Image: The execution chamber at the Utah State Prison
Trent Nelson  /  AP
The execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper is seen after Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad Friday. Four bullet holes are visible in the wood panel behind the chair.
By Associated Press Writer
updated 6/18/2010 8:51:16 AM ET 2010-06-18T12:51:16

The explosive reports sent a volley of .30-caliber bullets from the five marksmen into the chest of Ronnie Lee Gardner.

I was expecting to flinch but didn't as I watched his execution from the witness room.

It was so quick that for a split-second I wondered if it had actually happened.

There was no blood splattered across the white cinderblock wall at the Utah State Prison. No audible sounds from the condemned. I couldn't see his eyes. I never saw the guns and didn't hear the countdown to the trigger-pull.

A twice-convicted killer who had a troubled upbringing, the 49-year-old Gardner was executed by firing squad shortly after midnight on Friday. I was one of nine journalists selected to observe his death.

When the prison warden pulled back the beige curtain, Gardner was already strapped into a black, straight-backed metal chair. His head secured by a strap across his forehead. Harness-like straps constrained his chest. His handcuffed arms hung at his sides. A white cloth square — maybe 3 inches across — affixed to his chest over his heart bore a black target.

Thumb twitches
Seconds before the impact of the bullets, Gardner's left thumb twitched against his forefinger. When his chest was pierced, he clenched his fist. His arm pulled up slowly as if he were lifting something and then released. The motion repeated.

Although the dark blue prison jumpsuit made it difficult to see, blood seemed to be pooling around Gardner's waist.

The silence was deafening.

A medical examiner checked Gardner's pulse on both sides of his neck, then lifted the black hood to check his pupils with a flashlight, offering a brief glimpse of his now ashen face.

It was 12:17 a.m. Only two minutes had passed since the shots were fired, but it felt like things had moved in slow motion.

About an hour later, prison officials let the media inspect the chamber. There was a strong smell of bleach, but no sign of blood.

The only evidence that a man had been shot and killed there were four holes from the bullets that impaled the black wood panels behind the chair. Right to left, the distance between them was a few inches.

'Obsessed' with escape
Prison officials say Gardner willingly made the 90-foot walk to the execution chamber Friday morning. That's hard to imagine, particularly from Gardner, who by his own accounts had spent much of the 30 years he was incarcerated "obsessed" with escape.

The state classifies executions as homicides. But this hadn't been like other homicides I had covered over my 15-plus years in journalism. In those instances, the media showed up after the death, not before.

This, however, was a meticulously orchestrated event with a sober, prepackaged ending.

Despite being surrounded by dozens of prison officials and witnesses, Gardner essentially died alone.

No one from his family watched him go. Nor were his attorneys present.

Similarly, Gardner chose not to utter any final thoughts or feelings.

Maybe it was his way of holding on to a small slice of privacy amid his very public death.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Utah killer executed by firing squad

  1. Transcript of: Utah killer executed by firing squad

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Moving on, the first execution by firing squad in the United States in 14 years was carried out overnight in Utah . It's a method that was chosen by convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner . NBC 's George Lewis is in Draper , Utah , with the latest. George , good morning to you.

    GEORGE LEWIS reporting: Good morning, Matt. For decades, condemned prisoners in Utah could choose their method of execution until 2004 , when the legislature mandated lethal injections. But Gardner was convicted under the old law so he chose to die by firing squad . He did that, according to his brother, because he had gunned down his victims and figured death by firing squad was appropriate. It was shortly after midnight here when Gardner was led into this execution chamber , strapped to this chair, and asked if he had any final words.

    Mr. TOM PATTERSON (Utah Department of Corrections): To which Mr. Gardner replied, "I do not." Following the statement a hood was placed over Mr. Gardner 's head.

    LEWIS: Five sharpshooters took aim at his heart and fired.

    Mr. PATTERSON: Mr. Gardner was pronounced dead at 12:17 this morning.

    Offscreen Voice: To see a life just destroyed.

    LEWIS: In the hours leading up to the execution, groups opposing the death penalty demonstrated outside the prison grounds and at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City . Gardner 's death sentence was a result of a courthouse shooting spree 25 years ago. In a botched escape attempt, he killed a lawyer and seriously wounded a bailiff. He was in court because of a previous murder charge. As his execution date approached, Gardner tried to get his sentence commuted to life, arguing to the parole board that his 25 years in prison had made him a changed man.

    Mr. RONNIE LEE GARDNER: I can do a lot of good. I really believe that I can -- first of all, I'm a good example. There's no better example in this state of what not to do.

    LEWIS: But the parole board didn't agree.

    Unidentified Man #1: The board denies Gardner 's petition for commutation.

    LEWIS: And after Gardner was executed, the relatives of some of his victims spoke to reporters.

    Mr. CRAIG WATSON (Cousin of Victim): He's gone now, and we don't have to worry about him escaping and killing some other innocent person.

    Ms. VELDEAN KIRK (Wife of Victim): We all, I think, felt the same. Just kind of relief that it was over with now.

    LEWIS: Gardner 's family stood vigil outside the prison releasing balloons at the time of his execution.

    Ms. DARIAN GARDNER (Granddaughter): It's sad that he's gone, but he's free now.

    Unidentified Man #2: You know, I just don't agree with the death penalty . I just think they committed a murder just like he did. Two wrongs don't make a right.

    LEWIS: A violent end to a violent man. This may not put an end to firing squad executions in Utah . There are others on death row who have the same choice that Gardner had. Matt :


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