Corrections officials said Tuesday they won't allow any media to interview Ronnie Lee Gardner in prison before he is scheduled to be put to death -- a departure from past practices. Gardner's defense attorney and free speech advocates criticized the move.
A Department of Corrections letter sent to media said allowing such interviews would "defeat the legislative intent in eliminating the firing squad as a way to limit the attention that is focused on the condemned, while victims are forgotten."
Department of Corrections Executive Director Tom Patterson told The Salt Lake Tribune he is also concerned about the risks Gardner poses because of his two prison escapes and disruptive behavior behind bars.
But Gardner's attorney, Andrew Parnes, said denying his client the ability to speak to the media would
quash his ability to communicate with the families of his victims. At the last court hearing, Parnes said, Gardner was told not to turn around and face his victims' families.
"Mister Gardner should be able to express his remorse to the people affected by his actions," Parnes said.
Parnes -- who on Tuesday asked 3rd District Court Judge Robin Reese to stay the execution while the Utah Supreme Court considers an appeal -- said he is also concerned the decision to deny media access is rooted in legislative intent rather than as a consequence for "anything Gardner has done" recently.
Yet Rep. Sheryl Allen, who sponsored legislation in 2004 that made lethal injection the state's sole method of execution for those sentenced after the law took effect, said Patterson is taking a "common sense approach."
"During a very somber time, the emphasis should be on the victims and the reprehensible nature of the act that required the sentence," the Republican from Bountiful said Tuesday. "They should keep the public's attention where it deserves to be -- justice and deterrence."
Several attorneys said denying Gardner's right to speak with the media before his June 18 execution date may be a violation of his First Amendment rights.
Prison administrators have the ability to restrict communications with a prisoner if there is a "reasonable institutional policy" behind the decision, such as safety concerns, said Salt Lake media attorney Mike O'Brien. But they cannot restrict access in order to regulate the content of an interview, unless the prisoner is saying something such as ordering a hit on someone, he said.
Jeff Hunt, also a Salt Lake City media attorney, agreed.
"It seems suspect to restrict access to the media at this stage of the proceedings," Hunt said. "It certainly raises some First Amendment issues."
If prison administrators wanted to restrict media access to Gardner, they needed to do so throughout his prison sentence, not just as his execution date looms nearer, Hunt said.
Patterson said Tuesday that he is restricting access to Gardner partly because he has not expressed any interest in being interviewed. But even if he did, Patterson said he wants the focus of his execution to stay on the victims and their families.
"One of the concerns of the Legislature when they changed the firing squad option to lethal injection in 2004 was the spectacle and focus that comes on the condemned and the revictimization of the victims' families," Patterson said. "We do not want to aggrandize the condemned or his prior actions. We want to treat, in as dignified a way as possible, the sensitivity of the victims and focus not on Gardner but instead simply carrying out orders of the court after 25 years."
Gardner tried to escape on April 2, 1985, from the now-demolished courthouse at 250 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City. He had been brought there for a hearing on charges in the 1984 robbery and slaying of Melvyn John Otterstrom, whom he shot once in the face at Cheers Tavern in Salt Lake City.
After a woman slipped Gardner a gun, a corrections officer who was escorting the inmate shot him in the shoulder. Gardner fatally shot attorney Michael Burdell and wounded bailiff Nick Kirk before being captured on the courthouse lawn. He was convicted of aggravated capital murder for killing Burdell and sentenced to death.
Gardner will still be allowed to correspond by mail, Patterson said. But his mail, just like that of other inmates, will undergo standard screening. Patterson said he is also concerned about what Gardner may disclose after being privy to the confidential execution policy of the prison.
A Tribune review of media accounts found no other prisoner executed by the state has been denied access to media. John Albert Taylor, who was executed in 1996, was interviewed behind bars by two high school journalists before his execution. Patterson said he had not reviewed previous administration's actions in handling media interviews.
"I have used the best judgement I have," Patterson said. "Gardner has been more problematic than many inmates, and we have to factor in his history."
Responding to media reports, spokesman Steve Gehrke said Tuesday the Utah Department of Corrections has no plans to issue coins to staff that would commemorate the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner.
The DOC has awarded pins in the past to employees for exemplary service of all kinds, including work connected to past executions, but now awards coins. A DOC employee could be selected to receive a coin for some kind of work stemming from the Gardner execution, but there is no guarantee any would be, Gehrke said.
The coins are generic and have the year on them, but nothing to indicate what the employees did to go above and beyond their duties.
Awarding the coins is an informal process, with recommendations often coming from supervisors or an agency that works with Corrections. Work that has led to an award has included helping capture escaped convicts.
-- Pamela Manson
Witnesses will include members of the media, up to five of Gardner's friends or family members, and up to five friends or family members of the victims. The case prosecutor, religious representation and law enforcement and corrections officers also can be present.
Gardner will be put to death in the execution chamber built at the prison in 1998. The chamber has been used once, in the 1999 lethal injection execution of Joseph Mitchell Parsons. The room has bulletproof glass to both "physically and psychologically" separate the witnesses from the condemned and to protect them from any unexpected ricochet.
Gardner will be strapped to a chair, hooded, and have a target over his heart.
Five shooters armed with .30-caliber rifles, four of them with live rounds, will shoot Gardner in the heart. None will know who has the blank round.