- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2010

Utah moved closer to executing an inmate by firing squad after the state parole board refused Monday to commute the sentence of convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner and the Utah Supreme Court denied his appeal.

Gardner, 49, is scheduled to die Friday for the 1985 courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell.

In a 57-page ruling issued late Monday, the state Supreme Court said it’s too late for Gardner to challenge his death sentence, and that it found no “overriding issues of justice” to consider.

Andrew Parnes, Gardner’s attorney, also could petition for a stay of execution to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If that appeal also fails, however, Gardner would become the first person executed by firing squad in the United States since 1996.

The Gardner case brings another unwelcome wave of publicity to Utah and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the manner of execution. For years, Utah was the only state to use the firing squad, most famously in the 1977 case of Gary Gilmore, the first person executed in the United States after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Utah outlawed the old-fashioned, death-by-gunshot method in 2004 in favor of lethal injection, but the law exempted Gardner and four other death-row inmates who had previously expressed a preference for the firing squad. The law states that the firing squad may only be used in the future if death by legal injection is ruled unconstitutional. Before the 2004 legislation, prisoners were allowed to choose between lethal injection and the firing squad.

Gardner’s decision to die by gunshot appears to be connected to his Mormon upbringing. In 1996, he said he would sue to die by firing squad if necessary in an apparent reference to”blood atonement.”

The language refers to an outdated Mormon belief that those guilty of a violent crime must atone for their sins by the shedding of blood.

“I guess it’s my Mormon heritage,” Gardner told the Deseret News. “I like the firing squad. It’s so much easier … and there’s no mistakes.”

Church leaders have emphasized that the notion of blood atonement, while popular among some members and leaders in the 19th century, has no place in the modern church.

“So-called blood atonement, by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” LDS spokeswoman Kim Farah said. “We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.”

The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole made its decision after a two-day clemency hearing last week. At the hearing, Gardner expressed remorse for his crimes and said he wanted to start up an organic farm and residential program for at-risk youth.

“There’s no better example in this state of what not to do,” said Gardner at the hearing.

But the board, which last granted clemency in 1962, ruled that the jury’s verdict was “not inappropriate.”

“Gardner makes no claim of innocence, and admits that he is guilty of each of the crimes of which he has been convicted,” said the board in its decision. “The board further determines that no sufficient reason exists to grant clemency or to commute Gardner’s death sentence.”

Gardner’s conviction resulted from a failed escape attempt during a court appearance in the 1984 shooting death of bartender Melvyn Otterstrom. Somehow Gardner obtained a gun, killed Mr. Burdell, wounded bailiff George “Nick” Kirk, and was shot in the shoulder himself before police captured him on the courthouse lawn.

A jury sentenced Gardner to death for the murder of Mr. Burdell and five years to life for killing Mr. Otterstrom. Gardner has spent the last 25 years appealing his conviction with the support of Mr. Burdell’s family, which opposes the death penalty and has asked the board to give him life in prison without parole instead.

Mr. Kirk suffered from chronic health problems related to his shooting until his death 10 years later. His family supports Gardner’s death sentence.