What will it take for courthouse killer Ronnie Lee Gardner to convince the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole to commute his death sentence?
"Conspicuous sainthood," according to former board member Victoria Palacios, who in 1989 cast the lone vote in favor of sparing Ogden Hi-Fi Shop killer William Andrews.
Palacios and other former parole board members told The Salt Lake Tribune the standard is extremely high for commuting a death sentence. Gardner's fate is likely to depend on whether he can convince the current board he is a changed man and no longer a danger behind bars.
That doesn't bode well for Gardner, whose three decades in prison have included an escape, the stabbing of a fellow inmate, attacks on corrections officers and an episode in which he barricaded the visiting room doors and had sex with a woman.
Palacios predicted Gardner won't receive a commutation from the five parole board members considering Gardner's fate during a two-day hearing that begins this morning.
She described Gardner as an "ideal case" for death penalty proponents: It was at his 1985 court appearance for the slaying of Melvyn John Otterstrom that Gardner fatally shot lawyer Michael Burdell and wounded court bailiff Nick Kirk during an escape attempt.
"He endangered many people, he did it at a public institution dedicated to law enforcement, and he was previously convicted of homicide," Palacios said.
Former parole board members Paul Boyden and Henry "Pete" Haun agree the bar will be set high for Gardner, 49. While deciding the fate of Andrews' accomplice, Pierre Dale Selby, Boyden said the board looked to the hypothetical case of an inmate who saves the life of the warden's daughter during a prison riot.
"We used that as an example of the kind of obvious thing that would be considered [to commute a death sentence]," he said.
The board's role is not to re-examine legal matters handled by the courts, Boyden said, but they can consider almost anything else.
"You always want to look at things that have come up since the crime, things you can't really foresee," he said. "The very thing that makes the board of pardon's review so important is that you cannot easily quantify the standard that has to be met. If you could, it would fit easily into the legal system."
Wrestling with whether to spare Andrews' life was one of the hardest things Boyden had ever done, he told a reporter at the time. Gardner's upcoming hearing brings back anxiety-laden memories.
"A person who is making this kind of decision is under a good deal of moral pressure, in their own mind, to make sure they do the job right, and to make sure their moral compass is pointing in the right direction," he said.
But the decision may also involve more than living with one's own conscience.
Palacios said those considering Gardner's commutation have a vested interest in letting him keep his June 18 date with the firing squad: keeping their jobs.
"Even though Utah has one of the better [parole board] appointment processes in terms of insulating members from political consequences, they still have political consequences," she said. "If any board member wants to be reappointed, he will vote against commutation."
When Palacios cast her dissenting vote for Andrews, she said she knew it marked the end of her career in Utah government. She resigned the following year and began teaching law at Notre Dame University. Palacios -- who says she has become convinced the death penalty process is "not just" -- is now an associate law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she also supervises a project in which students help death-row inmates prepare mitigation cases.
In 1989, Palacios cited concerns about racial bias and whether Williams got a fair trial when she cast her vote in his favor. Both Williams and Selby forced five people to drink liquid Drano in the basement of the Ogden Hi-Fi Shop during a robbery on April 22, 1974. Andrews' attorneys have argued he left the store before Selby shot the five victims, two of whom survived. Selby also raped a 19-year-old woman who was one of the murder victims.
Palacios was out-voted by fellow panel members Haun and Ed Kimball, who wrote at the time that Andrews not only believed Drano could kill, but when the caustic chemical failed to act as quickly as expected, he left "understanding and fully expecting Selby would ... kill all five."
Haun, now retired, said recently that Williams' hearing "impacted me very strongly. Personally, it would have pleased me to have found significant mitigation to commute the sentence."
But he said that in addition to the crime itself, it was apparent from Andrews' prison record he presented "a very serious continued risk."
Andrews tried to kill a prison officer with a sharpened broom handle, aiming for the man's carotid artery but instead hitting him in the jaw, Haun said. Andrews also was found in possession of hacksaw blades and large quantities of human hair, indicating he was planning to escape, Haun said.
"In Andrews' case, there was no reason to commute the sentence," Haun said.
During his commutation hearing, Gardner is expected to present mental health experts who have studied his troubled childhood and possible brain damage.
Gardner will have two hours to personally address the board and portray himself as a changed man whose life should be spared in favor of life without parole. He's also likely to talk about his latest efforts to start an organic gardening program for at-risk youth.