Murdering murderers

How Europe reacted to the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner, a prisoner on death row in Utah who was killed by a firing squad.

A handcuffed man sat strapped to a chair, a hood covering his face, a bull’s-eye affixed to his chest. When the executioner gave the signal, five shots rang out, and the man’s chest exploded in blood, his arms twitching. This isn’t a scene from a bygone era, said Gerd Brüggemann in Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung. It took place just last week, in the state of Utah, when convicted double murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner was killed by a firing squad. Utah is the only state in the union that still uses this barbaric form of execution, though only for inmates who were on death row in 2004—when the state ended the practice—and who choose the method themselves. For decades, death by firing squad has been extremely rare, so you’d think Gardner’s execution would have at least “attracted attention” in the U.S. In fact, few commentators seemed to find the proceedings particularly gruesome, and the use of a firing squad “failed to trigger a national debate on outlawing the death penalty.”

That’s because Americans just shrug at executions, said Rupert Cornwell in the London Independent. The U.S. legal system provides for appeal after appeal, so convicted killers generally spend at least 25 years on death row. Most Americans believe that after all that time, if no evidence has turned up exonerating the prisoner, he deserves to die. But the problem with the long delay is “that sometimes the individual who is finally executed is very different from the person who committed the crime decades earlier.” Gardner, for example, came from an abusive family; by age 6 he was sniffing glue and by 10 he was smoking pot. He killed a man in a bar and then, during his trial for that murder, callously killed a lawyer while trying to escape. Yet during his time in prison, he had transformed into a mentor for incarcerated youth. He hoped the governor would pardon him so he could continue that work, but the pardon never came.

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