06.17.10

Waiting for the Firing Squad

Utah death-row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner is scheduled to be shot shortly after midnight. Pia Jensen reports from the prison.

On June 17, at 5 p.m., the parking lot outside the Draper, Utah, prison building where Ronnie Lee Gardner is scheduled to be executed by firing squad was already full of media trucks. The only people who could get close to the building were approved members of the media, including a reporter from The Daily Beast. No protesters were in evidence.

Inside a large media room, TV cameras were set up and journalists took their seats, positioning laptops on the desks in front of them and watching TV news for updates on the execution that’s still planned for shortly after midnight. It will be the first execution performed by firing squad in this new permanent chamber, 20 feet by 24 feet and fitted with curtains to cover the bulletproof windows between the chamber and the adjacent witness rooms.

We were told that the prisoner seemed calm and relaxed.

Gardner has the right to invite up to five witnesses, but it wasn’t known if he had asked for any.

We were told that the prisoner seemed calm and relaxed. He had been sleeping, reading Divine Justice and watching a movie, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He had been fasting since his last meal yesterday. He has the right to visit with clergy, but had not requested any.

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The executioners were pre-selected by the Department of Corrections and had to be law-enforcement-certified in Utah. They will remain anonymous, and will be stationed behind a gun-ported brick wall in the execution chamber. The five executioners will be armed with .30 caliber rifles, four of which will be loaded with live rounds. The weapon with the blank round will be unknown to the law-enforcement officers. Gardner will be secured to a chair with a target placed over his heart and a hood over his head. He will have a chance to give his last words, and then the execution team will commence fire. A physician will be on site to certify that death has occurred.

Gardner was first arrested at age 9. He has been on death row since 1985. There are nine other offenders on death row at the Utah State Prison.

Gardner originally elected to die by firing squad, changed his choice to lethal injection, and ultimately switched back to firing squad. He has decided which family members will be allowed to attend the execution, but we don’t know who.

No more than five close relatives can be present. A selected pool of media witnesses will be there, in addition to religious representation, the state’s attorney general, and two law-enforcement officials.

Pia Ringheim Jensen, a former UPI correspondent in Copenhagen, is a freelance journalist living in Utah.