Saturday, April 24, 2010

Utah Execution: Its the years, not the bullets, that make it cruel

If Utah proceeds to execute Ronnie Lee Gardner on June 18th, as an execution warrant signed by a Utah court ordered yesterday, there will probably be a great deal more media attention and possibly criticism,than usually attends executions in Utah. That is because Gardner yesterday affirmed his choice to die by firing squad rather than lethal injection. According to Erik Ecklholm's reporting in the New York Times, the two previous Utah executions by firing squad have drawn extensive attention, especially from international media, who find in the firing squad an irresistible image of American penal backwardness.

The event attracted hordes of reporters who often, to the chagrin of Utah officials, invoked images of raw, frontier justice. Mr. Gardner’s execution, if and when it occurs, appears certain to attract similar worldwide attention.

An accompanying slide show highlights the distinctive features of firing squad as execution method, including a black chair to which the victim is bound, and a black ledge on which the four shooters stand behind a curtain. It also depicts the firing squad' most famous victim, Gary Gilmore, who dropped his appeals and became the first American to be executed after a ten year moratorium. But while its easy to understand why some condemned prisoners would find this a more "manly" way to die than being strapped down in a hospital gurney and put to sleep it is worth noting that Gardner, unlike Gary Gilmore, does not appear eager to die, and has not waived his appeals. His attorneys have filed a new petition. One of the claims they will raise is truly where the nation and the world's should lie. Ronnie Lee Gardner's crime was committed more than 25 years ago.

Gardner was in custody on another charge when he shot a man during an attempted escape. The slide show includes a shot of a far younger Gardner in custody immediately after the escape attempt. His white prison uniform is stained dark with his own blood (he had himself been shot during the attempt). Oddly, he seems to be smiling.

For 25 years Gardner has sat in a Utah prison under a sentence of death. In most of the world, where capital punishment is not available, the most serious criminals, who have committed multiple murders or even genocide, face at most 25 years of imprisonment, after which they are generally eligible for parole (and indeed in most countries parole would come far earlier for all but the most infamous criminals). Only in a handful of US states and Japan do condemned prisoners routinely spend decades on death row prior to execution. Not only is this unusual, in the eyes of many human rights tribunals it is the prolonged detention of a person prior to execution that constitutes "degrading and inhumane treatment," more so indeed than the execution itself. To most of the world, the idea of holding a human being captive while awaiting death is more cruel than the act of killing them.

Consider the picture on the Times website of Ronnie Lee Gardner being given his death date by the Utah judge. He is not smiling now. His face looks taught with with-held emotion despite the neatly trimmed rakish lip beard. To his right, a female attorney seems to be reaching her hand out in a comforting way. While Gilmore is said by his brother to have chosen (or perhaps even sought out) firing squad execution because of its redemptive symbolism in Mormon tradition, Gardner is quoted as preferring bullets because "there’s no mistakes," referring perhaps to recent litigation over botched lethal injections. It is far easier psychologically to picture Gary Gilmore flashing his dark good looks and saying "lets get on with it" to his executioners.


Truth Connection said...

Please have a look at Terror State with System and leave a comment... (to change the world)

Unknown said...

I can only think of Camus's "Reflections on the Guillotine" here...