Nation - Utah Inmate sentenced to firing squad seeks commutation Friends of victim ask parole board to spare killer's life, see no point

By Jennifer Dobner

Associated Press Writer

DRAPER, Utah (AP) -- Nine days before he is set to be executed by a five-man firing squad, Ronnie Lee Gardner is asking Utah's parole board to commute his death sentence to life in prison.

A two-day hearing for the 49-year-old began Thursday at the Utah State Prison. Gardner is scheduled to be executed June 18.

Gardner will have two hours to plead his case and answer questions from the five-member Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, according to a published schedule.

The board's job is to decide whether there is any reason that the death penalty is an inappropriate sentence or whether there is any reason to grant Gardner clemency.

Board members have been poring over more than 1,000 pages of records documenting Gardner's life, criminal history and behavior during his more than 25 years in prison to prepare for the hearing, board spokesman Jim Hatch said.

It's unclear when the board will make a decision.

Friends of Michael Burdell, who was shot and killed by Gardner in 1985, will also ask the board to spare Gardner's life. They say Burdell opposed the death penalty and that Gardner's death would be meaningless.

Gardner killed Burdell during a botched escape attempt at the old Salt Lake City courthouse. A female accomplice slipped Gardner a gun as the pair passed in the hallway as Gardner was being led to court to face charges of fatally shooting a bartender in a separate case.

Gardner's attorney, Andrew Parnes, said Gardner is a changed person and feels remorse for Burdell's 1985 death and also for the 1984 murder of Melyvn Otterstrom, the bartender.

Parnes contends that the board should commute Gardner's sentence because his crime doesn't compare to those of six other men previously put to death in Utah, some of whom were convicted of as many as five counts of capital murder.

But Utah Assistant Attorney General Tom Brunker said Gardner is a cold-hearted killer with an extensive history of other crimes and a record of multiple escapes. He has called Gardner the "poster child for the death penalty" and said he is not deserving of any mercy.

Prosecutors plan to counter Gardner's plea for clemency with testimony from the families of George "Nick" Kirk, a bailiff shot and seriously injured at the same time Burdell was killed. Craig Watson, a Sandy police officer and a cousin of Otterstrom will also speak.

Utah's parole board has rarely held commutation hearings. Only 14 men have had ever had death sentences commuted -- the last in 1962. Only two hearings have been held since 1977, according to records kept by a Weber State University criminal justice professor.

The most recent hearing was for Elroy Tillman in 2001. The hearing was disrupted when Tillman's attorney suffered a heart attack. It was never resumed, although Tillman's sentence was vacated when it was learned that some case evidence was withheld. He is now serving a life sentence.

Published: Fri, Jun 11, 2010

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