At 4am Friday I was done covering the execution. I sat down and wrote all I could remember…
My first stop is to the media area, set up at the police academy. To get into the parking lot I have to show my press pass at a roadblock. Once in there are patrols of police roaming the parking lot.
A photog stops to chat, says he got stopped by police and asked for his press pass while just walking in the parking lot. After he leaves I go back to eating my dinner in the car. An officer peaks his head in my window looking for someone. I say I just arrived.
Minutes later another officer peaks in my window and asks for my press ID. I flash it and she asks if I have checked in. No. She says I have to check in, and she stands by my car door until I put down my food and get out of the car.
In the building I go through a metal detector and register. They put a blue sticker with the number 35 on my press pass. It’s funny how much weight people give a company issued press pass, as they are so easy to fake.
Lots of media inside fill a large gymnasium, reporters and cameras from around the world.
After a while I drive down to the prison and hit a roadblock. The guy takes my drivers license and scans through a two page list and doesn’t see my name. I assure him I must be on there. I’m the pool photographer. He re-scans the typewritten list again. On the second page he finally locates my name, scrawled in by hand at the bottom.
I pull up to the meeting place. Several officers stand at the prison entrance, silhouetted by two rows of high fence topped with razor wire. There are two vans.
The officers come over and now I’m told that I can only bring one camera, no camera bag, and I must have a lens cap on my lens. That changes things. I grab a body with a 16-35, stick a flash on top, pop in my most reliable battery and an 8 gigabyte card. It’s an uncomfortably light kit for such a big assignment.
I leave everything else in my car other than a car key and my drivers license. Those are the rules.
The other media witnesses show up. There are nine. We are taken into a small conference room with a table covered with large ziploc bags labeled with our last names. We put our ID’s and keys into the bags. We wait ten minutes. Everyone is pretty quiet. What do you talk about at this moment? I can’t think of anything. Instead, I agonize over my equipment. My reporter seems concerned until I tell him not to worry, “I’m just overthinking it.”
There are four guards. One speaks up and reads a page of instructions. It details a little of what will happen. Any last words? Then a volley. A second volley if necessary to kill.
We go through a metal detector and then are physically searched, patted down.
We board the vans, which are freshly covered in Armor All. The steps and floor and seats are very slippery. No one is injured climbing in. Then we sit in the vans for at least 25 minutes. The radio is tuned to a local news channel. We laugh as the two hosts speculate wildly about the execution. One of the guards laughs at us laughing at our poor radio colleagues.
The radio hosts report that as of 1130pm, Ronnie Lee Gardner was asleep. One of the hosts goes off on a theme of wondering what Gardner’s last dream was. In our van, eyes roll.
The vans start up and we are driven to a different part of the prison where we idle for a while near a loading area. Time passes. 1158, 1159, 1200, 1201. I watch the minutes tick off on the van’s clock radio. The radio hosts are saying, “It could be happening this very minute,” but really we’re all sitting in vans waiting to be let in.
1202, 1203, 1204
I can’t remember the exact time we got out of the vans and into the prison, at earliest it was 1205.
An officer directs me and the videographer to the side. The nine media witnesses are let in the door and go right. Then we go in and go left. Everything inside is white and gray and fluorescent lit, very institutional. There are hallways and doors everywhere, each with an officer standing by them. Me and the video guy are led down a long hallway, past numerous guards stationed by doors, past a courtyard with a basketball court (and two officers guarding it), up some stairs, down a hall and into a conference room where we are guarded by two officers. We wait, quietly. Again, what is there to talk about at this moment? There’s a typewriter in the corner, a drinking fountain, doors numbered 69 and 70 and one labeled, “showers.”
It’s quiet. I keep wondering if I’ll hear the shots. After a long while the media witnesses are brought to our room, with more guards. It is done, he is dead. I didn’t hear anything.
The witnesses sit down and start talking about what happened. They compare notes about things like Gardner’s last words and the sequence of events. They want to get it right. The hood was put on, the shots were fired, “It happened so quickly!”
Immediately there are disagreements about details. Standing at the window of the execution chamber after Gardner was shot, one reporter had drawn a sketch of the target on Gardner’s heart indicating the four bullet marks. He insists his sketch of the target is accurate, while another reporter disputes it, saying that two shots were actually on the left not the right. The other reporter defends his sketch, saying he drew it while the target was still in front of him. They continue to argue over the details of the target. Square? Circle? Oblong? Left? Right? Centered?
They all talk about how quickly it happened. The warden was talking to Gardner. Gardner says he has no last words. The warden walks out. Guns appear. Bam-Bam! Very loud, even with earplugs.
We hadn’t heard a thing in the conference room.
They debate how long it took for Gardner to die from his wounds. Two minutes? Three minutes? They have no idea but figure it was probably three. Time was impossible to track standing there at the window watching the execution.
And time in the conference room is hard to track. After at least thirty minutes we are led into the execution chamber.
It is very small. I start shooting. We approach the chair. There are four bullet holes behind it in the wood panel behind the chair.
Reporters are soon climbing all over the chair,
pointing at the bullet holes, poking their fingers in them…
Prison officials ask the reporters to step back. I photograph the chair from every possible angle. I shoot with my flash and without. From straight on, from the left, the right, close up, far away. To avoid climbing up on the contraption I reach out and hold the camera up close to the bullet holes…
I shoot from a low angle with my camera on the ground. At a certain point I’ve exhausted the scene. Around then we are asked if we have enough.
We are led back to the vans and taken to our cars. We drive quickly to the media center. A press conference takes place where the media witnesses form a panel and provide their descriptions.
The first witness to speak shows a sketch of what the target on Gardner’s chest looked like. The second witness to speak disputes the first’s sketch and describes his own.
The media witnesses, in short statements, provide a patchwork of observations about the execution. One reporter says it wasn’t as violent as they thought it would be. The execution is described as clean and clinical. The ninth witness disagrees with the rest. He says it was shocking, louder than he expected and not clinical at all. He says that contrary to how the other witnesses described it, it was a very violent act.
I went home and slept.
The meeting was very quick. The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole would announce their decision. Gardner would either be executed or his sentence commuted to life in prison without parole. It was very tense.
I trained my camera on the victims’ families. The Board announced its unanimous decision not to commute Gardner’s sentence. The execution would proceed.
Barb Webb, whose father was shot by Gardner, pumped her fists. Afterward, Barb’s sister Tami was interviewed in front of the prison…
From the cell block behind her, inmates began shouting. “Kill him!” “Kill him!” Their primal shouts sent a chill down my spine.
And now I’m going into the prison to cover the firing squad execution. I won’t be witnessing the actual event. I will report back after it is done.
The final witness on day one of the commutation hearing is the offender, Ronnie Lee Gardner. He’s sworn in and makes a statement, then answers questions.
His lawyer reads a letter Gardner wrote to Oprah, hoping to get her financial help in starting up a farm for neglected and abused children on some land he owns. He has a little over a thousand dollars (made from selling handmade crafts) to put into getting the farm started.
Recounting the murders his story seems to shift a bit. He says this time he’s telling the truth. He says he wants to apologize but one of the victims’ families won’t accept his apology so he hasn’t offered it.
He says he has avoided speaking out in the media to keep the families from any further hurt.
For a very brief moment (above) he is overcome with emotion, talking about the remorse he feels. He looks down and the moment is over.
Referring to a violent incident with another inmate he says, “I didn’t try to kill him. I stabbed him several times.”
Gardner’s attorney tells the board that he would prefer not to attend the remaining two sessions of the hearings. He says Gardner’s arthritis makes it too painful for him to sit in the chair with his hands chained behind his back.
After it’s over, Deputy Nick Kirk’s widow VelDean Kirk and her granddaughter Mandi Hull leave the prison.
Day one of the commutation hearing. Get to the state prison at the crack of dawn. Leave everything in the car other than my ID and the photo gear that has been previously approved. Also left in my car is a photo editor who will edit and transmit my photos.
The hearing is scheduled to go from 8am to 2pm with two fifteen minute breaks. To get photos and news out we sent in three reporters. First break, first reporter grabbed my memory cards and left the prison, dropping the cards with the photo editor and calling in an update. Second break, second reporter grabbed my cards and left. With my memory cards I sent a note that said, “Mexican for lunch.” The system worked out well and we moved fifty photos to the pool* quickly.
The first parts of the hearing were statements from the families of Gardner’s victims. Tami Stewart read a statement with her niece Mandi Hull providing support…
After the families, Psychology professor Craig Haney testified for the defense about his findings on Gardner’s upbringing. To sum it up, Ronnie Lee’s early years were a nightmare: Neglected from the start by a mother who had more than she could handle. Huffing paint and gas at age six, on drugs at age ten. Sent to a mental institution in order to provide him with a healthier environment, not because he was mentally ill. While in a state institution, he and his brother were befriended by a man who took custody of them upon their release. Authorities checking in on the situation later found the home filled with men dressed as women and the Gardner’s new guardian to be a pedophile.
As it was all detailed, I photographed Haney with members of the victims families in the background, wondering what they were thinking. Of course, this case is twenty-five years old. They’ve probably thought enough about it already.
Twenty five years. Think about it.
* Pool – on big stories a single photographer is designated the pool photographer. That photographer is the only one allowed in but shares photographs with all media outlets in the pool.
A while back I got a call from an editor who wanted to assign me to the firing squad execution of convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner. He asked me if I’d have any problems doing that, if it would get into my head or whatever. If I were to be a witness to this man being shot (and I’m not), would it affect me? I looked inside for some kind of feeling and found nothing. No reaction to the idea. So, “Sure, I’ll do it,” I said.
Of course, it’s naive to think that being part of the execution coverage would have absolutely no affect on you, but that was my first reaction. I have now covered several court hearings leading up to tonight’s scheduled execution.
The first assignment was to meet with the Kirk family, to tell their story. Deputy Nick Kirk was shot during one of Gardner’s escape attempts. He survived, but his health was never the same.
Another assignment was a hearing at the Utah Supreme Court, where Gardner’s attorneys were making an argument to overturn the execution. In the court you’re stuck in a corner and good shots are hard to come by. Outside after the hearing, attorneys spoke to microphones and TV cameras. I watched for a few minutes and left. In the lobby I came across a split second scene. Two widows of Gardner’s violence, VelDean Kirk and Kathy Potter, sharing a quick and emotional embrace. I only got two or three frames before it was over, and because of that the composition of the moment isn’t perfect…
I approached Mrs. Potter to ask for her name, which I didn’t know at the time. The man she was with waved me off saying, “She doesn’t want to be involved.” I was starting to back off when she said something like, It’s okay. My name is Kathy Potter. I am Melvyn Otterstrom’s widow.
To be continued…