Discourse on the death penalty

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Utah Valley University’s English and philosophy departments hosted a one-day conference for Lawrence Schiller, photojournalist, acclaimed filmmaker and director of the Norman Mailer Center.

The conference included a screening of Schiller’s film, The Executioner’s Song, an Emmy award winning film that details the execution of Gary Gilmore, the first person to receive capital punishment after a national moratorium on the practice was lifted.

Nearly 40 years ago (July 19 and 20, 1976) Gary Gilmore robbed and murdered a gas station attendant and a motel manager in Utah Valley. Schiller, working independently of a network, contacted Gilmore after the announcement of the verdict and negotiated to purchase his life rights. With help from Norman Mailer, Schiller wrote the book The Executioner’s Song and later directed and produced the film.

In 1976, the United States Supreme Court ruled the death penalty constitutional and states rewrote their capital punishment statutes. Gilmore was the first in the US to receive the death penalty after the reinstatement. Gilmore refused an appeal and accepted his fate. He and his girlfriend, a mother of two, further shocked the valley with a failed suicide pact. His life ended by firing squad on January 17, 1977.


“For some reason, I was drawn to the edge of anti-social behavior,” said Schiller, of his story choice. Anti-social behavior has been a theme in many of his films. At the end of Gilmore’s life and in the months after the execution, Schiller conducted two or three interviews a week for weeks with people close to the case to get enough details. He fought against standards and practices to  keep in brands and obscene language to make each scene “smell right.”

A panel entitled, “Why Utah Valley Cannot Forget The Executioner’s Song” featured UVU Professor Karin Anderson; Michael Palmer, PhD candidate at Texas Tech University; UVU Associate Professor Nancy Evans Rushforth and Attorney Rich Roberts. After the screening, Schiller addressed the audience and answered questions.

“As a region, we are obsessed with genealogy and inheritance and we like to know the way the past forms the present,” said Palmer. Utah Valley is not known for high crime, but it cannot forget the violent crimes that have been committed.

Rushforth discussed the national history of the death penalty and said that Utah Valley is not exempt from the discussion of the death penalty.

“Especially in this beautiful, peaceful valley embraced by mountains, we believe we are protected here – by our geography and our philosophy. We believe that we are safe,” said Rushforth.

Roberts discussed the organic intellectual, the humanity of the case in detail and said that the legality of capital punishment should be reconsidered. Two of the Supreme Court Justices, Lewis F. Powell and Harry A. Blackmun, who had supported capital punishment in 1976 have since recanted their support.

“A serious study of the text provides meaningful, relevant paths to further the analysis of difficult, ethical, political, theoretical issues; to question our own morality, to challenge our continued complicity in systematic failures,” said Roberts, of the book.

In Utah, death row inmates are executed by lethal injection. A law change abolished the firing squad in 2004, but an inmate can still be executed by that method if they selected it before May 2004. 31 states currently allow the death penalty (a federal judge ruled California’s death penalty unconstitutional on July 16, 2014, and an appeal is expected).

The film will be shown again at the Salt Lake City Public Library (210 E. 400 S.), Friday, July 18, at 7:00 p.m.

Tiffany Frandsen, News Editor | @tiffany_mf


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