Execution by Firing Squad in the State of Utah: A Reading

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06/18/2010 3:21 PM |


If you follow Utah’s attorney general on Twitter, you probably already knew that shortly after midnight Mountain time last night, Ronnie Lee Gardner—who in 1985 fatally shot a lawyer while attempting to flee the courthouse where he was facing a homicide charge—was executed by a firing squad.

Gardner’s the third person to be executed by firing squad in this country since the death penalty was reinstated following the Supreme Court’s bicentennial-year Gregg v. Georgia decision. No other states use a firing squad, and in Utah only death row inmates sentenced before the state’s 2004 switchover to lethal injection may choose the firing squad as their way to go (wouldn’t you? I think would).

In 1977, Gary Gilmore famously became the first man to be executed in America in over a decade, by a Utah firing squad. In 1995, his brother, the journalism Mikal Gilmore, published his memoir Shot in the Heart, and wrote about receiving the clothes his brother had been executed in:

I had expected them to be bloodied and ravaged, but they weren’t. All the blood had since been washed out. I sat there and ran my hands over the clothes. They felt soft to me, and for some reason it did not make me sad to touch them.

Vern picked up the shirt and pointed out the patterns of perforations that the bullets had made as they pierced the cloth and ripped through Gary’s heart. Four neat holes, each about the size you could put your finger through. “Look at this,” Vern said, and pointed out another hole, a little farther apart from the others. “That, too,” he said, “is a bullet hole.”

According to Utah’s tradition—and perhaps its law as well—there are five men on a firing squad, but only four of them have loaded rifles. One of them has a gun with a blank in it. This is done so that if any man is bothered by his conscience, he can always entertain a reasonable doubt that he ever actually fired a bullet into the condemned man.

There should have been four holes in the shirt. Instead, there were five. The State of Utah, apparently, had taken no chances on the morning that it put my brother to death.