Gardner’s Choice: “to go out like a real man”

Ronnie Lee Gardner, a 49-year-old originally committed to the Utah State Prison in 1980 for a third degree offense of simple robbery, is now awaiting his execution.

Gardner sits on death row for the murder of a defense lawyer, Michael Burdell. While on trial for a separate charge of homicide, Gardner was being escorted to court in the basement of the Metropolitan Hall of Justice when an accomplice handed him a gun.

Gardner turned and pointed the gun at prison guards who returned fire at Gardner, shooting him in the shoulder. Thereafter the guards retreated to the parking lot, calling for assistance. Wounded, Gardner walked into a small room next to the elevators and confronted attorney Burdell.

Gardner cocked his gun and shot Burdell twice. The shots were at point blank range. One of the bullets entered Burdell’s skull through the eye causing fatal injury. Gardner then managed to get to the front lawn of the courthouse where he collapsed from his shoulder wound and was arrested.

Burdell had no affiliation with Gardner or the criminal cases against him.

On October 28, 1987 Gardner was visited in prison by two women and one child. The visitor’s names or whether or not these visitors had any family relation to Gardner is unknown. At the time of the visit, another inmate by the name of Robert Preece was also in the maximum security visiting room. Gardner and Preece caused a scuffle that led to the two men and one of the female visitors to be barricaded in the visiting room for two hours.

During this time the three individuals engaged in sexual activities. These activities were later thought to have possibly been consensual due to the woman’s refusal to give the police a statement or press any charges against the two men. Gardner and Preece were never charged criminally for this altercation.

Gardner has had a long list of other altercations within the prison system ranging from incidents of physical and verbal abuse against officers and inmates, possession of drug paraphernalia and damage to state property. In court, Gardner once told the court magistrate, “You had better put me in prison with them tough boys or bad stuff is going to happen.”

Gardner knows exactly what he is capable of and has no remorse for doing harm to himself or others. He has threatened to kill others to get what he wants and has placed the public in harm multiple times during his lifetime.

When asked by a judge how he wanted to die, Gardner asked to be executed by firing squad. A law passed in 2004 banned execution by firing squad in Utah, but since that law was not retroactive, Gardner still had that option. His execution by firing squad has been scheduled for June 18.

Firing squad executions are so rare in the United States that it is difficult to speak of a standard operating procedure. Historically, the victim has been strapped to a chair as five sharpshooters aim at the victim’s heart. All five pull the trigger. One of the sharpshooters is secretly armed with a blank round, which allows each shooter some comfort in knowing that there is a 20 percent chance that he or she never shot the prisoner.

To kill or not to kill is the question being posed by many Americans today. Not only is there a debate over the death penalty, but there is also a question as to whether execution by firing squad goes against the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution that states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Gardner told a prison guard, who wishes to remain anonymous, that he chose to be executed by firing squad “because dogs are put down with a shot. I want to go out like a real man.” It can be assumed that by “shot” he is referring to execution by lethal injection.

How do we determine which forms of execution are humane? And how can we not expect a convicted killer to go through a little pain, considering the amount of pain that said person made his victims go through? Ronnie Lee Gardner was guaranteed fundamental fairness, justice and liberty by the law of due process, but why must we give him fairness when he quite obviously didn’t give fairness to his victims?

It has been asked whether or not Gardner is psychotic. Expert witness Stephen L. Golding, professor of psychology at the University of Utah, painted a verbal portrait of the murderer in the U.S. District Court on September 22, 1999 saying that, “Ronnie Lee Gardner is a calculating psychopath; cold and manipulative, often deliberately charming – a view that may be more frightening than the popular public perception of a psycho raging out of control.”

Golding testified before U.S. Magistrate Sam Alba about Gardner’s mental capacities after being called as a witness by Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker to rebut claims by Gardner’s lawyers that not all pertinent aspects of Gardner’s mentality were examined when he was convicted and sentenced to death.

Does this man deserve to die? Does he deserve the right to choose how he dies? In his lifetime, Gardner has taken the life of at least two individuals and an eye for an eye might seem only fair. Or are we, as a government, simply committing murder when we are the ones pulling the trigger?

History of Capital Punishment

  • 1608: A man living in the Jamestown colony becomes the first person sentenced to death in America after being accused of spying for the Spanish government.
  • 1779: In present-day Illinois, a man named Manuel was the last person to be executed for witchcraft.
  • August 1825: A black slave in South Carolina was the last person executed by burning.
  • 1846: Michigan bans capital punishment except for in cases of treason; they are the first English-speaking government in the world to do so.
  • 1862: In Texas, John Conn was the last man to be executed for treason.
  • December 1862: The single largest mass execution; 38 Sioux Indians convicted of murder and rape are hung.
  • August 1884: In Alabama, George Hughes, George Smith and Asbury Hughes were the last people to be executed for arson.
  • 1951: Utah has the last pre-Furman use of the firing squad.
  • June 1953: In New York, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were the last people to be executed for espionage.
  • November 1960: In California, Billy Monk was the last man to be executed for kidnapping.
  • May 1964: In Missouri, Ronald Wolfe was the last man to be executed for rape.
  • 1966: Kansas has the last pre-Furman use of hanging.
  • 1966: Oklahoma has the last pre-Furman use of electrocution.
  • 1967: Colorado has the last pre-Furman use of lethal gas.
  • 1972-1976: Capital punishment suspended as a result of Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia. The death penalty was found to be unconstitutional under the eighth amendment.
  • 1976: In Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court upheld a bifurcated procedure for trying capital crimes including guilt-innocence and sentencing phases, thereby re-instating the death penalty.
  • January 1977: Gary Gilmore is the first to be executed after the Furman decision. He is put before a firing squad in Utah.
  • 1977: Death penalty for rape disallowed in Coker v. Georgia.
    *anuary 1996: Most recent use of hanging; Billy Bailey in Delaware.
  • January 1996: Most recent use of firing squad; John Albert Taylor in Utah.
  • March 1999: Most recent use of gas chamber; Walter La Grand in Arizona.
  • 2000-2009: Only six out of 387 executions used methods other than lethal injection
  • 2002: In Atkins v. Virginia, it is decided that mentally retarded criminals cannot be executed.
  • 2005: Supreme Court abolished executions of people under 18 at the time of the crime in Roper v. Simmons.
  • 2008: The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled electrocution, their previous required method, unconstitutional. Method changed to lethal injection.
  • March 2009: New Mexico becomes the 15th state to ban the death penalty.
  • March 18, 2010: Raul Powell executed by electric chair in Virginia. Most recent use of electric chair.
  • June 18, 2010: Ronnie Lee Gardner scheduled to be shot in Utah.

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