Draper: 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 am.
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.
Gardner was at the Salt Lake City court facing a 1984 murder charge in the shooting death of a bartender, Melvyn Otterstrom.
Gardner and his defense attorneys fought to stop the execution to the end. They filed petitions with state and federal courts, asked a Utah parole board to commute his sentence to life in prison without parole, and finally unsuccessfully appealed to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the US Supreme Court.
Gardner even tried to appeal to the general public, setting up an interview with CNN`s "Larry King Live." But the Utah Department of Corrections canceled the phone interview minutes before it was scheduled to take place Wednesday.
Members of his family gathered outside the prison, some wearing T-shirts displaying his prisoner number, 14873. None planned to witness the execution, at Gardner`s request.
"He didn`t want nobody to see him get shot," said Gardner`s brother, Randy Gardner. "I would have liked to be there for him. I love him to death. He`s my little brother."
Gardner`s attorneys argued the jury that sentenced him to death in 1985 heard no mitigating evidence that might have led them to instead impose a life sentence for the man who described himself as a "nasty little bugger." Gardner`s life was marked by early drug addiction, physical and sexual abuse and possible brain damage, court records show.
"I had a very explosive temper," Gardner admitted.
The execution process was set in motion in March when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request from Gardner`s attorney to review the case. On April 23, state court Judge Robin Reese signed a warrant ordering the state to carry out the death sentence.
At that hearing, Gardner declared, "I would like the firing squad, please."
The firing squad has been Utah`s most-used form of capital punishment. Of the 49 executions held in the state since the 1850s, 40 were by firing squad.