Utah firing squad executes US killer Ronnie Lee Gardner

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff: "Ronnie Lee Gardner is being held accountable to a higher power"

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The US has carried out its first execution by firing squad in 14 years.

Convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, who had spent 25 years on death row, was executed soon after midnight local time (0600 GMT), after a final appeal had been rejected.

Gardner, 49, chose the firing squad before Utah banned the method in 2004. Critics say it is barbaric, harking back to the Wild West.

Gardner was only the third man put to death in this way in the US since 1976.

He was convicted in 1985 of fatally shooting a lawyer during an attempt to escape from a court where he was facing another murder charge dating from 1984.

Family vigil

The execution was carried out at a prison in Draper, a suburb of Salt Lake City, by a five-man firing squad of police officer volunteers.

US FIRING SQUAD EXECUTIONS*

  • Jan 17, 1977: Gary Gilmore executed in Utah for two murders committed in the state
  • Jan 26, 1996: John Albert Taylor executed in Utah for raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl

* Since 1976, when the US Supreme Court upheld new death penalty statutes

Four of the .30 calibre Winchester rifles were loaded with live bullets but a fifth carried a blank, so that none of the men would have known with certainty that he had shot a lethal round.

Gardner was asked if he had any final words and said: "I do not. No."

He was hooded and strapped to a black metal chair, with a white target pinned to his chest.

Gardner was then shot at a range of 25ft (7.6m).

Utah department of corrections director Thomas Patterson said there was a countdown from five, with the volunteers beginning to fire at two.

But Marcos Ortiz, of the KTVX TV station, said: "It was so sudden, so quick. Boom, boom, just like that. We didn't get a countdown. It happened so quickly."

Gardner was pronounced dead at 0020 local time.

Ronnie Lee Gardner, June 10, 2010 Ronnie Lee Gardner had been on death row for 25 years

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff used the Twitter micro-blogging site to say he had given the go-ahead for execution.

"May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims," Mr Shurtleff tweeted.

Mr Patterson said: "This is an unusual task but one we have done professionally. It has been done with absolute dignity and reverence for human life.

"It's been a balancing act of being sensitive to the families who lost loved ones and the family who lost a loved one tonight."

More than 20 of Gardner's friends and family members had gathered outside the prison to hold a vigil.

Some wore T-shirts bearing Gardner's prisoner number, 14873, but none witnessed the execution.

Brother Randy Gardner told Associated Press news agency: "He didn't want nobody to see him get shot. I would have liked to be there for him."

Ronnie Lee Gardner had spent his final day watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy and meeting lawyers and clergymen.

On Tuesday, Gardner had eaten his final meal of steak, lobster, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7-Up, before beginning a 48-hour fast.

Gardner's lawyers said he had undertaken his fast for "spiritual reasons", the Salt Lake City Tribune newspaper reported.

'Fair opportunity'

In 1985 Gardner had been attending court in Salt Lake City to face a charge of murdering barman Melvyn Otterstrom a year earlier.

COUNTRIES WITH HIGHEST NUMBER OF EXECUTIONS, 2009

China - 1,000+

Iran - 388+

Iraq - 120+

Saudi Arabia - 69+

USA - 52

Yemen - 30+

Sudan - 9+

Vietnam - 9+

Syria - 8+

Japan - 7

+ known executions but not possible for figure to be exact - Amnesty International

Gardner shot dead lawyer Michael Burdell during a failed attempt to escape from the courthouse.

Mr Burdell's family had asked for Gardner's life to be spared but the Otterstrom family had argued against clemency. Mr Otterstrom's son, Jason, attended the execution.

The US Supreme Court - the highest court in the nation - had rejected Gardner's final appeal hours before the execution.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert also rejected a request for a temporary stay on Thursday, saying Gardner's legal team had presented no material that had not already been considered by the courts.

"Mr Gardner has had a full and fair opportunity to have his case considered by numerous tribunals," he said in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union said Gardner's execution showed the US's "barbaric, arbitrary and bankrupting practice of capital punishment".

Death row convicts in Utah were for decades allowed to choose their method of execution.

State legislators removed that choice in 2004 and made lethal injection the standard method - but inmates sentenced before then can still opt for a firing squad.

The BBC's Rajesh Mirchandani says that of the nine members of the state's death row who can choose the method, four say they want to die this way.

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