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Federal judge rejects Gardner's petition to stay execution



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SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal judge will not stay the June 18 execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner. It's the latest denial in a series of last-minute appeals to keep Gardner alive.

Judge denies stay of execution

Tuesday night, a federal judge denied Gardner's request to stop his execution while he pursues a civil rights lawsuit. That lawsuit claims Gardner's commutation hearing before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole was biased.

Gardner's attorney, Andrew Parnes, says there was a conflict of interest because the Utah Attorney General's Office, which ordered the execution, also provides legal advice to the board. He wanted the judge to issue a stay to pursue a hearing on the matter.

The judge denied the request, saying there was little likelihood for success.

Parnes says his team will pursue other legal avenues because Gardner should have received a life sentence.

"That's been the problem all along, is he's never had an opportunity to have a fair and full adjudication," Parnes said.

Gardner's attorneys say they are now taking his case to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Parole board and Supreme Court deny appeals

This latest legal challenge came a day after the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole denied Gardner clemency. Monday night, the Utah Supreme Court also denied Gardner's final appeal.

In its 57-page ruling, the state Supreme Court said that Gardner's constitutional rights were protected during his trial and sentencing in 1985, and so a new sentencing hearing is not warranted.

Gardner case 2010 timeline
April 23, 2010 - Ronnie Lee Gardner to face firing squad
May 27, 2010 - Utah judges denies death row inmate's petition
June 4, 2010 - Utah high court denies death row inmate's appeal
June 8, 2010 - Judge denies inmate's petition for execution stay
June 14, 2010 - Parole board denies Gardner commutation, Utah Supreme Court denies Gardner's final appeal

"All of the claims Mr. Gardner raises in his most recent petition for post-conviction relief are claims that he could have raised more than a decade ago," Associated Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant wrote.

The court said it was "unpersuaded" by Gardner's arguments that state law dictating how and when post-conviction appeals can be filed should be set aside in his case in order to avoid a violation of his constitutional rights.

Governor says he won't interfere with execution

Meanwhile, Gov. Gary Herbert says he has no plans to interfere with the scheduled execution. Herbert says Gardner has received due process and was treated fairly.

"He's had that and then some, I believe, over a long period of time," Herbert said.

The governor can't issue a pardon under Utah law but could issue a temporary stay of execution at the defense's request.

That request hasn't come, but even if it does, "I have no plans to interject myself into it," Herbert said. "I think our system has served us well."

He says the law has worked the way it should.

Gardner can still ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review of the state Supreme Court ruling and stay his execution while it does so.

Death penalty opponents plan vigil

Opposition to Gardner Execution
Thursday, June 17
  • Interfaith prayer vigil, 5:30 p.m.
    St. Mark's Cathedral, 231 E. 100 South, Salt Lake City
  • Public rally, 9 p.m.
    South steps of the Utah State Capitol

As Gardner's execution date draws near, groups who oppose the death penalty are planning a prayer vigil and public rally for Thursday. A coalition of religious and secular organizations, called Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, is sponsoring both events.

"The death penalty serves no deterrent purpose. All it serves is people's thirst for vengeance, and we ought to rise above that morally as a community," says former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who is also a member of the group High Road for Human Rights.

Case continues from 1985

Gardner, 49, is being put to death for a 1985 capital murder conviction stemming from the fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell during an escape attempt. Gardner was at the court because he faced a murder charge in the shooting death of bartender Melvyn Otterstrom.

Utah lawmakers made lethal injection the default method of execution in 2004, but inmates condemned before then can still choose the firing squad. That's what Gardner did in April, politely telling a judge, "I would like the firing squad, please." Neither he nor his attorneys have said why.

An e-mail sent to Gardner's attorney, Andrew Parnes, was not immediately returned Tuesday.

In court papers and before justices last week, Parnes had argued that Gardner had not been treated fairly because mitigating evidence about his dysfunctional family, early childhood drug use and physical and sexual abuse were not heard by the state courts.

Such evidence, which had been developed for Gardner's federal appeal, could have persuaded a jury to impose a life sentence, not death, Parnes said. He said Gardner is the only one of Utah's 10 death row inmates not to be afforded state funds for post-conviction relief. Such monies were unavailable at the time of Gardner's first appeal.

Gardner wanted the court to either vacate his death sentence and send the case back to a state court for a new sentencing hearing or commute his sentence to life in prison without parole.

But justices agreed with state prosecutors -- and upheld a state judge's ruling -- that Gardner's claims that he had lacked resources and was inadequately represented by attorneys during previous appeals should have been raised following rulings issued in the late 1990s.

"We are obviously pleased that the court recognized that Gardner could have brought these claims far earlier," Utah Assistant Attorney General Thomas Brunker said Tuesday. "This well-reasoned opinion should be all but the very last step to bring that 25 years of review to an end."

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Story compiled with contributions from Sandra Yi, Sheryl Worsley and the Associated Press.

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