Assuming no last minute commutation or reprieve, Utah will execute Ronnie Lee Gardner on June 18th. That, unfortunately, isn’t particularly newsworthy. What is unusual is that Gardner, as is the law in Utah, got to select the means of death, and he chose a firing squad.
It conjures up images of the old west, or at least the old fashioned, way to die. Lacking any experience in how such an execution would actually be performed, Doug Berman provides some of the details.
Ronnie Lee Gardner will be strapped into a chair, a hood will be placed over his head and a small white target will be pinned over his heart. The order will come: “Ready, aim…”
The 49-year-old convicted killer will be executed by a team of five anonymous marksmen firing with a matched set of .30-caliber rifles.
While five bullets are fired, they are fired at the same moment so the sound is of one. Utah is the only state in the Union that still allows for execution by firing squad, which critics argue is “barbaric”.
Critics decry the firing squad as a barbaric method that should have been relegated to the dustbin of the frontier era. “The firing squad is archaic, it’s violent, and it simply expands on the violence that we already experience from guns as a society,” Bishop John C. Wester, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said during an April protest. The diocese is part of a new coalition pushing for alternatives to capital punishment in Utah.
The choice is left to the dead man walking, who in this case “politely” asked the judge for a bullet. No reason was given for the choice. While one might wonder how it feels to be the person pulling the trigger, Berman also provides the answer to that question:
The former firing squad member asked not to be named, as he remains a law enforcement officer in the state. . . The officer agreed to recount his experience because he believes in the death penalty — and thinks the firing squad method is plagued by misconceptions.
It is not like the scenes depicted in movies, with a condemned man tied to a stake and smoking a last cigarette before being riddled with bullets in a gruesome spectacle. Instead, he says over coffee, toast with grape jelly and an omelet, the process is instantaneous and carried out with the utmost professionalism.
“It was anti-climactic,” he says. “Another day at the office.”
Does he have any lingering effects from his role in the execution? “I’ve shot squirrels I’ve felt worse about,” he says. He volunteered to participate, he said, and would do so again, given the opportunity. “There’s just some people,” he says, “we need to kick off the planet.”
“I haven’t lost three seconds of sleep over it,” he says. “… it’s true justice.”
Obviously there is no remorse when the taking of life is on the government dime. Another dedicated public servant.
It’s often struck me as inexplicable that people focus on the method of death rather than the sentence of death, the former being the least of the defendant’s worries. It would be one thing if the defendant was tortured, subjected to excruciating pain, as his life ebbed from his body, slowly, slowly, until he finally prayed for death to stop the pain. But the methods are all relatively quick and painless. I use the word relatively since we rarely get much feedback from the defendants, except in Ohio where the news wasn’t good, but wasn’t bad enough to change much.
The shooter’s description of his job, “another day at the office,” captures the cavalier attitude of the state. Killing people is just another function of what government does. The only question remaining is why, in this time of budget cuts, don’t they just use one shooter with one bullet and get it over with. After all, it doesn’t sound like the firing squad member has any qualms with pulling the trigger, and there doesn’t appear to be much need for all the drama attached to this wild west production.
Since we’re unlikely to be offered a ringside seat, though you can bet that somebody, given half a chance, would turn this into a reality television show, here’s an image that will remind us of the heritage of an execution by a gun. Utah, the Viet Nam of the United States. It won’t be a whole lot different.