Firing squad execution sobering, but dramatic

DRAPER, Utah — The explosive reports sent a volley of .30-caliber bullets from the five marksmen into the chest of Ronnie Lee Gardner.

I was expecting to flinch but didn’t as I watched his execution from the witness room.

It was so quick that for a split-second I wondered if it had actually happened.

There was no blood splattered across the white cinderblock wall at the Utah State Prison. No audible sounds from the condemned. I couldn’t see his eyes. I never saw the guns and didn’t hear the countdown to the trigger-pull.

A twice-convicted killer who had a troubled upbringing, the 49-year-old Gardner was executed by firing squad shortly after midnight today. I was one of nine journalists selected to observe his death.

When the prison warden pulled back the beige curtain, Gardner was already strapped into a black, straight-backed metal chair. His head secured by a strap across his forehead. Harness-like straps constrained his chest. His handcuffed arms hung at his sides. A white cloth square — maybe 3 inches across — affixed to his chest over his heart bore a black target.

Seconds before the impact of the bullets, Gardner’s left thumb twitched against his forefinger. When his chest was pierced, he clenched his fist. His arm pulled up slowly as if he were lifting something and then released. The motion repeated.

Although the dark blue prison jumpsuit made it difficult to see, blood seemed to be pooling around Gardner’s waist.

The silence was deafening.

A medical examiner checked Gardner’s pulse on both sides of his neck, then lifted the black hood to check his pupils with a flashlight, offering a brief glimpse of his now ashen face.

It was 12:17 a.m. Only two minutes had passed since the shots were fired, but it felt like things had moved in slow motion.

About an hour later, prison officials let the media inspect the chamber. There was a strong smell of bleach, but no sign of blood.

The only evidence that a man had been shot and killed there were four holes from the bullets that impaled the black wood panels behind the chair. Right to left, the distance between them a few inches.

Prison officials say Gardner willing made the 90-foot walk to the execution chamber. That’s hard to imagine, particularly from Gardner, who by his own accounts had spent much of the 30 years he was incarcerated “obsessed” with escape.

The state classifies executions as homicides. But this hadn’t been like other homicides I had covered over my 15-plus years in journalism. In those instances, the media showed up after the death, not before.

This, however, was a meticulously orchestrated event with a sober, prepackaged ending.

Despite being surrounded by dozens of prison officials and witnesses, Gardner essentially died alone.

No one from his family watched him go. Nor were his attorneys present.

Similarly, Gardner chose not to utter any final thoughts or feelings.

Maybe it was his way of holding on to a small slice of privacy amid his very public death.

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