In the past 40 years, only three prisoners in the United States have been executed by firing squad, all of them in Utah. The last inmate to stand before the firing squad in this country was Ronnie Lee Gardner, on June 18, 2010.
Like many criminals, Gardner seemed destined for a life of crime and imprisonment from a young age. He was born in Salt Lake City in 1961, one of 9 kids. His mother preferred to spend her time drinking instead of raising her children, and his father split when he was a toddler, so Gardner was mostly raised by his older sister. The family was poor, and when he was only 6 years old, his older brothers introduced him to sniffing glue and huffing gas. By the age of 10, Gardner was using drugs and drinking alcohol on a regular basis. Later, Gardner admitted that one of his brothers had molested him when he was young.
By his teens, Gardner had already spent time in a number of institutions in Utah. He became a thief, sometimes acting as a lookout while his stepfather burglarized homes. Gardner was also a drug addict by this point, having escalated his earlier use to include cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. When Gardner was around 14 years old, he and one of his brothers went to live with a man named Jack Statt, who became Gardner’s foster parent for a time.
Statt molested both of the boys, and Gardner later admitted he had worked as a prostitute while he lived with the older man. Sadly, Gardner said his time living with Statt was the most stable period of his life: “Jack was a good man, and he tried to help us out.” Gardner spent the next several years in and out of juvenile detention facilities, eventually landing in the Utah State Prison for robbery in February 1980, at the age of 19. That same month, Gardner’s girlfriend, Debra Bischoff, gave birth to their second child.
On April 19, 1981, Gardner and another inmate scaled the walls of the Utah State Prison and escaped. When he went to see Debra Bischoff, she confessed to Gardner that she had slept with another man. Blinded by jealousy, Gardner was now on a mission for revenge. He got a gun and went out looking for the man who had slept with the mother of his two children. Upon confronting the man, Gardner was shot in the neck and then re-arrested after he tried to hitch a ride away from the scene. He was back behind bars.
Gardner tried to escape prison two more times, finally making it out again on August 6, 1984. He faked an illness, and, after being transferred to the University of Utah Hospital, attacked a guard and stole his gun. Gardner then forced a medical student at gunpoint to drive him away from the hospital on his motorcycle. The fugitive went on the run. Two months later, in October 1984, Gardner finally crossed the line and took a life. High on cocaine, he robbed a bar in Salt Lake City. During the robbery, he shot the bartender, 37-year-old Melvyn Otterstrom, in the face, killing him instantly. Police received a tip, and three weeks after the murder, Gardner was arrested at a cousin’s house.
In the midst of his murder trial in April 1985, Gardner attempted yet another daring escape from custody. While being escorted by guards in Salt Lake City’s Metropolitan Hall of Justice, someone passed Gardner a gun, which he immediately drew on the guards. One of the guards responded by shooting Gardner in the chest. The convict retreated to an archives room in the building, where he encountered 45-year-old attorney Michael Burdell. Gardner shot Burdell through the eye and killed him. He then shot a bailiff in the stomach. Gardner managed to make it out of the Hall of Justice, but, not wanting to be shot again, he surrendered after being surrounded by police.
A few months after the shootings at the Hall of Justice, Ronnie Lee Gardner pleaded guilty to the murder of Melvyn Otterstrom and received a life sentence. In October 1985, he received a death sentence for murdering Michael Burdell during his escape attempt. Gardner told the judge, “I’d prefer to die of old age, your honor, but if that ain’t possible, I’ll take the firing squad.”
Until 2004, Utah granted the condemned the right to choose between lethal injection and the firing squad. When the law changed to outlaw the firing squad, it was not retroactively applied to those who had already been sentenced and elected the method for their execution. Later, in 2015, Utah brought back the firing squad as a reaction to a series of nationally denounced, botched injections, though it has yet to be used again.
Gardner’s life in prison was not uneventful. He stabbed another prisoner with a homemade shank in 1994 after getting drunk on fermented alcohol he had made in his cell’s sink. His case went through appeal after appeal, until his death date was finally handed down. Gardner wanted to die by firing squad because of his “Mormon heritage” – he believed it was his duty as a Mormon to offer a “blood atonement” for his crimes. The day before Gardner’s execution, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement that said blood atonement was not part of Mormon belief.
Blood atonement or not, Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by 5 anonymous shooters just after midnight on June 18, 2010 at the Utah State Prison. He was 49-years-old, the last person to be executed by firing squad in the United States.
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