Friday, June 18, 2010

Death in Draper

Over his left breast clung a white square, about 2 inches by 2 inches, with a circle in the middle.
When it was over, there were two holes in that circle and one just outside it.
"It," of course, is the murder of Ronnie Lee Gardner, age 49, by the State of Utah.  He was shot to death early this morning by five men with rifles.  Four of the rifles had live ammunition, the fifth was loaded with blanks.  Supposedly, no one  knows who had which gun.
Gardner was, they say, a vicious killer.  He's been on death row for close to 25 years for the murder of Michael Burdell in April 1985.  It hasn't been a peaceful 25, but neither were Gardner's first 24.  Here's the Salt Lake Tribune summary.
Born in Salt Lake City in 1961, Gardner was 6 when his siblings taught him to huff gas and glue. By age 9, he had landed in state custody for theft. When he was 10, police investigated a report that Gardner had traded a BB gun for marijuana. A stepfather used a teenage Gardner as a lookout while he burglarized homes. A foster father paid Gardner for sex.
In 1980, Gardner was convicted of his first adult crime - a robbery. In 1985, while serving time for a subsequent robbery, he attacked an officer at Salt Lake City's University Hospital, stole his gun, and forced a medical student to help him escape. Two months later, Gardner shot and killed Melvyn Otterstrom, a bartender at Cheers Tavern in Salt Lake City.
Arrested and charged with murder for Otterstrom's death, Gardner escaped from custody when a female accomplice slipped him a gun at a Salt Lake City courthouse. During his escape, Gardner wounded bailiff Nick Kirk and killed attorney Michael Burdell. A jury sentenced him to death.
The intervening 25 years were punctuated by attacks on other Utah State Prison inmates and a standoff in a visiting room during which he broke a glass partition, barricaded the door and had sex with his half-brother's wife as officers looked on helplessly.
Gardner claimed that he changed over the years.  His family said he was at peace at the end.
And then, there he was.
[H]e looked like Utah's own ghost of Hannibal Lecter. Gardner's skin and his white socks contrasted with the dark blue jump suit he wore and the restraints, chair, wooden backdrop and sandbags, all of which were painted black. Restraints circled his wrists, ankles, shoulders and waist, but the restraint across his forehead best exemplified his confinement to me. 
That's from media witness Nate Carlisle's precise and vivid, clinical and moving "eyewitness account," in the Salt Lake Tribune.  Carlisle's the one who described the paper with the circle, too.
One of the things about executions is that you never know.  The dead don't report back on the experience.  Witnesses can only report what they see.  Sometimes there's an autopsy (there will be in this case), sometimes not.  But that can only tell so much.  What does it feel like to be murdered?   What are those last thoughts?  We can't know.
We can't really know Gardner, either.  Did he change as he and others claimed?  How deeply and sincerely?
And, of course, we can't know what's next for Gardner.  Is there an afterlife?  Are there post-life rewards and punishments?  Will some version of Gardner, now dead, meet some version of Michael Burdell who he killed?  Science has its answers.  Religion its (OK, theirs - not all religions agree).  We will, I suppose, all learn in time - or not.  
As it turns out, we don't even know exactly what will happen to Gardner's body after the autopsy.  Again from the Tribune.
Brandie Gardner has said she will take her father's body with her to Idaho and bury him without a funeral. Other family members have said his body will be donated to science. Corrections Department chief Tom Patterson said he understood Gardner wanted to be cremated. Another relative has previously said the ashes would be spread over an organic farm the killer wanted to start for troubled youth.
But there's what we do know. 
Over his left breast clung a white square, about 2 inches by 2 inches, with a circle in the middle.
When it was over, there were two holes in that circle and one just outside it.
The killers got commemorative coins.

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