Utah Firing Squad Execution Nears

The rare event of an execution in the U.S. by firing squad is scheduled to take place just after midnight Thursday when Ronnie Lee Gardner is to be put to death in Utah for a 1985 murder.

Gardner's lawyers lost their last chance to stop the execution when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene hours before the scheduled time only hours following similar denials by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver.

Gardner was convicted for shooting a lawyer to death during an attempt to escape from a courtroom where he was on trial for another crime. Besides killing the lawyer, he severely wounded a bailiff.

Given a choice between lethal injection and the firing squad, Gardner chose the latter.

Utah legislature actually voted to end the use of the firing squad. But because chose to die by firing squad before the legislature changed ended the practice, his decision was grandfathered in.

Jenny Brundin reported for All Things Considered that the use of the firing squad in Utah was linked to the state's Mormon history.

An excerpt from the web story accompanying Jenny's radio piece:

Utah historian Will Bagley says the reason this method of execution exists is rooted in Utah's history as a Mormon sanctuary. "I think we need to be honest about it. We have the last firing squads in the country as a legacy of Mormon theology," Bagley says.

Some early Mormon leaders believed in blood atonement for the most egregious sins. "To atone for those, Jesus' blood didn't count. You had to shed your own blood," Bagley says.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has since renounced any connection to blood atonement. And the belief has all but disappeared among Utahns today.

She also described the chilling scene that will play out tonight:

... A five-man team of executioners will take aim at Gardner just after midnight. Four of the rifles will be loaded; one will have blanks to keep anonymous the shooter who fires the bullet that kills Gardner. A black hood will be placed over Gardner's head, and on the chest of his jumpsuit will be pinned a white cloth target.

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