardner slumped down. Within two minutes, a medical examiner declared him dead.

In 1985, Gardner was facing trial for killing Melvyn Otterstrom. A girlfriend slipped him a gun at the courthouse. He shot his way out, killing defense attorney Michael Burdell. He was sentenced to life in prison for the Otterstrom murder and to death for Burdell’s.

Lethal injection is by far the most common form of execution currently.

Dr. Jonathan Groner, a pediatric surgeon and death penalty opponent who has criticized lethal injection, said that older forms of execution, now frowned upon, may well be preferable. He cited the firing squad and even the guillotine, invented by a surgeon in the 18th century to improve upon the unreliability of hangings and beheadings.

“The guillotine … is the quickest way to sever a life that we know of,” Groner said. But no one would dare use it today. “As long as it’s not messy,” he said, “we’re OK with it.”

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