Despite the cold wind, about 200 people sat outside the steps of the Utah State Capitol in protest against the death penalty last night.
49-year-old Ronnie Lee Gardner was pronounced dead at 12:20 a.m. on June 18 after facing a firing squad. Gardner spent nearly 25 years on death row for the 1985 murder of attorney Michael Burdell during an attempt to escape a hearing for the murder of bartender Melvyn Otterstrom in 1984.
Strangers, family members and even former mayor Rocky Andersen attended the rally in support of Gardner and to take a stand against the death penalty. Gardner's first cousin, who did not offer a name, said that the family was in mourning and declined further comment due to the sensitivity of the occasion.
Rally participants held signs that declared, "Not Fair, Not Just," "Moratorium Now," "The Death Penalty Makes Us All Murderers" and "Pray for the Burdell, Otterstrom and Gardner Families." Although the night was too windy to allow for a candlelight vigil, people in the crowd still raised their candles and held a moment of silence for Gardner.
Ralph Dellapiana, public defense lawyer and director of the Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said during the rally that Gardner's life, as well as the lives of others in Utah who have faced the death penalty, was in part on him.
"I felt responsible for his [Gardner's] life, that light which is in each of us," Dellapiana said amidst applause, "and that's when I determined that I'd better try to end the death penalty in Utah."
He added that the community needs to feel that same sense of responsibility in order to make a difference, because "nobody wants to be responsible for anybody else's death."
Criminal defense lawyer and practicing Mormon Kent Hart also spoke to the crowd, acknowledging his faith as to not ignore "the elephant in the room," but also as a way to encourage those of the LDS faith to consider the implications of the death penalty.
Although Hart has not developed a personal relationship with Gardner, he has worked with the other eight out of nine men on Utah's death row and established close friendships with each of them.
According to Hart, Utah still has a long way to go before the death penalty is done away with completely.
"I'm not delusional. I'm not saying we're going to abolish the death penalty next week, or even next year," he said, but added that he believes it can happen.
Former chaplain at the Utah State Prison Brother Rodriguez, who worked at the prison until 1996, recalled the execution of John Albert Taylor. Taylor was executed by firing squad on Jan. 26, 1996, the last execution by firing squad before Gardner's execution.
"In 1996 at this hour, I was with Chris Rogers [Taylor's lawyer] and John Taylor in the holding cell," Rodriguez said. "We were all on the floor because there were no chairs."
Taylor was calm, unafraid and accepting of his situation, Rodriguez said. Shortly before midnight, he was told to get ready. The three of them went together "to the same room Ronnie will be going to tonight," he said. Taylor was strapped to the chair, a hood was placed over his head and a marker over his chest.Rodriguez said he sat in one of the two viewing rooms but closed his eyes when the command was given to fire because he did not want to witness the death, re-entering the execution room once Taylor had been pronounced dead.
"There was blood rolling out of his chest," Rodriguez described, bringing tears to the crowd's eyes and reminding them of what was scheduled to happen later that night. Rodriguez commended the crowd for attending, saying that although Gardner will not be able to live out his purpose in life, that purpose will be carried out for him.
Doctor and attorney Clark Newhall said that the death penalty, simply put, "is just stupid."
"We feel like it's wrong for the state, for us, to kill a helpless human in a cage," he said.
Not only is the death penalty unjust, it's wasteful, Newhall added. He said that it's a waste of a human life, what could be done with that life and even of the time and money spent on the executions.
Newhall said that the death penalty reduces the United States to a barbaric, uncivilized nation.
"It takes us out of the realm of civilized cultures and it takes us out of the the realm of reason," he said.
Dellapiana said that though nothing can be done to change Gardner's sentence, it has become clear that he never had a proper hearing.
"His lawyers were legally deficient," he claimed, saying that sufficient evidence was not offered to the jurors. He said that Gardner was abused, given drugs by his brother at age six and suffered brain damage as a result of meningitis.
According to Dellapiana, four of the jurors have come forward and said that they would not have voted for death if they had been told of Gardner's past.
"Apparently there's nothing left we can do for Ronnie Lee Gardner," Dellapiana said, "but let's do what we can to make Ronnie Lee Gardner's execution Utah's last."