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Death-row inmate dies in a barrage of bullets

A firing squad executed convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner early on Friday, Utah prison officials said.
Ronnie Lee Gardner
Ronnie Lee Gardner raises his restrained hand as he is sworn in before speaking at his commutation hearing at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. Next to him is his attorney Andrew Parnes. Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad after midnight Thursday.Trent Nelson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner died in a barrage of bullets early Friday as Utah carried out its first firing squad execution in 14 years.

Shortly before the shooting, Gardner was strapped into a chair and a team of five marksmen aimed their guns at a white target pinned to his chest.

He was pronounced dead at 12:20 a.m.

Utah adopted lethal injection as the default execution method in 2004, but Gardner was one still allowed to choose the controversial firing squad option because he was sentenced before the law changed. He told his lawyer he did it because he preferred it — not because he wanted the controversy surrounding the execution to draw attention to his case or embarrass the state.

Some decried the execution as barbaric, and about two dozen members of Gardner's family held a vigil outside the prison as he was shot. There were no protests at the prison.

The executioners were all certified police officers who volunteered for the task and remain anonymous. They stood about 25 feet from Gardner, behind a wall cut with a gunport, and were armed with a matched set of .30-caliber Winchester rifles. One was loaded with a blank so no one knows who fired the fatal shot. Sandbags stacked behind Gardner's chair kept the bullets from ricocheting around the cinderblock room.

Gardner was sentenced to death for a 1985 capital murder conviction stemming from the fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell during a failed escape attempt. He was at the Salt Lake City court facing a 1984 murder charge in the shooting death of a bartender.

Last-minute appeals fail
A flurry of last-minute appeals and requests for stays were rejected Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Gov. Gary Herbert.

The Supreme Court turned down three appeals late Thursday, although one of its orders showed that two justices, Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens, would have granted Gardner's request for a stay.

"We are disappointed with the court's decisions, declining to hear Mr. Gardner's case," one of his attorneys, Megan Moriarty, said in a statement to The Associated Press. "It's unfair that he will be executed without a full and fair review of his case."

After a visit with his family, Gardner was moved from his regular cell in a maximum security wing of the Utah State Prison to an observation cell Wednesday night, Department of Corrections officials said.

On Thursday, they said Gardner was spent time sleeping, reading the novel "Divine Justice," watching the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy and meeting with his attorneys and a bishop from the Mormon church. Gehrke said officers described his mood as relaxed.

Last Coke, Mountain Dew
Although officials had said he planned to fast after having his last requested meal Tuesday, Gardner drank a Coke and a Mountain Dew on Thursday night. His Tuesday meal consisted of steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7UP.

Attorney Andrew Parnes, who has represented Gardner for 12 years, had his last visit with Gardner around 10 p.m. MDT (1 a.m ET Friday). Parnes said Gardner had been focused on other people and programs he wanted to start, including one for at-risk youth.

"He's concerned about how his family is doing. He's concerned about how I'm doing," Parnes said. "He's just really strong. Now is that bravado? I don't know."

Gardner was the third man killed by firing squad in the U.S. since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Although Utah altered its capital punishment law in 2004 to make lethal injection the default method, nine inmates convicted before that date, including Gardner, can still choose the firing squad over lethal injection.

Tortured trajectory
In trying to delay the execution, Gardner has spoken emotionally in recent days of his desire to start a 160-acre organic farm and program for at-risk youth. He also acknowledged his own tortured trajectory to a parole board last week: "It would have been a miracle if I didn't end up here," he said.

Gardner first came to the attention of authorities at age 2 as he was found walking alone on a street clad only in a diaper. At age 6 he became addicted to sniffing gasoline and glue. Harder drugs — LSD and heroin — followed by age 10. By then Gardner was tagging along with his stepfather as a lookout on robberies, according to court documents.

After spending 18 months in a state mental hospital and being sexually abused in a foster home, he killed Otterstrom at age 23. About six months later, at 24, he shot Burdell in the face as the attorney hid behind a door in the courthouse.

"I had a very explosive temper," Gardner said last week. "Even my mom said it was like I had two personalities."

On Wednesday, Gardner asked to talk to CNN's "Larry King Live." A statement from prison officials said the show's producers expressed interest in a telephone interview and the Department of Corrections considered it but decided to maintain its policy of not making Gardner available to the media.

FILE - In this April 1985 picture, Ronnie Lee Gardner is restrained on the lawn at the Metropolitan Hall of Justice, in Salt Lake City after the courthouse shooting death of attorney Michael Burdell during Gardner's failed escape attempt. Ronnie Lee Gardner is scheduled to be executed by firing squad at midnight on June 18, 2010. (AP Photo/Deseret News, O. Wallace Kasteler) SALT LAKE TRIBUNE OUT; PROVO DAILY HERALD OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALESO. Wallace Kasteler / Deseret News

The show's publicist didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

'He will feel that fear'
Tami Stewart's father, George "Nick" Kirk, was a bailiff who was shot and wounded in Gardner's botched escape. Kirk suffered chronic health problems until his death in 1995 and became frustrated by the lack of justice Gardner's years of appeals afforded him, Stewart said.

She said she's not happy about the idea of Gardner's death but believes it will bring her family some closure.

"I think at that moment, he will feel that fear that his victims felt," Stewart said.

Burdell's father, Joseph Burdell Jr., said Gardner's desire to help troubled kids is proof that some transformation has come.

"I understand that he wants to apologize. I think it would be difficult for him," he said by phone Tuesday from his Cary, N.C., home. "Twenty-five years is a long time. He's not the same man."

At his commutation hearing, Gardner shed a tear after telling the board his attempts to apologize to the Otterstroms and Kirks had been unsuccessful. He said he hoped for forgiveness.

"If someone hates me for 20 years, it's going to affect them," Gardner said. "I know killing me is going to hurt them just as bad. It's something you have to live with every day. You can't get away from it. I've been on the other side of the gun. I know."