Utah parole board considers commuting death sentence of inmate set for firing squad execution

By Jennifer Dobner, AP
Thursday, June 10, 2010

UT inmate sentenced to firing squad seeks clemency

DRAPER, Utah — A Utah man set to be executed by firing squad told the state’s parole board Thursday that he wants to live to help make life better for troubled children.

Ronnie Lee Gardner said he plans to turn over a 160-acre parcel of land in northern Utah for an organic farm and residential program for children. He said he plans to donate about $1,300 he earned from selling prison artwork, and that in 2008 he tried to enlist Oprah Winfrey in the cause.

Gardner said he had been working quietly on his idea for the “Back to Basics” program for about 10 years. He said he was a changed person and wanted to help prevent kids in trouble from traveling down a path to violence and criminal activity.

“I think I’m the perfect example of what you shouldn’t do,” Gardner said, testifying for about two hours before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole as part of his commutation hearing.

Gardner, 49, wants the board to reduce his sentence to life in prison.

He was sentenced to death in 1985 for the fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell during a botched escape attempt that same year. An accomplice slipped Gardner a handgun as he headed to court on charges of fatally shooting a bartender in a separate case.

The board’s job is to decide whether there is any reason to grant clemency, or any reason that the death penalty is an inappropriate sentence.

The hearing continues Friday and a decision is expected Monday, five days before he is set to be executed. Utah law allowed him to chose a firing squad rather than lethal injection.

Gardner’s plea for clemency is just one of several legal efforts he’s employed since a state judge in April signed a warrant for his execution.

Gardner’s attorney, Andrew Parnes, asked the Utah Supreme Court earlier this week to vacate his death sentence and order a new sentencing hearing. It was unclear when that ruling will come.

Parnes contends that mitigating evidence about Garnder’s troubled youth — early drug addiction, physical and sexual abuse and a dysfunctional family life — was not heard in state court.

At Thursday’s hearing, Parnes presented three statements from jurors who sentenced Gardner to death indicating that the evidence might have produced a different sentence.

Members of the parole board have spent a month poring over thousands of pages of records documenting Gardner’s life, criminal history and behavior during his nearly 30 years in prison.

Board member Jesse Gallegos noted Gardner had long been a problem inmate — instigating a riot, stabbing another prisoner and attempting multiple escapes, one of which was successful.

Gallegos called Gardner “hell on wheels” and said it was hard to know if he were sincere or simply appearing to change so that he could avoid execution.

“I was a nasty little bugger, I admit to it,” Gardner said. “I’m not changing to save my life. I’ve changed because I needed to change.”

Friends of Burdell will also ask the board to spare Gardner’s life. They say Burdell opposed the death penalty and that Gardner’s death would be meaningless.

Gardner’s lawyer contends that the board should commute Gardner’s sentence because his crime doesn’t compare to those of six other men previously put to death in Utah.

But Utah Assistant Attorney General Tom Brunker said Gardner is a cold-hearted killer with an extensive history of other crimes.

Prosecutors plan to counter Gardner’s plea for clemency with testimony from the families of George “Nick” Kirk, a bailiff shot and seriously injured at the same time Burdell was killed.

Utah’s parole board has rarely held commutation hearings. Only 14 men have had ever had death sentences commuted — the last in 1962. Only two hearings have been held since 1977, according to records kept by a Weber State University criminal justice professor.

Utah has 10 men on death row. The last execution was by lethal injection in 1999. Utah last used the firing squad in 1996.

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