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The Firing Squad and Ronnie Lee Gardner: In the End, an All Too Typical Tale

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What's remarkable about the scheduled execution of convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner early Friday morning isn't simply that it will be carried out via firing squad, a grisly vestige of Utah's frontier heritage. It isn't that Gardner murdered poor Michael Burdell more than 25 years ago and is only now about to see his capital sentence enacted. It isn't even that Gardner got a clemency hearing from the draconian Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, which has held only two such hearings since 1977.

The most remarkable thing about the Gardner execution is how utterly typical the condemned man's story is. Indeed, despite its unusually loud ending, the Gardner case is a paradigm of how the death penalty has evolved since it was reinstated by the Supreme Court nearly 40 years ago. It helps explain why the popularity of capital punishment seems to have crested, except in a few areas of the country. And it serves as a valuable lesson to prosecutors, judges and juries who soon may have to face the justice system's most difficult decision.

More prosecutors and legislators are aware of capital punishment's enormous costs, which strain already tightened state budgets. It is not being invoked as often as it had been because more judges and jurors are aware of other sentencing options, like the increasingly popular life in prison without parole. And when the death penalty is imposed it's now more thoroughly reviewed on appeal because the conservative Supreme Court has shown in the past decade that it's getting fed up with murder convictions and sentences that fail to consider mitigating circumstances in the accused's past and the competency of the defense.

"I would like the firing squad, please," Gardner politely told a judge in April, a manner that captured the attention of the national media. But the rare (and perfectly legal) use of a volunteer squad of expert marksmen is no more or less "cruel and unusual" than prison officials scrambling to find a vein to deliver lethal drugs to an inmate on a gurney. It's not so much the means and manner of execution that matter; it's the fact that more Americans seem to be getting sick of traveling the same old road to the death penalty.

The litany of elements in the Gardner story is so familiar it's sadly become trite. The condemned had a horrific childhood that involved sexual and emotional abuse, hunger and poverty. He had no positive role models. His life of crime started early. He turned even worse in prison. The crime was horrible -- he killed Burdell while trying to escape from a courthouse; Burdell, a lawyer, was handling a pro bono case that day. Gardner was convicted by jurors and sentenced by a judge who didn't hear all the mitigating evidence there was to offer. Gardner was a troublemaker in prison who now says he's changed, after psychological treatment, and seeks some sort of 11th-hour redemption. Despite his choice of how to die, he is repentant.

Nearly every step of the way, social services and the criminal justice system failed to adequately respond to the foreseeable catastrophe that was Gardner's unfolding life. And here, too, the narrative is familiar and discouraging. Gardner's home life was atrocious -- he was found famished and nearly naked on the street at age 2, but he was not taken away from his hapless mother. When he got into trouble with the law, before he had even become a teenager, no meaningful and sustained attempts were made to rehabilitate him. The criminal justice system did a sloppy job on its inexorable way toward a conviction. The safety net broke.

As depressing as all that sounds, the Gardner story essentially represents the story of an entire generation of death row inmates who share the same basic characteristics: horrible upbringings, gruesome crimes, guilty verdicts, subsequent repentance; and because of the circumstances of their childhood, they were unlikely to have been condemned to death had the judicial system gotten it right in the first place. These inmates were tried and convicted and sentenced during the 1980s and 1990s, when capital punishment was more popular than it is now. They were unable or unwilling to benefit either from competent defense counsel or proper psychological evaluation. Their prosecutors may have been overzealous; their judges lax.

That the Burdell family does not wish to have their Michael's murderer executed is not nearly as unusual a side note as it might have been a decade ago. Nor, in light of recent gruesome executions by lethal injection, is Gardner's request to choose a rarer and fiery manner of death. Would there be so much attention on Gardner's story if he had chosen lethal injection instead of a firing squad? Probably not. Are we now going to be inundated with firing squad executions? No. This will be just the third since 1976, and there are only five condemned men left in Utah who still have the option of choosing that manner of death. Once they are gone, this tiny sub-angle on capital punishment will go with them.

What will remain are hundreds of other death row inmates across America with life stories similar to Gardner's. The headline here isn't that Gardner is different; the headline is that he is so very much the same.
Filed Under: Crime

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This lawyer is so biased in his writings. Poor poor man kills someone its societies fault for this mans murdering ways, typical bleeding heart liberal argument. The people who are willing and accept the fact thats its ok to take another persons life. knows the outcome if they get caught. The problem with at our end of it is that we dont carry out these sentences out sooner. Why do we wait so long to send them to their sentence?I also grew up poor, and had no positve role models in my life, does that justify me going out and commiting murder.

August 20 2010 at 3:13 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I can't believe how many so called "good people" have so much hate in their hearts for a person they have never even met. May God have pity on all of you.

June 17 2010 at 8:12 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

The state is carrying out the justice of Jesus Christ on this man.

The protesters are crucifying Jesus Christ anew in their hearts as they plead for the life of a Barabbas over justice.

Please spread the word that Capitol Punishment is still a necessity in America today!

This article I wrote will answer any of your questions on why we need the death penalty.

June 17 2010 at 12:49 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Sounds very vigilante, PETER MCALEAR, and in this case it sounds really appropriate since we have eye witnesses to rely on.

But if we open that loophole, what if its done to a person who is later declared falsely accused based on so-so evidence and testimony? Probably rarer today in light of forensic science but it still happens. Then what if those people who realized they kill the wrong person go crazy? Or succumb in a deeper depression? Would you like to be held accountable for that since you proposed it?

Again, sounds tempting to agree with but I wouldn't want to open any loopholes that would cause further damage in the future. We have enough of those already.

June 16 2010 at 5:54 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Rob & Kathy

The injustice is that it has taken this long to carry out the sentence...

June 15 2010 at 3:05 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

stop trying to make me feel bad for criminals. this is long over due

June 15 2010 at 12:06 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Life in Prison with No Parole is a joke: Richard Speck the notorious killer who raped and murdered 8 nurses was sentenced to life in prison, there was a video tape shown on the news of Speck snorting cocaine while in prison, he had a gay lover, he painted pictures, had 3 meals a day, no financial worries... basically he had a better life in prison than he did outside of prison Justice was not served in his case, he died of natural causes probably with a smile on his face

June 15 2010 at 10:17 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Of course, I'm sure I'll be attacked (personally or otherwise) about what a horrible American I am for saying this, but the death penalty is barbaric. It accomplishes nothing, costs more than its worth, and is a reactionary response to violent crime. It absolutely doesn't deter it. State-sponsored murder isn't an appropriate response to individual murder.

The truly interesting thing about the whole capital punishment debate is that supporters of it won't even admit that it works, because they can't. They support it because they're outraged by a violent crime...which is completely justifiable, by the way...and want someone to pay dearly for it. Yet they simply REFUSE to admit that treatment works. States that impose the death sentence still have violent crime rates that are roughly TWICE that of states that do not. No one knows why, but I have a feeling that it comes down to respecting life...ALL life (including the lives of murderers).

As abhorrent as what this man did to his victim(s), killing him is not the answer, and it won't solve anything. It most likely won't bring peace to the family of the victim (peace and closure are two completely different things), and it will not deter more crimes from happening, so, ultimately, what's the point?

June 15 2010 at 9:30 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
5 replies to aforceguy's comment
Fearless Leader

I was a proponent of the death penalty, until I attended an event featuring Sister Mary Prejean(of Dead Man Walking fame, not Susan Sarandon), she explained that "eye for an eye" was derived from nomadic tribal customs of people who had no understanding of mental illness and no facility for incarceration. I then learned that the only other countries that executed were N Korea, Iran, Saudis Arabia, China, great company huh? The Good Sister then raised the MORAL issue," if it is permissible for a government to kill someone to enforce its will, what precedent does that set? The method is also in question, lethal injection, does not function the way we are told, person does not just fall asleep, a witness to this act in texas described it as "if someone dropped a cement block on his chest" the drugs chemically sear the tissue from within. Victims and the so-called "closure" is a fallacy, attending were family members of those murdered, those that attended executions, were the most compelling, they found no closure no sense of anything positive, to a person, they described the ordeal as another murder. Finally I read/hear a lot of comments along the lines of "its too expensive to house these convicts for life", my question is, "what is the cut off point for funding life?" are we not creating "death panels"? If someone is executed, in our name, and then is found to be innocent, does that not make murderers of us all? There are on record many, many instances of wrongful conviction/execution, so if WE are to take RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR ACTIONS, should we not all be on death row?

June 15 2010 at 9:20 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Fearless Leader's comment

Well said. I understand why people would WANT to execute criminals, but it's incorrect logic...and I personally think it's just wrong. They're right, it's NOT fair that murderers take life away from others, but its not society's place to say he will die. That's murder too. I also find it odd how, if you canvassed death penalty supporters, the likelihood of many of them supporting capital punishment but OPPOSING ABORTION is probably pretty good. I've noticed that in my debates with friends about the issue. How can you support killing criminals, then turn around and oppose aborting pregnancy on the premise that you are in favor of life? It's a circular argument.

June 15 2010 at 9:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Fearless Leader

TWIST huh? how so? Could it not be that someone who is frustrated with their life could kill someone with the objective of having the state end their life? Ever hear of "suicide by cop"? Public defenders are appointed prior to conviction, are they not? The appeals process is considerably less stringent when execution is factored out. As for impracticality why does EVERY developed nation manage to do without state-killing? As for the fortune spent, what is your mortal soul worth in dollars?

June 15 2010 at 9:59 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I find it interesting that in liberal thinking there is no issue of taking responsibility for your actions. Many people grow up in poor abused circumstances without turning to a life of crime and murder. He made the decision to take another life. He and only he is responsible for his decision. My heart goes out to the families of his victims that this charade has drug on for years of torment. If he has family that loves him, they are equally victimized by his decision to take another's life. An atmosphere of "I'm not responsible for my actions", Van Der Sloop comes to mind, is on continuous display in the courts today. It's all "their" fault. "They" (the victims) pissed me off, took something of mine, tried to cheat me out of my drugs, had something I wanted/needed/took. You don't hear, I made the decision, it's my fault, it's my poor judgement.

June 15 2010 at 7:23 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

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