Saturday, June 19, 2010
Ronnie Lee Gardner is an easy man to hate. He murdered two men. One in a robbery and the other in an escape attempt after a woman slipped him a gun. He was shot and wounded on the courthouse lawn and after the trial, was sentenced to death......25 years ago.
Ronnie Lee was sentenced so long ago that a firing squad option was still available and that's what he chose as the method of his execution. This past week all the appeals that could have been applied for had been denied and his execution for this morning just after midnight was set.
As a photographer I realized I had a rare chance to shoot one of the vigils that occur outside of a prison when an execution is carried out. I got excited for the opportunity to document something rare in Utah. I knew I would have to stay up late on a work night to do it but how often will I get the chance. Then it hit me, I was going to do something I love, photography, while a man was being executed. Was I exploiting this man's death? Was I a photojournalist like those who photograph starving children and homeless people? Yes, I was, but I knew a story must be told. I'm a proponent of the death penalty and here was a chance to stand up for what I believed.
At 10:30 I approached a gate at the Utah State Prison and I saw two vans parked by a building and was approached by guards in SWAT gear. I saw no vigil but I instantly knew, THIS was the building where it would happen. I asked about a vigil and they directed me to the other side of the prison and the guards at that gate directed me to a place across I-15 where the protesters were gathering.
I approached the group as they mingled and wrote notes on helium filled balloons. It was then that I found out that Ronnie Lee had a daughter and that she was there. People held candles and balloons and there were a couple of signs and members of the clergy. People would laugh and then fight back tears as the time approached. I watched Ronnie's daughter, Brandie as she mingled with the crowd and some independent media who had also gathered. I spoke with a reporter from Australia and of course I took photos.
It was hard not to get emotional even though this man had brutally taken two lives. All I could see at this moment was a daughter waiting to get the news that four bullets had torn into her father's chest. Ronnie Lee Gardner is an easy man to hate but his daughter was about to be added to the victims of his actions.
At midnight one of the group went to a car parked near the group and turned on the stereo. The group who had shortly before offered prayers to Ronnie Lee and his victims and their families now sang along to Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird.
I tried to guess at what point of the song the order was given to fire. I will never be able to hear the song again without wondering at what point the shots rang out across the highway. Maybe I'll even hear them in my head some time. When confirmation that the execution had been carried out was received, the balloons were released into the night sky. I had contemplated grabbing a sharpie and writing on one of the balloons but I could not muster up the nerve. I only wanted to write two words.
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