By Jennifer Dobner Associated Press
DRAPER, Utah — A state parole board today unanimously denied clemency to a condemned Utah man scheduled to be executed by firing squad.
Curt Garner, chairman of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, said the board determined that the jury’s verdict imposing a death sentence was not inappropriate and that no sufficient reason exists to grant clemency or to commute convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner’s death sentence.
“Gardner makes no claim of innocence and admits that he is guilty of each of the crimes of which he has been convicted,” Garner said Monday.
Family members of several of Gardner’s victims sat holding hands as Garner read the board’s decision.
“I really thought they would change it over to life,” said a relieved Tami Stewart, whose father, George “Nick” Kirk, was shot and wounded by Gardner in 1985. “I don’t feel happy, but it needed to be done. That’s hard for me to say, because I feel sorry for him, but the jury made their decision.”
The last time Utah granted clemency to a condemned man was in 1962. The board’s decision cannot be appealed, but Gardner’s lawyers can challenge the process, and they already have in federal court.
“We’re obviously disappointed in the outcome, but we’ll forge ahead,” Gardner’s attorney Andrew Parnes said before heading inside the Utah State Prison to talk to his client.
Gardner, 49, still has an appeal pending before the Utah Supreme Court, and Parnes has said he may still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gardner’s execution is set for Friday. He chose a five-member firing squad over lethal injection. It’s an option that is no longer available to death row inmates in Utah, but Gardner’s case was among those grandfathered in before the law changed in 2004.
At a two-day commutation hearing last week, the five-member parole board heard nearly eight hours of testimony about Gardner’s troubled life and history of violent crime.
For more than two hours, they questioned Gardner and heard about his plans for an organic farm and residential program for at-risk youth. He said he believes he could help young people avoid making the kind of mistakes that landed him on death row.
“There’s no better example in this state of what not to do,” Gardner told the board.
Gardner was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die in 1985 for the fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell earlier that year. The shooting came during a botched escape attempt Gardner had planned over several months with an accomplice. He was in court that day to face murder charges for the 1984 shooting death of bartender Melvyn Otterstrom.
Burdell’s family opposes the death penalty and had asked the board to spare Gardner’s life. The Otterstrom family, and relatives of a bailiff, George “Nick” Kirk, who was shot and seriously injured during the courthouse incident, lobbied against a reduced sentence of life in prison without parole.
Gardner expressed his remorse and said he’s spent much of the last 10 years learning to overcome a dysfunctional family situation riddled with physical abuse and drug use.
Kirk’s widow, VelDean Kirk, said she doesn’t believe Gardner has changed “for a minute” and she was happy when she heard the board’s decision. Nick Kirk, a bailiff at the courthouse where Gardner fatally shot lawyer Michael Burdell in a botched escape attempt, was left with chronic health problems after the shooting. He died in 1995.
“I feel like on Thursday night, Friday morning, it will all be over with. It will be real, real closure,” said VelDean Kirk, who plans to watch Gardner’s execution. “I’ve wanted that for a long time.”