Parole board denies Gardner commutation

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DRAPER -- The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole has denied clemency for death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner. The decision allows Gardner's June 18 execution by firing squad to move forward.

Gardner chose not to be at Monday's hearing. Immediately afterward, his attorney, Andrew Parnes, went to deliver the news. Parnes said both he and Gardner are disappointed but are forging ahead, pursuing other legal avenues to save Gardner's life.

It's going to be ... bitter in the fact that another human being is going to die. But it's going to be sweet that he won't be able to kill anybody else.

–Craig Watson

The board's statement, delivered by chairman Curt Garner, reads, in part: "Gardner makes no claims of innocence, and admits that he is guilty of each of the crimes of which he has been convicted. Based upon the facts and circumstances of this case, including Gardner's criminal history, life history, and the totality of the information, evidence, records, testimony and arguments submitted, reviewed and considered in this matter, the board determined that the jury's verdict imposing the death sentence … was not inappropriate."

Family members of several of Gardner's victims sat holding hands and silently cheered as Garner read the board's decision.

"We have the death penalty, and that's what he got, and that's what needs to be carried out," said Jenny Sedgwick, a niece of Melvyn Otterstrom, who was shot and killed by Gardner during a robbery in 1984.

The decision was also good news for the family of Nick Kirk. Gardner shot and wounded Kirk, a bailiff, during his escape attempt from the old Salt Lake County Courthouse in 1985.

"It needs to be done, it needs to be carried out," said Tami Steward, who's father, Nick Kirk, was shot and wounded during Gardner's courthouse escape attempt in 1985. "The jury made its decision and we need to honor that, otherwise justice doesn't follow."

On Friday Kirk's wife will witness Gardner's death. She says her husband, who died in 1995, wanted her to see it through.

"Oh, he would have been glad. He was afraid it was never going to happen, [Gardner] was going to get off," VelDean Kirk said.

Last week, Gardner asked the board to give him life in prison. He said he was a changed man who wanted to start a camp for troubled kids.

"I could do a lot of good," Gardner told board members. "First of all, I'm a good example. There's no better example in this state of what not to do."

But state prosecutors say Gardner, with his lengthy criminal history, will always be a dangerous man.

"Although Mr. Gardner has managed to behave himself for the last five years, there's no reason to think that would continue if he only had a life sentence," said Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker.

Gardner was sentenced to death for the murder of Michael Burdell, an attorney who was at the courthouse when Gardner tried to escape. Friends of Burdell earlier asked that Gardner's sentence be commuted.

Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker argued before the parole board Burdell's killing only made him a candidate for the death penalty, and that it was the killing of Otterstrom and the shooting of Kirk that justifies execution.

Victims' families say they don't want to see anyone die, but Gardner needs to face the punishment a jury gave him 25 years ago.

"I feel sorry for him. What a stupid, horrible life he's done for himself," Stewart said.

"Maybe his death will help with these kids he keeps talking about to stay on the ‘straight and narrow.' Maybe they won't want to do something and stand before a firing squad," said Craig Watson, also a cousin to Melvyn Otterson.

Monday's decision was not Gardner's last opportunity to stay alive; he still has a legal appeal pending. The Utah Supreme Court is still deciding on whether to stay Gardner's execution.

"I would not be surprised to see further filings," Brunker said, "but in terms of the general process, this is usually the last step."

Meanwhile, a former chairman of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole told KSL's Doug Wright he believes the firing squad is the most humane method of execution.

"It's quick. He will never even hear the shots, and it's over," Mike Sibbet said.

Sibbet said he's disappointed all the attention has on Gardner instead of his victims.

"In this case, multiple people lost their lives in cold blood," he said.

As chairman, Sibbet says a victim's family was his top concern.


Story compiled with contributions from Sandra Yi, Marc Giauque and Adam Thomas.


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