Utah killer chooses firing squad over lethal injection

Deborah W. Denno in USA Today On Deadline blog, April 23, 2010

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A Utah inmate will face a firing squad in June, the state's first execution in more than 10 years and the first by firearms since 1996.

A state judge today signed the death warrant for 49-year-old Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was convicted of murdering an attorney during an escape attempt from a Salt Lake City courthouse in 1985. When asked whether he wanted lethal injection or firing squad, a shackled Garner told the judge, "I would like the firing squad, please," the Salt Lake Tribune writes. Utah is the only state to offer such a choice.

Gardner, who has spent nearly half his life in jail, will be shot June 18 at the Utah State Prison in Draper, barring successful appeals to the Utah Supreme Court or the state pardon board.

Gary Gilmore gained infamy on Jan. 17, 1977, when he chose a firing squad over hanging. He was the first American to be executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Norman Mailer portrayed Gilmore's death in his novel The Executioner's Song, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980.

John Albert Taylor was the last Utah inmate and U.S. prisoner executed by firing squad. He was shot Jan. 26, 1996, for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. Hooded and strapped to a chair, five marksmen with matched rifles fired at a cloth target taped over his heart. Four executioners fired live rounds and one fired a blank. None knew who fired which.

Taylor said he chose the firing squad over lethal injection to embarrass Utah.

Besides Gardner, Utah has nine other men on death row.

Update at 5:14 p.m. ET: People are weighing in on whether firing squads are more humane than lethal injection. We just received an email from Deborah Denno at Fordham University, who specializes in legal issues regarding methods of execution. Here's what she writes:

    "Utah is to be commended for allowing the firing squad even though there have been very few such executions in this country. While the firing squad has not been systematically evaluated and the method has always carried with it the baggage of its brutal image and roots, evidence suggests that it may well be the most humane of all execution methods, including lethal injection, which is now used almost exclusively. Ironically, then, lethal injection, which has the veneer of medical acceptability, has far greater risks of cruelty to a condemned person than the firing squad, which has the aura of the wild west."

(Posted by Michael Winter)