Ronnie Lee Gardner knew just how he wanted to die – with a hood pulled over his head and a bull’s-eye marking his heart. Sometime around midnight, five executioners cocked their .30 caliber rifles and stood ready to grant him his request.
Reporters and witnesses for Gardner’s victims watched from behind reflective glass, waiting to hear the first shot. Gardner had barely finished uttering his last words, before the executioners raised their rifles and unleashed a barrage of bullets into his chest. Witnesses say his arms tensed as those bullets hit him, and his body jerked back.
When it was all over, the clock read 12:17am, and Gardner sat there dead, blood spilling from his jump suit, his mouth slightly open, his head cocked. He had become the third person executed by firing squad since 1976. Reporters noted that the executioners didn’t even wait for the countdown to reach 2 before letting off their first shots.
Gardner had come to this point in his life after murdering two people, one in 1984 and the other a year later. The first was Melvyn Otterstrom, a bartender who worked at Cheers Tavern in Salt Lake City, Utah. Otterstrom was tending bar that night when Gardner showed up and attempted to rob the place. Something went wrong, and Gardner ended up shooting Otterstrom in the face, leaving him lying there dead. His wife Kathy walk in later and found him.
While standing trial for that murder, Gardner pulled out a gun that someone had smuggled into the courtroom for him and attempted to bust out. During that attempt, he shot and killed attorney Michael Burdell and wounded bailiff George “Nick” Kirk. Kirk’s family members say he died 11 years later because of those wounds.
After the murders, Gardner was given the choice of lethal injection or firing squad. He went over the procedures for both and then ended up deciding he’d rather be shot to death than stuck with a poisonous needle. It was an interesting choice, considering that lethal injection has been the preferred method of death for the longest.
Some had speculated that Gardner chose the firing squad because he wanted to lose his life the same way he had taken two others – via the barrel of a gun. But others pointed to Gardner’s attempts to appeal his death sentence, saying he chose the unpopular choice because he hoped a judge would overturn it and grant him life in prison.
Questions also popped up about which method is more humane, meaning which one is the least painful. Some critics of lethal injection say it’s just as brutal as the electric chair styled executions it replaced, something Gardner may have considered.
In order to die from lethal injection, Gardner would’ve had to go through a series of shots, the first designed to put him to sleep, the second to paralyze him and stop his breathing, and finally a third to cut off the signals to his brain.
The controversy arises over whether the first shot actually puts the person to sleep permanently. Critics say the ingredients in the shot causes it to wear off too quickly, leaving the person awake but too paralyzed from the second shot to show any signs of the enormous amount of pain they’re going through, basically leaving them to sit there and suffer in silence.
The firing squad on the other hand is supposedly quick and painless. The executioners are said to be so accurate that the person is usually dead after taking on the first shot. But witnesses at Gardner’s execution say his thumbs and fingers twitched for two minutes after he had been hit, meaning the bullets didn’t initially kill him, meaning they probably left him suffering in the same silence he would’ve went through had he received the lethal injection.
We’ll never know if Gardner chose the firing squad because he figured if the appeals failed and he had to go, that would be the more fitting of the two, or if he chose it because he believed it was the least painful.
The actions of his last days offer little as far as clues. Reports say Gardner spent his time reading a book called “Divine Justice” while at the same time requesting that the family members of the victims not be present for the execution.
Either way, he died early this morning. And as it happened 26 years after the trial and murders, friends of Gardner gathered outside and held a vigil in the parking lot, while the families of the victims were left to themselves, hoping they could find a way to finally put it all behind them.
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