SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is set to execute a convicted killer by firing squad in June after a judge agreed Friday to the inmate’s request for the method, renewing a debate over what critics see as an antiquated, Old West-style of justice.
Ronnie Lee Gardner, 49, was given the choice of being killed by lethal injection or shot by a five-man team of executioners firing from a set of matched rifles, a rarely used relic that harks back to Utah’s territorial history.
“I would like the firing squad, please,” Gardner told State court Judge Robin Reese Friday morning, after Reese told him his avenues for appeal appear to be exhausted.
Gardner was sentenced to death for killing an attorney 25 years ago during a failed escape attempt and shootout.
Of the 35 states with the death penalty on the books, Utah is the only one to use the firing squad as a method of execution since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.
Two men have died in a hail of bullets since that decision: Gary Gilmore, on Jan. 17, 1977 — after famously uttering the last words, “Let’s do it” — and John Albert Taylor on Jan. 26, 1996.
Oklahoma is the only other state that considers a firing squad an acceptable option, but by law would only use it if lethal injection was deemed unconstitutional. The state has never used the method.
The hearing Friday was conducted amid heavy security with several officers standing guard around Gardner and his attorneys. Gardner wore an orange jumpsuit and white shoes and his arms were shackled behind his back.
Gardner’s attorney, Andrew Parnes, said an appeal is planned, but it was not immediately clear what type of appeal it would be. The judge set the execution for June 18.
Gardner was convicted of the fatal shooting death of Utah attorney Michael J. Burdell during an escape attempt and shootout at the old Metropolitan Hall of Justice in downtown Salt Lake City on April 2, 1985.
Although he was handcuffed and surrounded by prison guards, a female acquaintance slipped Gardner a loaded, long-barreled .22-caliber handgun in the basement of the building just before the shooting. He shot Burdell in the head, wounded a court bailiff and was himself shot in the right shoulder before being captured on the courthouse lawn as he tried to flee.
Defense attorneys on Friday argued against signing the death warrant, saying a jury never heard mitigating evidence in the case that could have led it to decide against the death penalty. They also said to execute Gardner after so many years is cruel and unusual punishment.