Saturday, 20 January 2007

Shots heard 'round the U.S.

30 years ago

Shots heard 'round the U.S.

Gary Gilmore's landmark execution marked the return of capital punishment and stoked the death row debate

By Jeremiah Stettler
The Salt Lake Tribune

Gary Gilmore is led to court to receive his death sentence. Gary Gilmore is led to court to receive his death sentence.

Thirty years ago, a volley of gunshots outside the Utah State Prison triggered a new era in capital punishment, ending the life of convicted killer Gary Gilmore and reviving state-sanctioned executions across the country.

Defiant toward those who might spare him, Gilmore greeted his death with the words, "Let's do it."
So with a black hood over his head, Gilmore became the first man executed since the U.S. Supreme Court - frustrated at inequities in sentencing - outlawed the practice in 1972 as "cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual."

Hundreds of executions followed Gilmore's as states imposed more rigid guidelines favored by the high court. Utah executed five men, including the notorious Hi-Fi killers, who murdered three people and injured two others during a 1974 robbery at an Ogden stereo shop. Nine men currently are on Utah's death row.

Today, human rights watchdog Amnesty International plans to commemorate Gilmore's death with a 2 p.m. vigil outside the Utah State Prison in Draper.

Organizers say they aren't glorifying the killer, who in 1976 murdered Provo motel manager Ben Bushnell and Orem service station attendant Max David Jensen. Rather, they are calling on lawmakers to stop the executions.

"The death penalty remains what it has always been; the most basic of all human rights said Rick Halperin, chairman of Amnesty International's board of directors. "The death penalty institution is inherently flawed, brutally racist and prone to terrible mistakes. It is not now - nor ever has been or ever will be - a solution to violent crime in America."
Still, a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in May 2006 shows that most Americans favor capital punishment. The poll found that 65 percent of adults support the death penalty, compared to 28 percent who oppose it.

The anti-execution crowd has gained traction in recent years, however. Gallup polls conducted in the mid-1990s show eight out of 10 Americans favoring capital punishment.
Amnesty officials now plan to petition the state Legislature to abolish the death penalty entirely. In 2004, lawmakers eliminated firing squads except for death row inmates who requested it at sentencing, leaving lethal injection as the only method.
The killer they will commemorate, however, didn't share their anti-death penalty views. Thirty years ago, Gilmore fought for a firing squad, telling The Salt Lake Tribune that his sentence was "proper."

"You can't take someone's life or do some wrong and then start to sniffle because you are punished," he said.

He sought death repeatedly, attempting suicide twice and calling members of the Utah Board of Pardons "cowards" for their reluctance to execute him quickly. At last - on Jan. 17, 1977 - he enjoyed his final meal of a hamburger, hard-boiled eggs, coffee, and three shots of whiskey smuggled in by a visitor, then took four bullets to the chest.

Afterward, Norman Mailer wrote The Executioner's Song, which was made into a film, and Gilmore's brother, Mykal Gilmore, wrote Shot in the Heart.
State-sanctioned executions, even against convicted murder
ers, horrifies Dee Rowland, a government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and speaker at today's vigil. She doesn't believe it conforms to gospel teaching of mercy and non-vengeance.

"It's not that we don't think people deserve to be punished," Rowland said. "We don't want to continue that cycle of violence. We don't want to participate in the planned killing of another human being."

The Utah Department of Corrections said it had no objection to the vigil. To the contrary, spokesman Jack Ford said the group has every right to protest.
"We're not monitoring it. We're not even going to be there," he said. "They can demonstrate all they want."

Terry McCaffrey, area coordinator for Amnesty International, hopes the vigil will win supporters today in this, one of the union's reddest states. Ultimately, he wants to rally enough opposition to rid the state of death row
"We are setting a marker down," he said. "We are telling them where the finish line is."

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