The last person executed in Utah was Ronnie Lee Gardner. On June 18, 2010, Gardner was struck and killed by four .30-caliber bullets fired by five volunteer firing squad members. One of the rifles fired a non-lethal wax bullet.
In 1980, Gardner robbed Cheers Tavern in Salt Lake City and killed bartender Melvyn John Otterstrom, shooting him in the face for no apparent reason. During trial proceedings the next year, Gardner attempted to escape the Metropolitan Hall of Justice using a revolver that was smuggled in and hidden in the women’s restroom. He shot unarmed bailiff George “Nick” Kirk, who survived. Attorney Michael Burdell was not so lucky. As he was fleeing, Gardner shot Burdell in the face. Burdell was not working on the case and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Due to Supreme Court protections instituted to protect the constitutional rights of inmates on death row, it took nearly three decades for Gardner to be executed. The unusual nature of his execution, death by firing squad, made the case the focus of nationwide media coverage and controversy.
Gardner was the last person in the United States to be executed by a firing squad, a practice that has been criticized as being outdated and primitive. Oddly, the old-school method was selected by Gardner himself, who cited his upbringing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as the foundation for his decision.
Brigham Young, leader of the LDS church, preached the doctrine of blood atonement during the Mormon Reformation in 1856-57. According to his teaching, some sins are too serious to be atoned for, and perpetrators of these sins should shed their blood as a sacrifice. Among these sins were apostasy, adultery, interracial marriage and murder.
Mormon pioneer and member of the Council of Fifty John D. Lee was convicted as a mass murderer for his role in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which Lee led an attack on immigrants on a trek to California that left over 100 men, women and children dead. He was executed by firing squad to atone for his sins. Lee rejected the doctrine, however. His last words included, “I am a true believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I do not believe everything that is now being taught and practiced by Brigham Young. I do not care who hears it.”
More than a century later, the LDS church does not practice or condone the blood doctrine preached by Young and his contemporaries. When Gardner cited it as his reason for choosing the firing squad, the church felt compelled to clarify its position.
“In the mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives,” the statement read. “However, so-called ‘blood atonement,’ by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The LDS Church. We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.”
Still, Gardner’s demands were met.
Destined to die
Some people made the argument that Ronnie Lee Gardner was destined for a life of violence. He was found malnourished and wandering in the streets when he was 2 years old, and a “failure to care” petition was filed against his parents, according to the Deseret News. When he was 11, his mother committed him to the Utah State Hospital. When Gardner was 14, he was adopted by a man who sexually abused him for years.
“At the time I was still dumb enough to not even realize it was a bad thing,” Gardner testified about the abuse.
Indeed, Gardner’s life was constantly filled with violence. In 1994, he stabbed an inmate who made a threat to him, because “it’s what you do in prison.” He admits his behavior as a child had a role in shaping him.
“I was a nasty little bugger,” he said the year of his execution.
Before his death, Gardner admitted he regretted his actions.
“I am embarrassed,” he said. “I am ashamed of it. When I look back … it shocked me.”
House Bill 379
Eight years after the last person in Utah was executed, lawmakers are considering abolishing the death penalty altogether. Rep. Gage Froerer, a Republican who opposed anti-death penalty legislation in 2016, proposed a bill in the 2018 Legislative session that would put an end to capital punishment in the state.
According to its text, HB379 Death Penalty Amendment “prohibits the state from seeking the death penalty for aggravated murder committed after May 7, 2018.” It would not apply to the nine men currently on death row, who have already been convicted.
The bill has received support from right-wing legislators like House Speaker Greg Hughes, who describes himself as a “staunch conservative,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported. Hughes, who only recently shifted his position on the issue, evidently opposes the death penalty on moral grounds.
“I think it’s an outdated form of punishment and sentencing,” Hughes said at a House Committee meeting. “I think we as a society in 2018 are better than that.”
Right Move, Wrong Reasons?
Hughes may be somewhat unique in his moral opposition to capital punishment. Froerer said his reason for sponsoring the bill was his lament for the millions of dollars in taxpayer money that gets spent on costly and highly publicized trials. There was no humanization in his characterization of the bill: “I think it’s very clear that this, as it exists today, is not good public policy,” he said at the state Capitol.
Gov. Gary Hebert has indicated he would consider signing the bill for similar reasons. At a KUED news conference, he said the following:
“[Even though I’ve] been a strong supporter of the death penalty [over the years], I’m to the point of saying for the taxpayer and for justice, it is certainly less expensive I think by all accounts to have life without possibility of parole as a replacement for the death penalty.”
Out of the politicians who have been vocal in support of HB379, Hughes is the one who has it right. While it may be cost-effective to do away with the death penalty, economic questions and arguments do not seem appropriate when deciding matters of life and death.
Death Penalty Needs to Go
When the Obama Administration sought the death penalty for Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who murdered nine black people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for The Atlantic, condemned the president.
“[K]illing Roof does absolutely nothing to ameliorate the conditions that brought him into being in the first place,” Coates wrote. “The hammer of criminal justice is the preferred tool of a society that has run out of ideas. In this sense, Roof is little more than a human sacrifice to The Gods of Doing Nothing. Leave aside actual substantive policy … and killing Roof, like the business of capital punishment itself, ensures that innocent people will be executed.”
The minute we accept the criminal justice system is human-made, and therefore subject to the flaws and lack of precision inherent in any human-made system, should be the same minute we reject the legitimacy of the death penalty altogether. If we don’t want violent people like Gardner and Roof in our societies, we ought to address the systemic factors that influenced their violent behavior rather than their human sacrifices. As Coates and Rep. Hughes understand, there is no virtue in vengeance.