Execution By Utah Firing Squad Will Be First In 14 Years

Just after midnight, a five-man team of executioners is scheduled to take aim at death-row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner, who has evaded the death chamber for 25 years. Thirty-five states allow the death penalty, but death by firing squad remains an option only in Utah. A Utah historian says the reason this method of execution exists is rooted in the state's history as a Mormon sanctuary.

Utah death-row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner is set to be executed by a firing squad on Friday. Thirty-five states allow the death penalty, but death by firing squad remains an option only in Utah.

For 25 years, Gardner has tried to evade the death chamber. And for 25 years, VelDean Kirk has waited to see him walk into it.

"It'll be a closure, because for 25 years, it hasn't closed a bit," says Kirk, whose husband was shot by Garrner.

Every detail of April 2, 1985, is burned into her memory. Gardner was in court on a murder charge when he tried to escape. An accomplice slipped him a gun, and he shot and killed an attorney and also severely wounded George "Nick" Kirk, who was a bailiff. Kirk didn't die, but VelDean Kirk says he wasn't the same active, cheerful man anymore. She says his final years were marked by excruciating pain and depression from a sedentary life.

His daughter, Tami Stewart, feels sorry for Gardner, but she can't forgive him. She imagines him in the death chamber. "He's going to feel that fear that he put into every one of those men. He's done. We've given him more than enough," Stewart says.

Gardner did get one choice: how he would die. In court, after being told he'd exhausted his appeals, the 49-year-old made his preference known.

"I would like the firing squad, please," he told the court in April.

And with those words, Utah officials expected they would soon be fielding calls from CNN and the international press. Utah's last firing-squad execution 14 years ago attracted more than 150 news crews from across the globe. They were interested in one thing: the method of execution.

Lawmakers, upset by the media circus, voted to eliminate the firing squad as an option. But the law they passed has a grandfather clause for the five death-row inmates who chose the firing squad before the ban.

Utah historian Will Bagley says the reason this method of execution exists is rooted in Utah's history as a Mormon sanctuary. "I think we need to be honest about it. We have the last firing squads in the country as a legacy of Mormon theology," Bagley says.

Some early Mormon leaders believed in blood atonement for the most egregious sins. "To atone for those, Jesus' blood didn't count. You had to shed your own blood," Bagley says.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has since renounced any connection to blood atonement. And the belief has all but disappeared among Utahns today.

Donna Nu calls the firing squad barbaric. Nu was the partner of Michael Burdell, the attorney Gardner murdered. She and Burdell's family said Michael wouldn't have wanted Gardner to die. "He certainly wouldn't want to be the reason that Ronnie Lee was killed," Nu says.

But for VelDean Kirk, death by gunfire is appropriate for the man she says destroyed her husband's life.

She remembers once seeing on TV a lethal-injection chamber used for a notorious killer. "That just looked like a hospital," Kirk says. "I didn't like that a bit. I didn't think that was fitting for a person that had done the crimes that he had done."

Gardner himself believes the firing squad is easier, with no chances for mistakes. Barring any last-minute appeals, a five-man team of executioners will take aim at Gardner just after midnight. Four of the rifles will be loaded; one will have blanks to keep anonymous the shooter who fires the bullet that kills Gardner. A black hood will be placed over Gardner's head, and on the chest of his jumpsuit will be pinned a white cloth target. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.