An Old Fashioned Execution

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.

15 thoughts on “An Old Fashioned Execution

  1. Turk

    It should always be this way if we have the death penalty. The idea of making it look nice and pretty with an injection distorts the reality of what’s occurring.

  2. SHG

    That’s one of the reasons I sometimes think that executions should be televised. On the other hand, I am seriously afraid that too many would enjoy it.

  3. Andrew

    “There’s just some people,” he says, “we need to kick off the planet.”

    While that may be true, I wonder if he ever stopped to think about how to identify those people. Based upon his response I doubt that he put much thought into it.

    Perhaps it’d be better if the prosecutor was responsible for pulling the trigger. There’s a big disconnect between the two.

    The prosecutor wipes his hands after the sentence and the executioner just assumes that everything was done properly. It’s easy to justify your decisions when you only play a small part. As long as nobody really gets their hands dirty there’s no incentive to think critically about their actions.

    The executioner can tell himself that the justice system wouldn’t allow an innocent man to stand before him so the condemned must be one of “those” people. He has the added bonus of being able to tell himself that perhaps his gun was the one with the blank. The prosecutor can tell himself that if the guy was wrongfully convicted then the appeals process will sort it out.

    From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like the system is designed to salve the conscience of the actors who play their parts. Is it any wonder that the executioner can feel more sorry for a squirrel?

  4. Turk

    That’s one of the reasons I sometimes think that executions should be televised.

    On the courthouse steps. At dawn. The voters should get a chance to see their laws in action.

  5. Jdog

    There’d be some backstop problems with that location.

    More seriously, well, yeah, but it wouldn’t change things. The key issues that reasonable people have with the DP isn’t that it looks ugly, but that they believe that a: there’s too high a killing-a-guy-who-really-didn’t-do-it rate, or b: society shouldn’t have the right to deliberately and retailly kill somebody (the votes aren’t in on wholesale), or both. Issues about ugliness or expense only seem to be persuasive to folks who have already signed on for a: and/or b:.

  6. Shawn McManus


    You’re picture grossly mischaracterizes Utah’s process. The man in the picture very likely didn’t elect to be shot. He likely wasn’t given a trial. He was probably being executed for not supporting the Communist Party or even for not letting a party member sleep with his daughter.

    Utah uses five shooters. All of which are excellent marksmen and only one of which uses a live round.

    I’m sure that Gardener would now choose no-death were it an option. However, he decided what his life was worth when he killed Burdell.

  7. Jdog

    Well, no; Utah uses a five-man firing squad, one of whom has a blank round — the other four are live rounds. (In theory, at least; in the Gary Gilmore execution, five holes were found in Gilmore’s body.)

  8. Jdog

    Oh, and the guy in the picture was definitely not executed for either of the reasons you suggest — he was a Viet Cong officer, named Nguyễn Văn Lém, and he was executed by Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, a general of police in South Vietnamese. You might google for “Eddie Adams”, who later regretted having taken the picture. fwiw.

  9. Shawn McManus

    And I was all set to decry the Vietnamese communists.

    WRT the procedure, four live / one blank is better than one live / four blank in that death is much more likely to be sure.

    Use of the firing squad in Utah is prohibited unless the condemned requests it.

    Yet it remains no comparison to the summary execution depicted.

  10. SHG

    There’s one comparison that shouldn’t be overlooked. That’s the face of a man having his brains blown out.

  11. Jeff Gamso

    I’ve done some of the lethal injection litigation and been involved in other LI cases. And I’ve represented a number of condemned men (and 5 who’ve been executed).

    Aside from a general abhorrence of the whole death penalty idea and process, I’ve got mixed emotions about the how-we-do-it thing. I’ve suggested, only half in jest, having the men gnawed to death by rats in Yankee Stadium and broadcasting it on pay per view. And as I said, I’ve litigated LI, arguing that there’s at least a fair chance we really are (especially here in Ohio) torturing these folks, and got a judge to agree.

    The issue, really, is why we kill. If it’s just to eradicate, then we should be finding the most humane way possible to end life (and it’s pretty clear we don’t do that). If it’s to express something or to punish, then the rats thing makes some sense.

    But then there’s the point of view of the condemned guy. And I gotta tell you, from their point of view, reduced likelihood of horrific pain seems like a really good thing.

    Firing squad is different across the board though. There are those who say it’s about the most humane way. That seems viscerally wrong, and the picture captures part of why.

    But of course the real lesson – rats, guillotine, hanging, firing squad, LI, hemlock, whatever – is that there’s no nice way to kill people. The efforts by the states to shut down every method but LI is based on the belief that people support the death penalty but mostly only when they’re removed from it. So we sanitize and medicalize and pretend. But however we do it, we’re still just killing people.

  12. Jdog

    If it’s just to eradicate, then we should be finding the most humane way possible to end life (and it’s pretty clear we don’t do that). If it’s to express something or to punish, then the rats thing makes some sense.

    I dunno. I think there’s something awfully cruel about locking a guy up in a cage for typically, as I understand it, in excess of a decade and then killing him, even painlessly. That said, it may be cruel, but it isn’t unusual, these days.

  13. Jeff Gamso

    No disagreement from me. Here’s what Camus said:
    “What then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be an equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal, who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him, and who from that moment onward had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”
    Actually, there’s a line of constitutional argument on that point that Stevens and Breyer, at least, have found intriguing, and that the British courts have found compelling.
    Of course, those years aren’t technically part of the sentence.

  14. hoof_in_mouth

    Disregarding my disapproval at the death penalty being applied by an imperfect system…

    I consider firing squad to be the least “cruel and unusual” of the methods in practice. Government and plain people shoot each other to death every day, so it’s a common method. It’s no so often that anyone is deliberately killed via fast poison, electrocution, or poison gas — only the State does that.

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