Convicted killer Ronnie Gardner was the first person to be executed by a firing squad in the U.S. for 14 years. He spent the hours before his death watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy, reading the novel Divine Justice and sleeping.
The Daily Mail reporter Andrew Malone gives a chilling account of the firing squad execution carried out in Utah State Prison.
“Not long after midnight, the talking and the waiting were finally over. Peering down the barrels of their .30 calibre Winchester rifles at a hooded figure with a white cloth target pinned over his heart, five men steadied themselves to take the life of the sixth.
“The men with the hunting rifles were police marksmen - and, now, executioners. The man in the chair was double murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, who had spent the last 25 years hoping this moment would never come.
“Such was the clamour among local police to take part in this historic execution that names had to be drawn from a hat. It's 14 years since a man faced death by firing squad in the U.S., and after a recent ban came into force for new cases, they may never do so again.
“And so while Gardner's lawyers were shuttling between America's highest courts pleading for an eleventh-hour reprieve, those selected for the Utah firing squad were practising in an old warehouse inside the grounds of the Utah State Prison, where a replica, sound-proofed death chamber had been created, including an exact model of the chair that Gardner would be strapped to before he was shot.
“Gun rests were set up to ensure the marksmen would have a steady aim. Bullets were fired into a white target attached to the chair. Meanwhile, the clock ticked away.
“At one minute after midnight local time, the prisoner was led from his cell to begin the slow walk down dimly-lit corridors to the execution room just 90 feet away.
“Between consultations with his legal team, Gardner, 49, had spent his final hours watching the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and drinking coke. He was also allowed a visit from members of his family, as well as his daughter Brandie, who has only ever seen her father behind bars.
“Still hoping for a reprieve, Gardner, who launched appeal after appeal over the past two decades, was said to be 'totally relaxed' as the hour of execution drew nearer, chatting to the prison chaplain through the bars of his cell. With an hour to go, he even had a cat nap.
The rifle ports that were used by his five executioners, volunteers from local law enforcement, stationed at the far end of a 19ft by 23ft room. They were armed with .30-calibre rifles but only four of the five carried live rounds. One of the guns had a blank wax bullet allowing some doubt as to who carried out the execution
“But the reprieve never came. Just moments before the scheduled time of his death, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff announced there would be no stay of execution.
'May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims,' Mr Shurtleff announced on Twitter.
“Dressed in a navy boiler suit, Gardner did not struggle as he was led to his death. Officials said he was 'compliant'.
“Meanwhile, the prison's other inmates, including nine others on Death Row, were locked in their cells. There were no shouts of support from fellow convicts; the mood was silent and sombre.
“As Gardner made his final walk, official witnesses took their seats in an adjoining room, separated from the execution chamber by a sheet of bulletproof glass with one-way vision.
“I was with officials and selected journalists, following proceedings elsewhere in the correctional facility.
“Gardner had rejected his right to invite his own relatives to watch the execution, saying he didn't want them to have to witness such a 'violent act'.
“In the brightly-lit execution chamber, Gardner was sat in a wooden chair, surrounded by sandbags. His forehead and neck were strapped to the chair with bindings; his arms and legs were shackled. A metal tray beneath the seat would collect his blood.
“At 12.15 am, the five-man firing squad took their places behind a wall 20 feet from Gardner. At that point, curtains were pulled back, allowing official witnesses to watch the death. Gardner stared at the witnesses, even though the one-way glass prevented him from seeing their faces.
“He was asked if he had any last words. Ashen-faced, he replied: 'I do not. No.'
“He then tensed his muscles as a hood was placed over his head and the target was attached over his heart with Velcro.
“The firing squad leader walked down the line and tapped each marksman on the shoulder. Each gave the thumbs up, indicating they were ready. Only four of the rifles contained a live round: the fifth had a blank, ensuring no one would ever know which of the officers fired the lethal shots.
“And then the countdown from five began: 'Five. Four. Three ...'
“On two, the executioners opened fire. Three of the bullets struck home near the centre of the target. The fourth hit below and to the left of his heart. The fifth shot, of course, was a blank.
“Because he was restrained, Gardner barely moved when the rounds struck. The only movement was his left fist, which clenched, opened and then clenched again in the seconds after the execution.
'It was like he was fighting to the end,' said one witness. 'It was very strange to watch his fist and arm moving. At first, we thought they'd missed because he still seemed to be alive. But then it became clear that he wasn't.'
“Covered-up by the prison-issue boiler suit, the fatal wounds were not visible. It was clear, however, that the life was draining out of the killer.
'The execution warrant was carried out at 12.17,' announced Steve Gerkhe, a Utah Corrections spokesman. The curtains were then drawn, allowing a doctor to examine Gardner and pronounce him dead.
Tom Patterson, director of Utah Corrections Department, said: 'This has been an onerous responsibility. It has been exhausting, but it has been done with dignity and reverence for a human life, and also with dignity for the lives that have already been lost.'
Utah's government first used the firing squad in the 1870s, along with beheading and hanging, as part of the Mormon state's hard-line religious doctrine of blood atonement - the ancient belief that a criminal must spill his own blood in this life if he is to receive salvation in the next.
Gardner reportedly chose this method of death in the hope the bullets fired into his heart would be his entrance fee to Heaven.
Indeed, he ate his last meal - steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7-Up - two days before his execution so he could embark on a 48-hour 'spiritual' fast.
'I guess it's my Mormon heritage,' Gardner said some years ago. 'I like the firing squad. It's so much easier, and there are no mistakes.'
Horrified by the attention given to two other firing squad executions in Utah - spree killer Gary Gilmore in 1977, and child rapist John Albert Taylor in 1996 - the state has since outlawed this means of execution.
'We want the victims to get the attention, not the killer,' one official told me last night.
Gardner's lawyer, however, said that the condemned man wasn't interested in notoriety: he hoped that death by firing squad would be quicker and less painful than lethal injection.
Indeed, Gardner was horrified by stories of more than 30 botched lethal injections, with doctors and prison staff struggling to find veins among intravenous drug users.
In one case, Romell Broom, a child rapist, was still alive two hours after the execution began. Officials in the death chamber tried - and repeatedly failed - to find a good vein, stabbing needles into the man's arms, legs, hands and ankle bone.
And so, at his hearing six weeks ago, Gardner confirmed to the judge that he remained happy to die by the bullet. 'I would like the firing squad, please,' he replied, when asked what method he would prefer.
Yet as the days, hours and then minutes ticked by, Gardner had a dramatic change of heart. In a series of desperate, last-ditch legal challenges, he begged to be spared, saying he was a reformed character.
'I was a nasty little bugger, I admit to it,' Gardner said, pleading for his life at yet another appeal last week. 'I'm not changing to save my life. I've changed because I needed to. I think I'm the perfect example of what you shouldn't do.'
Begging for his sentence to be commuted to life without parole, Gardner even claimed that he and his brother wanted to open an organic farm for troubled children, using $1,300 he'd saved from prison wages and trying to enlist the support of chat show host Oprah Winfrey.
Gardner is restrained on the lawn at the Metropolitan Hall of Justice, in Salt Lake City after the courthouse shooting death of Michael Burdell
Insisting he was a reformed man, he said he couldn't believe how much pain he had caused others. He claimed to spend his time counselling other inmates, including a 16-year-old boy jailed for attempted murder.
Saying he was 'really remorseful', he also admitted for the first time that he had no reason to kill his two victims, and that he had tried to contact their relatives 'to apologise'.
In the darkness outside the prison last night, Randy Gardner, the condemned man's brother, said: 'I know what he did was wrong, and I'm sorry. But killing him will not bring back what was lost. Why not kill some of these baby rapists who take a child's innocence. Kill them.'
In truth, of course, while Gardner was a violent career criminal and the author of his own misfortune, he had an appalling upbringing and his parents should have been in the dock with him.
He had first been spotted by the authorities, aged two, wandering alone down the street, and was returned to his mother. At the age of six, he was sniffing glue.
By nine, he had been arrested for the first time, having traded a handgun for marijuana, and was subsequently sent to a psychiatric hospital for 18 months.
The youngest of seven children to an alcoholic mother, he was raised by his siblings. His mother even asked to be sterilised after she had him, saying she couldn't cope with any more children.
Stubborn and wilful, Gardner grew up wild and without love or discipline. He was addicted to drugs by the time he was ten, and was permitted by his parents to sniff glue and drink alcohol as well. 'I never had no positive role models in my life,' he once said. 'Not one.'
He later became an enthusiastic lookout during robberies committed by his stepfather, who was himself later jailed for grand larceny.
By the time he was 15, Gardner was a regular user of cocaine, heroin and crystal meth. Sexually abused by a local paedophile in his early teens, Gardner then became a rent boy to get money for drugs.
After repeated spells in prison, Gardner escaped in 1985. While on the run, he killed Melvyn Otterstrom, a bar tender, by shooting him through his nostril and, quite literally, blowing his head off.
Awaiting trial for that killing, and knowing that he faced life behind bars without parole under Utah's tough sentencing policy, Gardner again tried to escape.
Friends and relatives of convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner participate in a candlelight vigil as his execution takes place by firing squad
Though just 5ft 7in and weighing little more than 9st, Gardner made up for his lack of size by sheer brutality.
But he could also, when it suited him, be charming. Prosecutors say he used that charm to persuade a girlfriend to smuggle a gun into the courtroom while at a pre-trial hearing for the murder of Otterstrom.
After being passed the weapon, while supposedly under strict guard, Gardner ran amok. He shot dead Michael Burdell, a lawyer, and wounded George Kirk, a court official, before giving himself up.
Craig Watson, a close friend of Melvyn Otterstrom, was a witness at Gardner's execution, along with Mr Otterstrom's son. 'It's not going to give me back anything, but it will give me some closure knowing that there's been some justice done,' Mr Watson said.
Remarkably, Michael Burdell's partner and father both pleaded for Gardner's life to be spared, saying Burdell was a pacifist who was opposed to the death penalty.
Unlike his victims, at least Gardner had the chance to say goodbye to his family and friends. Brandie, his daughter, who was three when her father was sentenced, was allowed to hug him through the bars of his cell. His parting words to her were: 'Don't mourn my death - celebrate my freedom.'
In a car park overlooking the prison, in the dead of night, with summer snow on the surrounding mountains, Brandie and other members of Gardner's family sang Free Bird by the U.S. rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd as the marksmen opened fire.
Whether Ronnie Lee Gardner ever did find salvation for his terrible crimes, nobody will ever know.