SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – South Carolina has recently scheduled its first execution by firing squad for Richard Bernard Moore, echoing the State of Utah’s most recent executed death row inmate. Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed on June 18, 2010, also by firing squad.
Gardner, originally incarcerated for committing a murder during a robbery of Cheers Tavern in Salt Lake City, attempted escape from a courthouse in April, 1985. In the attempt, he obtained a firearm and killed one attorney and wounded a bailiff. He was sentenced to death for capital murder.
Soon after his sentencing, Gardner was given the choice to die by lethal injection or firing squad; he chose the latter. Despite being eliminated as an execution method by Utah legislators in 2004, Gardner stuck by his choice and was put to death by a firing squad in 2010. The team of executioners was made up of five different, anonymous volunteers, all of whom were certified police officers from the state. Those who participated in the execution proceedings received a unique commemorative coin.
Both of the two executions by firing squad in the nation preceding Gardner were also in Utah. Utah has a long history with capital punishment, dating back to the execution of a member of the Ute nation named Patsowits in 1850 by the State of Deseret, the local provisional state government preceding the incorporation of the Territory of Utah later in 1850. Patsowits was garroted to death.
ABC4 recently covered an attempt to abolish capital punishment in Utah that failed on a narrow vote of 6-5 on Utah’s House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. Many advocates against the death penalty in Utah continue to lobby for its removal.
Ralph Dellapiana is a local defense attorney who advocates against the death penalty in Utah along with many associated organizations that makes up the Utah Justice Coalition. He expressed frustration that this most recent vote did not go onto the state senate floor, where he thinks it would have passed easily. Dellapiana argues that the vote going to committee instead of the floor, where all Utah representatives could vote on it, represents a “threat to democracy” in Utah.
Dellapiana is especially frustrated that this recent 2022 bill failed, because it was proposed in a way that was based in “fiscal conservatism popular among Utahns” and by Republican legislators. Dellapiana referenced that while raw polling data suggests a 50-50 split among Utahns for and against capital punishment, when legislation is proposed by Republican representatives, the approval rating skyrockets among voters.
He criticized the public arguments made by legislators in opposition to the recent bill to ban capital punishment. The principle of these arguments is that the state can use the death penalty to threaten defendants to encourage guilty pleas, which Dellapiana calls a form of “coercion” that compromises “the constitutional right to go to trial.” For Dellapiana, this kind of negotiation from the state to defendants is more like saying “if you don’t plead guilty, we will kill you.”
Dellapiana also claims that continuation of the death penalty in Utah does not reflect popular Utah values about state fiscal responsibility. “Utah has spend $40 million extra for one death sentence” in recent years, says Dellapiana. He also claims that the lengthy death row trial and appeals process also prevents victims’ families from getting closure in a timely way, and “repeatedly tears open their wounds” compared to a quicker non-death penalty sentence.
Regarding recent legislation in South Carolina, and the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner, Dellapiana said that he and his colleagues received countless phone calls from reporters all around the world who were shocked that there was still a death penalty in some states in the US, let alone that the death penalty could be carried out by firing squad. Dellapiana commented that foreign reporters were “appalled” that executions were still being carried out in such a “third world” way.
ABC4 reached out to Utah legislators on the committee who voted down the recent bill banning the death penalty in Utah, but none responded in time for the publication of this story.