Friday, June 18, 2010

An Unexpected Touch of Sympathy for Ronnie Lee Gardner

Early this morning, at twenty minutes past midnight, Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by a Utah firing squad. Plenty of other sources will provide details of the execution. I'll pass. Instead, I'll write of the crime itself, present a (nearly frivolous) Actual Innocence Scorecard, and let slip a surprising reaction to this case.

From Wikipedia, we learn a little.
Gardner murdered bartender Melvyn Otterstrom in 1984; during his trial for this crime in 1985, he attempted escape, killing attorney Michael Burdell in the process.
I wanted more. It would be difficult to find out much about the crime itself, however, by searching Google or Bing or any of the standard search engines. Those searches lead to a sea of articles about the execution itself. I wanted to know about the crime itself.

I searched instead using Google Scholar. Appellate decisions sometimes provide a good factual summary of the case. (Google Scholar is another free service. Go to Google, select "more" from the top left menu, select "Scholar" from the dropdown menu, click the "Legal opinions and journals" button.) In my search the first hit was Gardner v. Galetka. That's an adverse ruling on one of Gardner's appeals. It informed me that I should check Gardner v. Holden for a good recitation of the crime details. Gardner v. Holden was the third hit in my search. I opened it and viola: details of the crime. I present them below.
The facts developed at the trial and at the hearing on the petition for post-conviction relief are as follows: On April 2, 1985, Ronnie Lee Gardner was transported from the Utah State Prison to the Metropolitan Hall of Justice in Salt Lake City for a pretrial hearing on a second degree murder charge. As Gardner and his guards entered the courthouse basement, a woman handed Gardner a gun. The guards exchanged gunfire with Gardner, shot him through the lung, and then retreated from the area. In attempting to escape, Gardner entered the archives room, where he saw two attorneys, Robert Macri and Michael Burdell, hiding behind the door. Gardner pointed the gun at Macri and cocked the hammer of the gun. Burdell exclaimed, "Oh, my God!" Turning, Gardner shot and killed Burdell.
Gardner then forced prison officer Richard Thomas, who was also in the basement, to conduct him out of the archives room to a stairwell leading to the second floor. As Gardner crossed the lobby, he shot and seriously wounded Nick Kirk, a uniformed bailiff. Gardner climbed the stairs to the next floor, where he took hostage Wilburn Miller, a vending machine serviceman. As Gardner exited the building, Miller broke free and escaped. Outside, Gardner threw down his gun and surrendered to waiting police officers.
Gardner's attorneys, brothers Andrew and James Valdez of Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association, were to meet Gardner that day at 9:00 a.m. for the pretrial hearing. Andrew Valdez was walking toward the courthouse when he saw Gardner go down to the ground. As Andrew ran across the street, he could see that Gardner was bleeding from the chest. Andrew spoke with Gardner and then left. James Valdez arrived at the courthouse soon after. He immediately approached Gardner and asked him if he was all right; Gardner responded that he was in pain.
Gardner was later transported to the University Hospital. Wayne Jorgensen, a prison officer assigned to guard Gardner at the hospital, testified at trial that Gardner told him he shot Burdell because he thought Burdell looked as if he would jump on him. According to Jorgensen, Gardner also declared that he would have killed anyone who tried to stop him from escaping.
Both Andrew and James Valdez represented Gardner at trial. The thrust of the defense was that Gardner was in such pain and physical distress after he was wounded that his shooting Burdell was only a reaction and therefore the killing was unintentional. In preparation for trial, defense counsel spoke with the emergency room doctors who treated Gardner. The doctors told counsel that Gardner was not in shock when he came into the emergency room, did not have excessive bleeding, was lucid and demanding, and was aware of the situation.

Robert Macri testified at trial that after Gardner shot Burdell, Macri ran around the door and closed it behind him as a shield. However, at the preliminary hearing, Macri testified that he could not remember how the door shut. After the preliminary hearing but before trial, unknown to either the prosecution or defense counsel, Macri underwent hypnosis to help him remember how the door shut. Macri could not recall that detail while under hypnosis but asserted that while driving to California some months later, he suddenly recalled that he had shut the door. In all other respects, Macri's testimony at the preliminary hearing and at trial were the same. It was at the post-conviction proceeding while Gardner appeal was pending that defense counsel first became aware that Macri had been hypnotized prior to trial.

At trial, Gardner took the stand and testified on direct examination that he had been convicted of various crimes, including crimes of violence. Defense counsel elicited this information, according to the testimony at the habeas hearing, because he believed that the prosecution would use those convictions to impeach Gardner and he wanted to "steal the prosecution's thunder."
Then I searched for information regarding Gardner's crime against Melvin Otterstrom, I came across an excellent six-page article by Amy Donaldson from The Deseret News: Crime and Punishment For Ronnie Lee Gardner. I encourage you to read her entire article. I quote below just her version of the shooting itself.
On April 2, 1985, [Gardner] was walking into the old 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City about 8:45 a.m. when a woman either pressed a gun into his hands or he retrieved a gun that she had taped to a drinking fountain. Those details vary, depending on whom you ask. Immediately, an officer yelled, "Run! He's got a gun!"
While one officer ran out of the building, another opened fire on Gardner, hitting him in the shoulder. He ducked into a records room, where he reportedly said, "They hit me! They got me! I've been hit bad!"
Gardner pointed the gun at attorney Bob Macri, who stood next to his friend and colleague Michael Burdell. Macri testified that he thought it was an April Fools' joke as Gardner first pointed the gun at him and then moved it to Burdell.
As Macri ducked and ran out, Gardner shot Burdell in the eye, killing him.
"As I went out the door, the gun went off," Macri testified in 1985. "I left screaming, 'Police! Help! Murder!' I lost control at that point, I think."
While Gardner continued to insist that some details of that day were hazy, he did have to pull back the hammer on the revolver to shoot Burdell. He fired twice at the lawyer, who was in the basement doing pro-bono work for his church.
Gardner ran out of that room and into Salt Lake County sheriff's bailiff Nick Kirk. Kirk had heard about the shooting and ran down five flights of stairs to "protect his judge" — James Sawaya. When Gardner saw him, he shot him in the stomach, sending Kirk to the floor. He walked past him and into the stairwell Kirk had just exited. He then ascended to the second floor of the courthouse. He aimed the gun at a man filling a candy machine and asked for a ride. As the two navigated the hallway leading to the doors, the man jumped out an open window, leaving Gardner bloodied and alone with one bullet remaining in his gun.
Gardner surrendered to police on the lawn of the courthouse after dropping the gun and yelling that he was unarmed.
There is no question that Johnnie Lee Gardner murdered Michael Burdell. I scored him at zero. I include my Actual Innocence Scorecard to the right of this paragraph. It was almost a frivolous exercise, but not quite, I hope.

My little exercise reminded me once again that the members of our law enforcement community face risk routinely as they try to protect us from those who would do us harm. I don't want to lose sight of the noble work they do, even as I fault them when I believe they may have wrongfully prosecuted, convicted, and even executed an innocent person.

My exercise reminded me also that matters are never as simple as they seem. I have no doubt that Johnnie Lee Gardner was a murderer. I won't dispute the value of his execution or add to the debate about the propriety of the firing squad. I find it all very sad though: two lives cut short.

Michael Burdell's life ended in the archive room of the courthouse that day as he was working pro bono to help his church. It ended when Johnnie Lee Gardner shot him in the eye, for no good reason.

Johnnie Lee Gardner's life ended much earlier, I argue, due to reasons too complex for me to comprehend. As I completed his Actual Innocence Scorecard, I found myself doing something I had not previously done. I made excuses for him when filling out the Assessment portion. Amy Donaldson's article, it turns out, provided far more than the details of the shooting. She told of Gardner's early life, and of his final acceptance of what had happened to him, who he had become, and what he had done. Her writing caused me to assess the case against Gardner as follows.
No one disputes Ronnie Lee Gardner murdered Michael Burdell. As time passed, even Gardner gave up on his excuses that he was in too much pain at the time to be responsible for the shooting, or that the victims had threatened him.

It seems though that Gardner never had a decent chance at life. Found undernourished, wandering the streets in a diaper, at age 2. Child welfare workers found his home life so distressing, they filed a "failure to care" petition against his mother, a rare move at the time. Gardner, though, was left in the care of his mother, who had taken to wearing his step-father's belt around her neck as a visual warning to her children. Sexually abused for the first time at age 5 by an older sister and her teenage friend. Introduced to sniffing glue and huffing gas at age 6. Addicted to drugs by the time he was 10. Permitted by his parents to sniff glue and drink alcohol. Place in a mental hospital, though he was not mentally ill. By age 11, he'd been in detention 12 times. Sexually molested and trained in the ways of crime by the two male "role models" in those institutions.
I'll leave it to you to decide if Ronnie Lee Gardner had a fair chance at life. I'll leave it to you to decide if you could have done any better.

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