Execution By Firing Squad Will Be First In 14 Years In less than 1 hour, a five-man team of executioners is scheduled to take aim at death-row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner, who has evaded the death chamber for 25 years. Thirty-five states allow the death penalty, but death by firing squad remains an option only in Utah. A Utah historian says the reason this method of execution exists is rooted in the state's history as a Mormon sanctuary.


Execution By Firing Squad Will Be First In 14 Years

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

A Utah man on death row is scheduled to be executed just after midnight tonight by firing squad. Thirty-five states allow the death penalty, but death by firing squad remains an option only in the state of Utah.

From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Jenny Brundin reports.

JENNY BRUNDIN: For 25 years, Ronnie Lee Gardner has tried to evade the death chamber. And for 25 years, VelDean Kirk has waited to see him walk into it.

Ms. VELDEAN KIRK: It'll be a closure, because for 25 years, it hasn't closed a bit.

BRUNDIN: Every detail of April 2nd, 1985, is burned into her memory. Gardner was in court on a murder charge when he tried to escape. An accomplice slipped him a gun, and he shot and killed an attorney and also severely wounded Kirk's husband, Nick Kirk, who was a bailiff. Kirk didn't die, but he wasn't the same active, cheerful man anymore. His final years were marked by excruciating pain and depression from a sedentary life.

His daughter, Tami Stewart, feels sorry for Gardner, but she can't forgive him. She imagines him in the death chamber.

Ms. TAMI STEWART: He's going to feel that fear that he put into every one of those men. He's done. We've given him more than enough.

BRUNDIN: Gardner did get one choice: how he would die. In court, after being told he'd exhausted his appeals, the 49-year-old made his preference known.

Mr. RONNIE LEE GARDNER: I would like the firing squad, please.

BRUNDIN: And with those words, Utah officials expected they would soon be fielding calls from CNN and the international press. Utah's last firing squad execution 14 years ago attracted more than 150 news crews from across the globe. They were interested in one thing.

Ms. SHERYL ALLEN (Former State Representative, Utah): Those phone calls do not ask me about the victim.

BRUNDIN: Here's former state representative Sheryl Allen speaking on Utah's House floor in 2004.

Ms. ALLEN: They do not ask me about the victim's family, they do not ask me about the gruesome crime that was committed that warranted this sort of a punishment. It is on the method: firing squad.

BRUNDIN: Lawmakers, upset by the media circus, voted to eliminate the firing squad as an option. The law, though, grandfathers in the five death-row inmates who chose it prior to the ban.

Will Bagley is a historian. He says the reason this method of execution has been so prominent in Utah's history goes back to the Mormon religion.

Mr. WILL BAGLEY (Historian): I think we need to be honest about it. We have the last firing squads in the country as a legacy of Mormon theology, frontier Mormon theology.

BRUNDIN: Some early Mormon leaders believed in blood atonement for the most egregious sins.

Mr. BAGLEY: To atone for those, Jesus' blood didn't count. You had to shed your own blood.

BRUNDIN: 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.

Donna Nu calls the firing squad barbaric. She was the partner of Michael Burdell, the attorney Gardner murdered. She and Burdell's family said Michael wouldn't have wanted Gardner to die.

Ms. DONNA NU (Attorney): He certainly wouldn't want to be the reason that Ronnie Lee was killed.

BRUNDIN: But for VelDean Kirk, death by gunfire for the man she says destroyed her husband's life, is appropriate. She remembers once seeing on TV a lethal-injection chamber used for a notorious killer.

Ms. KIRK: That just looks like a hospital. I mean, I didn't like that a bit. I didn't think that was fitting for a person that had done the crimes that he had done.

BRUNDIN: Ronnie Lee Gardner himself believes the firing squad is easier, with no chances for mistakes. Barring any last-minute appeals, a five-man team of executioners will take aim at Gardner just after midnight tonight. Four of the 30-30 rifles will be loaded. One will have blanks. A black hood will be placed over Gardner's head. And on the chest of his jumpsuit, a white cloth target will be pinned.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Salt Lake City.

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