Capital punishment is carried out in this country behind closed prison doors, not on network television — though, if we are trying to deter heinous crime, one would think we ought to make the death penalty as visible as we can.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff seems to have found the next best thing to live television. Moments after he ordered the execution by firing squad of Ronnie Lee Gardner last week, Shurtleff used his Twitter account to alert his 7,000 followers: “I just gave the go ahead to Corrections Director to proceed with Gardner's execution. May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims.” Gardner was pronounced dead 20 minutes later.
Shurtleff used Twitter three times in a 12-hour period to provide a virtual play-by-play of Gardner’s state-sanctioned shooting. In the afternoon, as the prisoner’s lawyers made a last-ditch effort to save his life, the attorney general provided color commentary. “A solemn day. Barring a stay by Sup Ct, & with my final nod, Utah will use most extreme power & execute a killer. Mourn his victims. Justice”
Fifteen minutes after he ordered the execution, Shurtleff pounded out another tweet on his iPhone: “We will be streaming live my press conference as soon as I'm told Gardner is dead. Watch it at www.attorneygeneral.Utah.gov/live.html.” The promo had everything but the tagline, “Film at 11.”
Shurtleff’s unique spin on the concept of equal access to justice attracted a lot of attention, much of it negative. This seemed to get under the attorney general’s skin. On Saturday he interrupted whatever it is he does on the weekend to opine, again on Twitter: “Astonishing that no retweet whiner express outrage that Gardner shot 2 men in the face, & a cop; nor one word of empathy for their families.”
Okay, so even though this is technically a blog and not a retweet (reposting a tweet with one’s own comment), I will assume the mantle of the retweet whiner to acknowledge the following: first, that Ronnie Lee Gardner most likely was a nasty character, and in any event did some terrible things (he was on trial for the murder of a bartender when, after an accomplice furnished a gun, he fatally shot a lawyer and wounded a guard during an escape attempt); second, that Gardner’s victims in no way deserved what happened to them; and third, that the victims’ families suffer every day and deserve all the sympathy we can offer.
Having said that, the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner says very little about Gardner, especially compared to the volumes it speaks about Shurtleff and the rest of us.
Gardner got most of what he wanted even though he did not avoid execution. Because he committed his crime before Utah abolished firing squads in 2004, Gardner had the legal right to die in a manner reminiscent of one of the most famous American executions of all time. I vividly remember the winter morning in 1977 when Utah executed Gary Gilmore by firing squad. After a five-year national hiatus on executions that the Supreme Court had ordered, Gilmore insisted that his death sentence be carried out, uttering as his final words, “Let’s do it.” Norman Mailer immortalized Gilmore in his book “The Executioner’s Song.” (Tommy Lee Jones won an Emmy for his portrayal of Gilmore in a TV movie of the same name.)
Gilmore was put to death for murdering an unresisting hotel clerk during a robbery. The robbery occurred one day after the killing of a gas station attendant with which Gilmore was also charged. In many ways, Gilmore’s life was as violent and otherwise meaningless as Gardner’s. But here I am, writing about him 33 years after he died, an enduring fame to which Gardner apparently aspired as well.
Have you ever noticed how many killers seem to embrace their own deaths, especially as an alternative to other forms of punishment? Hitler killed himself. Mohammed Atta sought “martyrdom,” and probably would have hated having to sit in a prison cell year after year, decade after decade, to reflect on the consequences of his acts on 9/11. Even a run-of-the-mill jealous-maniac-estranged-husband will characteristically put a bullet in his own head after ending the life of someone who only wants to be left alone.
Who, exactly, are we punishing when we impose capital punishment? Not the perpetrator, or at least, not for very long. Ronnie Lee Gardner is not suffering now. But he had a family, too. His brother, who pleaded for Gardner’s life to be spared, must live every day with the image of Gardner’s unnatural death. Utah’s attorney general demands “empathy” for the families of Gardner’s victims. Fair enough, but does he have any empathy for Gardner’s family?
One of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s sons spoke at my daughter’s high school graduation several years ago. He was a young boy, innocent of any offense, when his parents were electrocuted, and he is still traumatized. What kind of country does that to its people?
Amnesty International can answer that question. Four countries ranked ahead of the United States in number of executions last year. They were China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Are there any role models for our justice system on that list?
No other country in the Western Hemisphere currently has capital punishment — not Cuba, not Venezuela, not Mexico, nor any other nation no matter how dictatorial, corrupt or violent. No European country executed anyone last year, not even Belarus, which still has a death penalty statute.
Since 1976, there have been 1,217 executions in the United States. I cannot see how our country was made better, or safer, by any of them. Every one of those executed inmates had already been rendered harmless through incarceration.
At best, the death penalty allows politicians like Shurtleff to strut and preen and show how tough on crime they are. (The folks who are really tough on crime, in my book, are the ones who wear badges and go after bad guys who are still roaming the streets.) At worst, the system provides a veneer of due process that, inevitably, leads to errors that can never be corrected. There is no way to know how many innocent people have been executed in this country, as courts generally do not reopen cases once the defendant is dead. However, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 138 inmates who had been sentenced to death have been proven legally innocent and released since 1973. It is bad enough to serve years in jail for a crime you didn’t commit, but at least imprisonment can be undone. Execution leaves no room for correcting judicial mistakes.
This was a fearful, rattled country on that winter morning in 1977 when Gary Gilmore declared “Let’s do it” and, senselessly, we listened to him. A lost war, a rising crime rate, a series of urban riots and a floundering economy made people wonder if the United States was in decline.
A society that feels confident about itself does not need the death penalty. It has been abolished by law or practice in 139 countries. We ought to join them. We need not give killers the escape they often want, and we need not lower ourselves to their level to dispense justice.
Mark Shurtleff is a small man with a small message. Twitter suits him perfectly. But it’s time to give him less to tweet about.