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Brother of man executed by Utah firing squad calls it brutal

Randy Gardner still struggles four years later to talk about seeing his brother’s bullet-ridden body at the mortuary after he was executed


Randy Gardner, of Salt Lake City, the older brother of Ronnie Lee Gardner, the last inmate to be killed by firing squad in Utah in 2010, stands in front of the Utah State Capitol, Wednesday, March 11, 2015, in Salt Lake City. Utah is the only state in the past 40 years to carry out such a death sentence, with three executions by firing squad since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

By Brady McCombs & Lindsay Whitehurst
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Randy Gardner still struggles four years later to talk about seeing his brother’s bullet-ridden body at the mortuary after he was executed.

Ronnie Lee Gardner was the last person to die by firing squad in Utah — a method state lawmakers voted this week to reinstate, illustrating frustrations across the U.S. over bungled executions and shortages of lethal-injection drugs.

Randy Gardner made it clear Wednesday he did not condone what his brother did — first killing a bartender and later shooting a lawyer to death and wounding a bailiff during a courthouse escape attempt.

But he said the firing squad is brutal.

“When you take somebody and you tie them to a chair, put a hood over their head, and you shoot them from 25 feet with four rifles pointed at their heart, that’s pretty barbaric.”

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Paul Ray, sees it differently.

Ray argues a team of trained marksmen is faster and more humane than the drawn-out deaths involved when lethal injections go awry — or even if they go as planned.

“Your body is paralyzed. You feel everything,” Ray said. “Your body slowly shuts down over a period of minutes based on the drug cocktail that’s given to you. Whereas a firing squad, you reach the death obviously in three to five seconds.”

Some of the victims’ family and friends wanted Gardner’s life spared in 2010. But relatives of the slain bartender, Melvyn Otterstrom, and bailiff George “Nick” Kirk, pushed for the death sentence to stand.

“Gardner has hurt so many people. He has never shown any compassion for any of his victims, so why does he deserve compassion?” Kirk’s daughter, Tami Stewart, said tearfully at the time. “The agony and toll he placed on my father deserves justice and that it be given.”

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert has declined to say if he will sign the firing-squad bill. His decision is expected in a week or so.

Utah and several other states are scrambling to modify their laws on the heels of a botched Oklahoma lethal injection last year and one in Arizona in which the condemned man took nearly two hours to die. Meanwhile, Texas executed a Mexican mafia hit man Wednesday night with its second-to-last dosage of drugs.

“States are wondering which way to go, and one way is to send up a warning flag that if you don’t allow us freedom in this lethal-injection area, we’ll do something else,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

States have struggled to keep up their drug inventories as European manufacturers opposed to capital punishment refuse to sell the components of lethal injections to U.S. prisons. The Texas deadline is the most imminent, but other states are struggling, too.

Though Utah’s next execution is probably a few years away, Ray said he wants to settle on a backup method now in case the drug shortage drags on.

He’s hopeful the proposal will become law, saying he thinks the governor already would have announced his intention to veto it if that was his plan.

Utah is the only state in the past 40 years to use the firing squad, with three such executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Lawmakers in the state stopped offering inmates the choice of firing squad in 2004, saying the method attracted intense media interest and took attention from victims.

Ronnie Lee Gardner was put to death by five police officers with .30-caliber Winchester rifles in an event that drew international attention.

Three more death-row inmates who chose firing squad before the law changed would still have the option after their appeals are exhausted. If those executions go forward, prison authorities will choose the gunmen from a pool of volunteer officers, starting with those in the area where the crime happened, Ray said.

“We’ve always had a lot more volunteers than actually had spots,” he said.

Under the new measure, the method would be based solely on the availability of lethal-injection drugs, not aninmate’s choice.

State laws that allow methods other than lethal injection for executions are not unique to Utah. In Washington,inmates can request a hanging. In New Hampshire, hangings are the default method if lethal injection cannot be given.

Outside the U.S., 54 countries allow executions by gunshot, including China, Vietnam, Uganda and Afghanistan, according to Cornell University Law School’s Death Penalty Worldwide project. Only nine countries are known to have done a firing squad execution in the past decade, the school’s research has found.

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