By Lisa Carricaburu
The Salt Lake Tribune
Updated Jun 26, 2010
A week ago, Utah made history.
It may not seem so to those of you who regarded the state’s execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner by firing squad with dismay or even disgust. In letters, phone calls, online comments and personal conversations, some of you questioned why Salt Lake Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle and colleagues representing eight other news organizations had to watch Gardner die and recount each detail. It was exploitive, you said. Ghoulish. “I don’t need or want to know every second of what happened in that execution chamber,” one reader said. “It’s just plain creepy.”
Those of us who have lived this story recognize it as all of those things. On April 23, Gardner announced he would die by firing squad, a decision that made him only the third man in the U.S. to be executed that way since 1977. From that moment, we saw our challenge.
Here’s why we chose to be there as the four bullets were fired: We believe strongly that if the law of the land calls for the state to execute a killer, the media must be there, no matter how distasteful the prospect.
In a democratic society, we are you. We witness your government at work and report to you how it functions so you can decide whether and how to change it.
Information is power. Just as we work on your behalf each day to ensure your access to public records and meetings where elected officials conduct your business, we bear witness as the state metes out the ultimate punishment to arm you with facts that inform discussions and if you deem it necessary, effect change.
Yes, sometimes you’d rather not know, and certainly, we want to hear from you when you don’t like what we do. We work for you.
But please hear us out on this one. Be assured we did not take this assignment lightly. The Tribune team formed to cover Gardner’s final days and his execution met frequently and talked at length and candidly about the gravity and historical importance of the story. Utah is the only state in the nation to have carried out firing squad executions since the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 restored the death penalty as an option, and Gardner may be the last to die by that method.
We planned our coverage to capture the nationwide significance of — and worldwide interest in — the execution, but also to comprehensively explore how Gardner’s case and the quarter-century he spent on death row played into the national debate over capital punishment. Paramount in our coverage plan were the stories and reflections of those most deeply affected: the families and friends of Gardner’s victims, his own family and the killer himself.
Carlisle, a reporter on The Tribune’s justice team, thought long and hard before volunteering to witness the execution. In the end, “it was an important story and I became a journalist to tell important stories,” he said.
His frank account of what occurred at 12:17 a.m. June 18 answered questions many had: Did the sharpshooters hit the target? How quickly did Gardner die? Did the state carry out the spirit and the letter of the law?
Carlisle found it challenging to be the one to provide answers. He met with a counselor beforehand to prepare and will meet with her again to reflect. For a moment just as the execution was about to occur, he asked himself whether he had erred in volunteering.
But he did his job in representing you.
“Reporters and the public watch governments pass laws, build roads and fight wars,” he said. “For us not to attend and report on an execution would be incongruent with Democracy.”
Thomas Jefferson once said that “the theory of the free press is not that the truth will be presented completely or perfectly in any one instance, but that the truth will emerge from a free discussion.”
Hopefully, we can all agree that our account of Gardner’s execution helped inform a free discussion.
We believe we did our part by being there on your behalf to observe and report on your government at work.
Now it’s up to you.