article

06.18.10

Last Night's Gruesome Execution

Twenty-five years after he murdered three people, Ronnie Lee Gardner was put to death by firing squad. But death row attorney and author David R. Dow says that years after the crime the whole ritual just doesn’t make sense.

I don’t know what Ronnie Lee Gardner ordered for a final meal, or if he ate at all. I’m not interested. But I’m interested that people are interested. I think it has something to do with voyeurism. The ritual of the death penalty makes us into voyeurs. If Gardner had been sentenced to life in prison rather than death, no one outside his family and fellow inmates would know his name, or care. But if you search Gardner’s name on Google, you’ll get nearly a million hits.

Click Below to View Photos of Ronnie Lee Gardner's Last Day

gardner-execution
AP Photo; Inset: Trent Nelson / AP Photo

Gardner died yesterday when his heart was shredded by four marksmen who fired .30 caliber rifles from a distance of 25 feet at a target affixed to his chest. According to press reports, they received commemorative coins for their service. (Actually, there were five shooters, but by virtue of a quaint military tradition, one fired a blank. The idea here is to permit each rifleman to believe that he is not a killer. I think it might well be a bunch of hokum. Someone who’s fired thousands and thousands of rounds would likely know from the recoil whether the round was live or blank. But maybe I’m wrong. Either way, it’s just another ritual, and rituals are all about warm emotional comfort, not cold-hearted logic.)

In late 1984, in what is euphemistically described as a robbery gone wrong, Gardner murdered Melvyn Otterstrom, a 37-year-old trumpet-playing husband and father of one who, in addition to his regular job as an accountant, worked one night a week as a bartender at the venue Gardner decided to rob. Facing second-degree murder charges, Gardner arrived at the courthouse in Salt Lake City on the morning of April 2, 1985. A woman handed him a gun, and he tried to escape.

Click Below to Watch a Report on the Execution

Video screenshot

In the ensuing mayhem, Gardner wounded Nick Kirk, a bailiff, and he killed Michael Burdell, a lawyer with no connection to Gardner or the Otterstrom case; he just happened to be in the room to which Gardner had retreated. The following October, for killing Burdell, a Utah jury sentenced Gardner to death.

Many years ago, I had a client who murdered a young man who was studying for the ministry. My client’s victim’s mother believed my client was truly remorseful and had reformed—she was right—and she wrote the Board of Pardons and Paroles begging that his life be spared. The ritual of killing my client would bring her no solace, she said, so what was the point? The board rebuffed her without comment.

Pia Ringheim Jensen: Waiting for the Firing Squad

Lawrence Schiller: Eyewitness to Gary Gilmore's Firing Squad
Like my client’s victim’s mom, Burdell’s family asked the parole board to spare Gardner’s life. Like my client’s victim’s mom, they were spurned. It probably didn’t help Gardner’s chances that Otterstrom’s family, and Kirk’s as well, wanted the execution to occur. But it probably wouldn’t have mattered if they had joined the Burdells in pleading for mercy. The ritual of execution has become unhinged from the emotional fervor that animates the very idea of capital punishment, because were it otherwise, a murderer’s sentence would depend too intimately on the desires of his victim’s family, which is just too Old Testament for the sensibilities of a nation where a wall supposedly separates the churches from the state.

Watch the News Conference Announcing the Execution

Gardner reached his final hours with far less alacrity than the Utah firing squad’s most famous casualty. When Gary Gilmore was dispatched on January 17, 1977, his crime was not yet six months past. (That’s a modern record.) As a result, the emotions prompted by the crime spree Gilmore committed on July 19 and 20, 1976, were still festering and raw. People still hated the guy. The death penalty is wrong, but in Gilmore’s case at least it made sense. By contrast, Gardner’s case crawled to its conclusion. When Gardner murdered Otterstrom more than a quarter century ago, Otterstrom’s son Jason was 3.

Last November, I had a client who was put to death for killing a man who left behind two sons. Twelve years after the murder, they witnessed the execution. When it was over, one of them said, “Justice was served. I feel a lot better. We can move on.”

According to the Salt Lake City Deseret News, Jason Otterstrom, now engaged to be married, is pursuing his Ph.D. News reports say he opposed a commutation of Gardner’s sentence.

I sometimes think about whether my client’s victim’s son really has moved on, or whether one can. But that’s what rituals are for, after all: to help human beings turn the page. It makes you wonder what the riflemen are going to do with their commemorative coins.

Dow is the Cullen Professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the director of litigation at the Texas Defender Service. His most recent book is a memoir, The Autobiography of an Execution.