Panel, court deny Gardner's request for mercy
Draper » Ronnie Lee Gardner's firing squad execution became a near certainty Monday when a state board and the Utah Supreme Court both refused to halt or delay the execution.
One of Gardner's attorneys, Tyler Ayres, spoke with Gardner on Monday afternoon and said his client "was disappointed but not surprised." Gardner expects to be executed early Friday, Ayres said.
The 49-year-old lost his bid for a commutation from the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole on Monday morning. Then late Monday evening, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously denied his request for a new sentencing hearing. In a 57-page ruling, the court said Gardner waited too long to make his challenges and there was no overriding issues of justice to consider.
The parole board met for just a few minutes Monday at the Draper prison to announce it was denying Gardner's request to commute his sentence to life in prison without parole. Board Chairman Curtis Garner, reading the unanimous decision, noted Gardner made no claims of innocence and the original sentence was "not inappropriate."
The announcement elicited quiet exclamations of "yes" from the family of Nick Kirk, the bailiff Gardner wounded during his 1985 escape attempt at a Salt Lake City courthouse. Gardner was not present for the announcement.
Outside the prison after the announcement, Kirk's daughter, Tami Stewart, said she expected the board to commute. She was pleased it did not.
"I do feel sorry for [Gardner]," Stewart said, "but he made that choice. He made that choice to shoot those people."
In an e-mail to The Salt Lake Tribune , Gardner's brother, Randy Gardner, said the state "is carrying out a premeditated murder." He also pointed to how most Western countries and 15 U.S. states have abolished capital punishment.
"At least Ronnie will finally be a free bird after a life of hell," Randy Gardner wrote.
Gardner's last-ditch appeals to the state Supreme Court centered on two claims, that his trial attorneys failed to present adequate mitigating evidence about his abuse as a child and that executing him after 25 years on death row would be cruel and unusual punishment.
The state argued the claims had no merit and pointed out that they were raised in a federal appeal that Gardner lost.
Third District Judge Robin Reese ruled that Gardner's claims should have been raised in prior proceedings years ago, and the Supreme Court upheld his decision.
"Throughout the lengthy course of this case, multiple courts, including this one, have endeavored to scrupulously ensure that Mr. Gardner's rights are protected," Associate Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote for the court. "We are firmly convinced that he has been treated justly and fairly."
In testimony and arguments Thursday and Friday before the board, Gardner and his supporters said he was a changed man who wanted to help start a farm where troubled youths can learn organic gardening.
Gardner also said the jury that sentenced him to death in 1985 did not know enough about his childhood of abuse and drug use, or his possible brain damage. Four of those jurors this month submitted affidavits saying their votes would have or might have been different had they had the information.
Gardner's death sentence was issued for killing attorney Michael Burdell and wounding Kirk at the courthouse. However, an aggravating factor in his sentence was his 1984 murder of Melvyn Otterstrom at Cheers Tavern in Salt Lake City.
Craig Watson, Otterstrom's cousin and a Sandy police lieutenant, called Ronnie Gardner the "worst" bad guy he's seen.
"Maybe his death will help these kids that he keeps talking about walk the straight and narrow," Watson said.
Watson said he plans to view the execution with Otterstrom's 28-year-old son.
"It's gonna be kind of a bittersweet experience for me," Watson said.
Gardner's request for mercy gets brush-off
If Ronnie Lee Gardner's farm for troubled children sprouts up in Box Elder County, it might bear the names of his victims, Melvyn Otterstrom, Michael Burdell and Nick Kirk. › A7