A group opposed to capital punishment will introduce itself to the public today ,minutes before a judge may sign a death warrant for convicted murder Ronnie Lee Gardner.
The group calls itself Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and will hold a news conference at 8:30 a.m. at the Matheson Courthouse, 450 S. State St. in Salt Lake City. Dee Rowland, the government liaison for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and an organizer for Utahns for Alternatives, said a few people may be holding signs, but the group does not plan a demonstration or a picket.
Third District Court Judge Robin Reese will hold a 9 a.m. hearing at the same courthouse to consider what might be Gardner's final judicial appeal. If Reese rules against the appeal, he may sign an order for Gardner's execution. Under state law, the execution must occur 30 to 60 days after the order is signed.
Gardner will be present for the hearing. If Reese orders the execution, Gardner is expected to say whether he wants to die by lethal injection or firing squad.
The Utah Attorney General's Office has argued Gardner's latest appeal has no merit and the judge is obligated to sign the death warrant.
Gardner was sentenced to death for killing lawyer Michael Burdell during an escape attempt at a 1985 court hearing in Salt Lake City. He also was convicted of killing bartender Melvyn John Otterstrom during a 1984 robbery.
Gardner's name did not even appear in a news release announcing Utahns for Alternatives. Rowland said the group began forming a year ago but has expedited its work in the past few weeks as Gardner has moved closer to execution.
"We don't want to tie [our opposition] to a particular crime," Rowland said in an interview Thursday. "It's the issue itself that we think is important."
Utahns for Alternatives is led by the state's Catholics, and Bishop John Wester of the Salt Lake City Diocese plans to attend the news conference. But the group also lists numerous attorneys, physicians, academics and other religious leaders as members.
And while the group's opposition is primarily on moral grounds, Rowland said people may be surprised by the monetary cost of capital punishment. Utahns for Alternatives highlights studies showing sending someone to death row and executing them is much more expensive than giving them a long prison sentence.
"There's an illusion that executing a person is cheaper than keeping them in prison and that is not so," Rowland said.
However, Rowland has little optimism about Friday's hearing. She expects the judge to sign Gardner's death warrant.
"That would be the best news in the world, to know that the hearing wasn't going to happen and he would be in prison for life," Rowland said.