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Reporter: Prisoner clenched fist after execution by firing squad



Photo credit: “Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle, a witness to the firing squad execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner, traced these exit holes made by the four bullets that ended the killer’s life early Friday morning.”

Five sharpshooters fired bullets through the heart of double murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner on Friday, making him the first US prisoner in 14 years to be executed by firing squad.


Shackled to a chair and with a black hood covering his head, Gardner, 49, was put to death just after midnight in a brightly lit execution chamber at Utah State Prison.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle, one of nine journalists who witnessed the execution, “focused on [Gardner’s] fist.”

At the bottom of his restraint, I focused on his fist. Gardner died much the way he lived — with a clenched fist.

“At the time, I interpreted this as Gardner suffering — clenching his fist in an effort to fight the pain,” Carlisle writes.

As I write this, I don’t know whether that’s true. It could have just been reflexes or some other process the body begins after a major trauma. Scientists do not know much about what a person shot through the heart feels.


Carlisle writes that he’s “amazed” that so many people have asked him if it’s the only execution he ever witnessed, but never once writes how he felt watching a man shot to death, whom he described in his last moments as looking like “Utah’s own ghost of Hannibal Lecter.”

“Firing four bullets into a man’s chest is, by definition, violent,” Carlisle writes, before noting, “If it can also be clinical and sterile, then that also happened in this execution.”

Asked if he had any last words, Gardner, who had been on death row for 25 years, replied: “I do not. No.”


The warden “reached up and gently pulled a hood over Gardner’s head,” Carlisle writes.

Over the next 30 seconds, my heart raced. I realized the five gunmen would launch their volleys any moment. I placed a Styrofoam plug in my right ear to match the one I had earlier placed in my left. The other reporters and I stood in front of the glass.

I watched Gardner. As the seconds passed, I grew anxious. I pivoted my eyes away from Gardner toward the slits.

In that fraction of a second my eyes were in transit, I heard “boom boom.” The sounds were as close together as you could spew them from your mouth.

My eyes darted back to Gardner and to his chest. The target, perfect just a second earlier, had three holes. The largest hole was in the top half of the circle and toward Gardner’s left side. It may have been where two bullets entered Gardner.


Carlisle’s last image: “In the final second, my eyes focused on the straightened left arm, seemingly flexing, and that clenched fist.”

Utah Department of Corrections director Thomas Patterson told reporters Gardner was pronounced dead two minutes after being shot.

“This is an unusual task but one we have done professionally,” Patterson said. “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.”

Journalists who witnessed the execution reported seeing Gardner’s arm twitch up and down after the firing squad blasted their 30/30 caliber Winchester rifles at a small target placed over Gardner’s heart.

“It was so sudden, so quick. Boom, boom, just like that. We didn’t get a countdown. It happened so quickly,” said Marcos Ortiz of KTVX TV.

Gardner’s gruesome death was billed as a bloody throwback to the days of Old West justice, the first execution of its kind in the United States for more than a decade and possibly the last ever.


But there was an unmistakably 21st century twist to his final minutes when Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff used micro-blogging site Twitter to announce he had given the final approval for the execution.

“I just gave the go-ahead to Corrections Department to proceed with Gardner’s execution,” Shurtleff tweeted shortly before Gardner was shot. “May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims.”

Firing squads were outlawed by Utah in 2004 but the ban was not retroactive, allowing Gardner the freedom to opt for the gruesome method instead of lethal injection during a hearing in April.

Gardner had spent 25 years on death row for gunning down an attorney in a failed bid to escape from a court room in 1985 during a murder trial. His case had renewed debate about use of the death penalty in the United States and divided family and friends of his victims.


Loved ones of lawyer Michael Burdell, shot dead by Gardner in his botched escape attempt, have said they were against his execution because Burdell opposed the death penalty.

“Michael was a gentle soul. And he loved people and he loved life. And he would not have wanted Ronnie Lee to be killed, especially in his name,” Donna Nu, Burdell’s fiancee, told CNN earlier Thursday.

“I think that we as a human race — all the brilliant minds we have on this planet — we could come up maybe with something better.”

Gardner’s death came after a day which saw his lawyers fail with multiple appeals to have the execution stayed, lobbying Utah Governor Gary Herbert, a federal court in Denver and the US Supreme Court. All three bids were rejected.

“Upon careful review, there is nothing in the materials provided this morning that has not already been considered and decided by the Board of Pardons and Parole or numerous courts,” Herbert wrote.


“Mr Gardner has had a full and fair opportunity to have his case considered by numerous tribunals.”

The Utah Department of Corrections said Gardner was “relaxed” Thursday, spending the day reading a David Baldacci novel — “Divine Justice” — while watching “The Lord of the Rings” fantasy trilogy.

He was served his final meal — steak, lobster, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7-Up — on Tuesday before choosing to commence a 48-hour fast before his execution for undisclosed reasons.

He met his attorney during the morning, after saying goodbye to his brother and daughter on Wednesday through prison bars.


Gardner requested none of his family members be present at his execution, which was witnessed by a small group of state officials, relatives of Gardner’s victims and journalists from local media outlets.

Instead, Gardner’s loved ones huddled in a car park outside the prison close to an area where some family members of the killer’s other victims gathered.

Gardner’s family, including a brother and his daughter, linked arms and held candles, singing the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic “Free Bird” before releasing balloons carrying messages such as “We love you Ronnie.

(with AFP report)

Report typos and corrections to: [email protected].
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