Utah Supreme Court Denies Death-Row Inmate's Appeal

Utah Supreme Court Denies Death-Row Inmate's Appeal

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Utah Supreme Court on Friday said that instructions given to a jury that put a man on Utah's death row were wrong, but his objections were not raised in the appropriate court.

Ronnie Lee Gardner was convicted of shooting a lawyer to death during a failed courthouse escape in 1985.

Gardner had argued that his jury was told in order to convict they had to find -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- that Gardner intentionally "or knowingly" committed the murder.

State law defines "knowingly" as when a person is aware of the nature of his conduct, or the existing circumstances, and is aware that his conduct is reasonably certain to cause the result.

Instead of the "and" starting the last clause, the jury in Gardner's case receive was told "or is aware that his conduct is reasonably certain to cause the result."

The high court said the insertion of "or" instead of "and" allowed the jury to convict Gardner of first-degree murder by finding only that he was aware of the nature of his conduct without also determining that he was reasonably certain" that his actions would cause injury.

Gardner's attorneys at the time did not object to the instructions in state court, but raised the issue in appeals at the federal court level.

Even when saying the instructions were wrong, the Supreme Court on Friday still denied the appeal on procedural grounds, "since it could have been, but was not, raised in his original post-conviction proceeding."

Gardner's attorney said it was an important ruling since the high court has determined the instructions were wrong.

Lawyers James Bradshaw said it clears the way for the issue to be examined by the federal court.

He referred questions of why the case was not raised in state court to his co-counsel and Gardner's longtime attorney Andrew Parnes, who did not immediately return messages left at his office Friday by The Associated Press.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Brunker agreed that the issue would likely surface again when the federal case resumes, but says the decision is not as important as Bradshaw believes.

"It's really kind of an incremental step. Not a major push forward," Brunker said.

Gardner was sentenced to death for the November 1985 fatal shooting of attorney Mike Burdell. That happened when he tried to escape from a court hearing on a homicide he committed after escaping from prison two years earlier.

In 1983, Gardner faked an illness and then overpowered his guard at the University Hospital. He pistol-whipped the guard with his own gun, later leaving the weapon -- and a note of apology -- in a mailbox. He launched a robbery spree that included the shooting death of bartender Melvin Otterstrom.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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