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Facing Utah's firing squad, killer supports death penalty

By Ashley Hayes, CNN
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Convicted killer emotional over murders
  • Condemned killer Ronnie Lee Gardner testifies at commutation hearing
  • He is schedule to be executed by firing squad on June 18
  • Family members of victims differ on support of the death penalty
  • Utah Board of Pardons and Parole will announce its decision on Monday

Salt Lake City, Utah (CNN) -- Ronnie Lee Gardner, who is set to die next week before Utah's firing squad, said something Thursday he didn't plan to: He supports capital punishment.

But, Gardner told the five-member Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, he thinks the death penalty needs to be "as fair as you can get it."

Testifying at his commutation hearing, Gardner said he accepts responsibility for killing two men and seriously wounding a third. But, he added, executing him on June 18 would not be fair because he's never had the chance to present evidence in court that might have swayed jurors from a death sentence.

Gardner choked up as he said he hasn't been able to apologize to the families of his victims, saying they don't want to hear from him. He did not take that opportunity to apologize to the family members who were in the audience at the hearing.

"It makes me sad," he said, wiping his eyes. "I know killing me is going to hurt them just as bad," he said. "I've been on the other side of the gun. I know."

Now 49, Gardner is scheduled to be executed June 18 by firing squad for the murder of attorney Michael Burdell during an escape attempt at a Salt Lake City courthouse.

Gardner, who had a long history of violence and escape, was at the courthouse on April 2, 1985, for a pretrial hearing in the 1984 slaying of Melvyn Otterstrom. He was killed at the Salt Lake City bar where he was working to earn extra money.

I know killing me is going to hurt them just as bad. I've been on the other side of the gun. I know.
--Convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner

An acquaintance handed Gardner a gun at the courthouse; he fatally shot Burdell, who was there for another case, and shot and wounded bailiff Nick Kirk.

Friends and relatives of his victims were split Thursday on whether Gardner deserves to die.

"Michael would not have wanted Ronnie Lee killed," Donna Nu, Burdell's fiancée, tearfully testified. "I'm asking to honor his wishes and commute the sentence to life without parole."

But Craig Watson, Otterstrom's cousin, called for Gardner's execution. He testified that Otterstrom died while Gardner was robbing the Cheers bar, walking away with less than $100.

Gardner fired a gun in Otterstrom's face and "blew his head off," Watson said. "In our minds, he did it just for fun."

Kirk's daughter, Tami Stewart, sobbed as she recalled how her father's shooting resulted in years of pain and five surgeries for him, and left him unable to go fishing and camping -- activities they previously had enjoyed as a family.

"That was the day that ruined my life," her father, who died in 1995, said of the day he was shot, Stewart testified.

Otterstrom's son said he doesn't know what sentence his father's killer should receive.

"I've been told stories of how much my dad loved me, how he was a wonderful father," said Jason Otterstrom, who was 3 when his father was killed. "I will never know. I will never know him."

Otterstrom said he is torn about whether to support the death penalty or life in prison without parole for Gardner. Whatever decision is made, he said, it should be permanent. "Our families need peace. Our families deserve the opportunity to place this action in the past."

That was the day that ruined my life.
--Tami Stewart, quoting her father

Closing arguments are set for Friday in the hearing, and the board will deliver its decision on Monday.

Gardner's attorney, Andrew Parnes, pointed out that jurors in the Burdell murder trial were not given the option of deciding to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Parnes said it was suggested during the trial that if jurors didn't sentence Gardner to death, he might one day be released.

Gardner pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Otterstrom's death and the Burdell jury was not told of the judge's recommendation in that case that he never be freed from prison, Parnes said.

Jurors also did not hear about Gardner's childhood, marked by poverty, neglect and abuse; his use of inhalants beginning at about age 6; and his being institutionalized in a mental hospital at age 10 or 11.

Craig Haney, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said he has studied many death-row prisoners, nearly all of whom have had disadvantaged childhoods. "I can tell you that Mr. Gardner's life stands among the very worst," he testified.

Gardner's mother asked to be sterilized after his birth, he said, telling hospital personnel she could not care for the children she already had. In 1963, Gardner, then 2, was found wandering in the street, clad only in a diaper.

The record of neglect "never wavered and it never varied" throughout Gardner's childhood, Haney said. While social workers and others made frequent notes of the situation, no one appears to have done anything to rectify it.

I can tell you that Mr. Gardner's life stands among the very worst
--Craig Haney, psychiatry professor

His placement in the mental hospital at age 10 or 11 came not because of mental illness, Haney said. Instead, it stemmed from a need to keep Gardner away from his family and, authorities noted, introduce him to a "normal" way of life. Doctors at the hospital noted that Gardner was already addicted to sniffing glue and paint, which could have caused brain damage, Haney said.

The account painted a picture of a little boy who felt stupid, unloved and with no place in the world.

But it did not move ValDean Kirk, bailiff Nick Kirk's widow, who plans to witness Gardner's execution. While many people have bad childhoods, she said afterward, they overcome it.

"He just wants to get out," she said of Gardner. While he may have had disadvantages, she said, "He knew right and wrong. That's all you need to know."

Gardner testified that he realizes he will spend the rest of his life in prison if he is not executed.

"I have changed," he said, noting that he -- once a "nasty little bugger" -- has had no discipline problems in prison in the last five years and only minor incidents in the last decade.

"It was just time to grow up and accept what I've done," he said.

Nu told reporters she was never angry about the murder of the man she planned to marry.

"Michael ... believed in life. He didn't believe that when you die, it's over," she said. Nu is a member of Summum, a Salt Lake City-based religious movement, as was Burdell.

Belief blog: What is Summum?

Gardner's execution, she added, is not going to bring peace to the victims' families. "Closure doesn't come from the outside," she said. "It comes from the inside."