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.
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