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Ronnie Lee Gardner executed by firing squad

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DRAPER -- Condemned inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed early Friday morning. The 49-year-old was pronounced dead at 12:17 a.m., about two minutes after the firing squad shot him.

Strapped to a metal chair with a white target pinned to his chest, Gardner was fired upon by five anonymous marksmen standing behind a wall 25 feet away; all but one had live rounds.

Utah Department of Corrections Executive Director Tom Patterson said the marksmen were given a countdown from five, and all fired on two. It was a cadence the officers had chosen prior to the execution.


Patterson said Gardner complied fully with prison staff in the moments leading up to his execution and acted respectfully. He walked willingly to the chair where he was secured. The execution took place within five minutes.

Warden Steve Turley asked Gardner if he had any final comments. Gardner replied, "I do not. No."

A hood was then placed over his head, and the warden left the room. Witnesses say Gardner seemed calm but clenched his fists as if he were bracing for what was to come.

The marksmen opened fire about 30 seconds after Turley left. A medical examiner pronounced Gardner dead less than two minutes later.

Following the execution, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff addressed reporters at the State Capitol building.

"For us, the fact that we have exercised the most extreme power that the state has, the government has -- and that is to take life -- it's done very solemnly," Shurtleff said. "It's a very sobering moment, and I have nothing but a profound sense of humility right now."

Witness reports

Several reporters from local media outlets were allowed to witness Gardner's execution. During an early-morning press conference Friday, many said they were surprised at how quickly it all happened.

"A hood was then placed over his head, and about 30 seconds later the shots were fired, with a 'boom-boom,'" said KSL Newsradio reporter Sheryl Worsley.

The witnesses said they did not see any blood but did see Gardner's jumpsuit change color around his waist shortly after he was shot. Several assumed the color change was from pooling blood.

KSL TV News reporter Sandra Yi, who also witnessed the execution, said the most disturbing part for her was when Gardner's hand and arm continued to move after he had been shot.

"He moved his arm a couple of times, making us wonder if he was still alive," she said. "I also saw Gardner rub his thumb and forefinger together."

Worsley and some others saw the movement too.

"After the shots were fired, Gardner flinched and his left arm moved up and down a couple of times," Worsley said. "His finger and hand moved for about two minutes and then stopped." [CLICK HERE to read Sheryl Worsley's entire statement]

KUTV reporter Fields Mosley said that movement had some of them worried the marksmen would have to fire again, as the witnesses had been warned that it was a possibility. But the medical examiner entered moments later, checked Gardner's pulse and declared him dead.

KSL's Yi said, "After Gardner's body was removed, prison officials allowed us to go into the chamber, and it strongly smelled of bleach. There were four bullet holes in the wood panel behind the chair." [CLICK HERE to read Sandra Yi's witness account]

Victims' family witnesses execution

Relatives of Nick Kirk and Melvyn Otterstrom also witnessed the execution.

VelDean Kirk said, "Relief, I guess, is what I felt. I didn't get upset that he's been shot. And I thought, well Nick, now he's paid for what he did to all of you."

Craig Watson said, "It's just a big relief. I can't explain it to you. It's a very calming feeling that I know that he's gone now. He's paid for his crimes, and we won't have to see this every time we turn around. We won't have to remember all the things that happened."

Two government officials also witnessed the execution.

Gardner's history

Gardner was sentenced to die after being found guilty of the 1984 murder of attorney Michael Burdell, which occurred during a failed courtroom escape attempt. He also wounded court bailiff Nick Kirk in that incident.

At the time, Gardner was being prosecuted for the murder of Salt Lake City tavern employee Melvyn Otterstrom.

Gardner and his attorneys appealed his death sentence right up to the last minute but were unsuccessful.

"People say that 25 years is too long. Sometimes justice is long in coming," Shurtleff said. "[Criminals] need to understand that while justice may sometimes be slow, it will come, and that they will be held accountable for their actions."

The attorney general said he believes Gardner is now answering to a higher power.

"I hope and I pray that he will be given the mercy he denied his victims," Shurtleff said.

Gardner is the seventh inmate to be executed in the state of Utah since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

At Gardner's request, he was cremated and his remains then turned over to his family.


Story compiled with contributions from Sandra Yi, Sheryl Worsley and Mark Giauque.

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