Sunday, August 12, 2012

John Forrest Parker

Executed June 10, 2010 06:41 p.m. by Lethal Injection in Alabama
Summary:
Charles Sennett was a minister in financial trouble and weary of his marriage to his recently insured wife, Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett. He contracted with one of his tenants, Billy Gray Williams, to murder his wife for $3000. Williams, in turn, hired John Parker and Kenneth Eugene Smith for $1000 each to commit the murder. Williams gave Parker $100 to purchase a weapon. Parker drove his vehicle to the Sennetts’ residence while Smith, who was in the passenger seat, sharpened Parker’s survival knife. Parker parked his car behind the Sennetts’ home, told Dorlene that her husband had given them permission to look at the property as a hunting site and, upon receiving Dorlene’s approval, walked into a wooded area with Smith. They later returned to the house and received permission from Dorlene to use her bathroom. While in the bathroom, Parker put cotton socks onto his hands. He then exited the bathroom, jumped Dorlene, and began hitting her. Parker and Smith hit Dorlene with a galvanized pipe and stabbed her while she pled with them not to hurt her. Consistent with their plan, they broke the glass in the medicine cabinet and took a stereo and video cassette recorder (VCR) to make the assault look like it was done during a burglary.
Parker and Smith were both convicted of capital murder. Although the jury returned a verdict of life without parole for Parker, the trial judge sentenced him to death. Smith is still awaiting an execution date to be set. Williams is serving a life sentence without parole for his capital murder conviction. A week after becoming a suspect in the case, the victim’s husband committed suicide.
Final/Special Meal:
Fried fish, french fries and iced tea.
Final Words:
“I’m sorry. I don’t ever expect you to forgive me. I really am sorry.”
Internet Sources:
“State of Alabama executes John Forrest Parker.” (Ap Thursday, June 10, 2010, 7:05 PM)
ATMORE — Alabama corrections authorities say they executed by lethal injection John Forrest Parker at 6:41 p.m. CST Thursday.
Parker, 42, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die for the killing of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, a 45-year-old grandmother who was stabbed repeatedly and beaten with a pipe at her Colbert County home. Prosecutors said Parker was one of two men paid $1,000 each by a third man on behalf of her husband, the Rev. Charles Sennett, who was deeply in debt and wanted to collect on insurance. He committed suicide one week after his wife’s slaying.
Parker appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court late Wednesday after the Alabama Supreme Court voted 7-2 to reject his plea for a stay. Shortly before the scheduled execution time of 6 p.m. Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected in appeal. In the appeal, Parker’s attorneys challenged the constitutionality of an Alabama law that allowed the trial judge to override the jury’s recommendation that Parker be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Alabama Attorney General’s Office filed a response Thursday saying Parker had raised the override argument earlier in his appeal. They said that it was rejected by courts and that the trial judge sufficiently considered the jury’s recommendation before sentencing Parker to death.
Parker was moved earlier this week into a holding cell just a few steps from the death chamber where he is to be strapped to a gurney and receive the lethal injection. He spent most of Thursday meeting with friends and family members, including his mother, Joan Parker, and his father, Edward Parker. Friend Carolyn Watson and two religious advisers from the Kairos prison ministry, Ben Sherrod and Taylor Perry, were to witness the execution.
“Alabama executes contract killer.” (2010-06-11 13:16)
Washington – Convicted murderer John Forrest Parker was executed Thursday in the US state of Alabama for the 1988 contract killing of a pastor’s wife, a prison official said. Parker, 42, died by lethal injection at 18:41 (23:41 GMT) for the killing of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, Alabama prison authority spokesperson Brian Corbett said. “I’m sorry. I don’t ever expect you to forgive me,” Parker told the woman’s family shortly before dying. “I really am sorry.”
Parker was 19 when he and an accomplice accepted a proposal by a pastor to kill his wife, a 45-year-old grandmother, for money. Sennett was stabbed and beaten to death. Her debt-ridden husband had taken out a life insurance policy on behalf of his wife shortly before recruiting Parker and a friend to kill her. The husband committed suicide a few days after the killing.
After his trial, a jury convicted Parker of capital murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. But the judge overruled the jury’s punishment and sentenced him to death, his lawyers said in a statement.
Among the 35 US states that employ the death penalty, Alabama is one of three that allow judges to override the verdict of a jury. This was the second execution of the year in Alabama and the 27th overall in the United States in 2010.
“Parker put to death,” by Tom Smith. (Friday, June 11, 2010 at 3:30 a.m.) “Charles Sennett said death is not easy for anybody, right or wrong. His comments came Thursday just minutes after he witnessed the execution of John Forrest Parker, the man convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire death of Sennett’s mother, a Colbert County minister’s wife. Sennett and his brother, Michael, were at Holman Prison and watched Parker, 42, die from lethal injection.
Alabama corrections authorities said Parker was executed at 6:41 p.m. He is the first Shoals resident to die by lethal injection since it began in 1927.
Before the execution, Parker told the Sennett family he was sorry for what he did. “I’m sorry; I don’t ever expect you to forgive me. I really am sorry,” Parker said just minutes before the execution process began. Parker, a Florence resident at the time, was convicted of capital murder June 6, 1989.
Attorneys at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery who were representing Parker tried to get the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the execution. Corrections officials said the request was rejected a few minutes before the execution was scheduled to begin. Sennett said his family was told Gov. Bob Riley called the prison about 1 p.m. Thursday to inform corrections officials that he would not stop the execution.
Elizabeth Sennett, 45, died March 18, 1988, at Helen Keller Hospital in Sheffield after she was brutally beaten and stabbed at her home on Coon Dog Cemetery Road in Colbert County. Parker, along with Kenneth Eugene Smith and Bill Gray Williams, both also of Florence, are accused of being paid $1,000 each to kill Elizabeth Sennett. Authorities say Sennett’s husband, who was a minister at Westside Church of Christ in Sheffield at the time, contracted Williams to kill his wife for $3,000. According to court documents, Williams paid Smith and Parker $1,000 each to commit the murder.
Smith and Parker were both convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Smith is still awaiting an execution date to be set. Williams is serving a life sentence without parole for his capital murder conviction. A week after becoming a suspect in the case, the victim’s husband, also named Charles Sennett, shot and killed himself in his son’s backyard.
“This is one of the steps we have to take to get closure and justice,” Sennett said after the execution. “We still have another step with Smith, but tonight was a step in the right direction.” Colbert County Sheriff Ronnie May, who was the lead investigator on the murder case, said he has continued to stay in touch with the victim’s sons through the years. “I know they want to start the closure process, and I hope this does it for them,” May said after learning of Parker’s execution.
Sennett said he and his brother still have unanswered questions. “Why this happened,” said Sennett, who was 25 and married with two children when his mother was killed. “Daddy took the answers to his grave and so are these boys (Parker and Smith).” Officials who investigated the murder said the underlying motive was that the husband was trying to get out of his marriage and that he was heavily in debt. “This was a devastating a situation on these two boys,” May said. “To lose your mom in this fashion and then learn that your father orchestrated the entire thing and then he took his own life before he could be punished. “I feel for these two boys and their families, as well as the Parker family.”
Sennett said he and his brother met with Parker’s mother and father Thursday morning in Atmore. “They were remorseful for what their son did,” Sennett said. “We never hated them. They can’t do anything about what their son did. We know they’re hurting. “The Parker family is a victim to a point and our hearts go out to them.”
Testimony at trial indicated Elizabeth Sennett was stabbed multiple times to the right side of her chest, the right side of her back, the base of her neck, forehead, nose and scalp and sustained contusions on her nose and forehead. Records indicate Parker and Smith are accused of hitting the victim with a galvanized pipe and then stabbing her while she pleaded with them not to hurt her.
Sennett said his family wishes to express their sympathy to the Parker family and hope they find a way to deal with their loss. “We know what it is to lose a loved one,” Sennett said. “The only difference today is that John Parker had 22 years to say goodbye. We did not have that chance to say goodbye to our mom. It is a bittersweet day for both sides.”
He said the Parker family will need the support of family and friends, just as his family has had for 22 years. “As for the death of John Parker, the pain he did not feel today does not compare to that he inflicted on our mother 22 years ago,” Sennett said. “We would like to thank all of our family and friends for the prayers and calls that we have received this week and the last 22 years. Without the support of family and friends, we couldn’t make it through. “Now, this part of it is over.”
“Shoals Man Executed Thursday Night,” by Mary Stackhouse. (4:53 PM CDT, June 10, 2010)
A man convicted of murdering a Colbert County woman more than two decades ago was put to death at 6:41p.m. Thursday at Holman Prison in Atmore. John Forrest Parker was the first Shoals man to be executed by lethal injection in the state. Parker was convicted in the 1988 contract killing of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, who was stabbed to death in her home.
Thursday, Parker’s attorneys asked the US Supreme court for a last minute stay to halt the execution. That request was countered by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, who filed papers opposing the stay.
Before he served as the Colbert County Sheriff, Ronnie May was the lead investigator in this case. May says he has spoken to Sennett’s family recently and hopes the execution will bring them some closure.
Just over 22 years ago, authorities found 45 year old Elizabeth Sennett’s in her Cherokee home on Coon Dog Cemetery Road. Officials say Parker was hired, along with two other men, to kill her. The state claimed Sennett’s husband, Charles Sennett, a minister at the West Side Church of Christ in Sheffield was part of the crime. “It was a very cruel and brutal decision made by one man to have his wife killed in a very brutal fashion,” said May. “I guess that’s what I keep thinking about is the impact that it’s had on the sons and the family.”
According to May, Parker beat Sennett with an iron rod and then repeatedly stabbed her to death in her home. Afterwards, authorities say they disposed of the weapon in a pond next to the home. May hopes, after all this time, that Parker’s execution will bring the family some relief. “I know what they’ve had to go through,” said May. “This hopefully will bring some closure for them so they at least feel like some form of justice has been done because of what was done to Mrs. Sennett.”
In March 1988, Charles Sennett contracted with one of his tenants, Billy Gray Williams, to murder his wife, Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, for $3000. Williams, in turn, hired John Parker and Kenneth Eugene Smith for $1000 each to commit the murder. Williams gave Parker $100 to purchase a weapon on 17 March 1988, and promised to pay him the balance when the job was completed. Instead of buying a weapon, Parker used the $100 for drugs and injected 3 cubic centimeters of Talwin, a narcotic analgesic (painkiller), while en route to the Sennetts’ residence on 18 March.
Parker drove his vehicle to the Sennetts’ residence while Smith, who was in the passenger seat, sharpened Parker’s survival knife. Parker parked his car behind the Sennetts’ home, told Dorlene that her husband had given them permission to look at the property as a hunting site and, upon receiving Dorlene’s approval, walked into a wooded area with Smith. They later returned to the house and received permission from Dorlene to use her bathroom. While in the bathroom, Parker put cotton socks onto his hands. He then exited the bathroom, jumped Dorlene, and began hitting her. Parker and Smith hit Dorlene with a galvanized pipe and stabbed her while she pled with them not to hurt her.
Consistent with their plan, they broke the glass in the medicine cabinet and took a stereo and video cassette recorder (VCR) to make the assault look like it was done during a burglary. Parker later burned his clothes and threw the stereo off a bridge, and he and Smith threw away the knife that they used. Parker subsequently received the additional $900 for the murder.
When Sennett arrived home, he found his house ransacked and Dorlene close to death, and called Colbert County Sheriff’s Investigator Ronnie May at 11:44 A.M. May dispatched a rescue squad and sheriff’s deputies to the Sennetts’ home. May and another deputy arrived at the Sennetts’ home about 12:05 P.M., and the rescue squad arrived soon thereafter. Dorlene was transported to the hospital, and seen by Dr. David Parks McKinley. Resuscitation efforts failed and Dorlene was declared dead as a result of cardiac arrest and exsanguination. An examination of her body revealed multiple stab wounds to the right side of her chest, the right side of her neck, the base of her neck, forehead, nose, and scalp, and contusions on her nose and forehead.
Hairs found at the crime scene in a cap located near Dorlene’s body were consistent with Smith’s known hair sample, and on an afghan that had been wrapped around Dorlene’s body were consistent with fibers later taken from Parker’s knife. The VCR taken from the Sennetts’ house was found inside Smith’s residence.
In April 1988, Parker was indicted for the capital murder of Dorlene by beating and stabbing her with a knife for the pecuniary consideration of $1000. At trial, he was found guilty by a jury; the jury recommended a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. The judge, however, overrode the jury and sentenced Parker to death on 21 June 1989. Charles Sennett, a Church of Christ minister, committed suicide on 25 March 1988, seven days after Dorlene died. Williams was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Smith was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.
UPDATE: John Forrest Parker, executed for the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, told the woman’s family, “I’m sorry, I don’t ever expect you to forgive me. I really am sorry” moments before he died by lethal injection at Holman Prison in Atmore.

David Lee Powell

Executed June 15, 2010 06:10 p.m. CDT by Lethal Injection in Texas
Summary:
Austin police officer Ralph Ablanedo, 26, pulled over a vehicle for not displaying a rear license plate. The driver, Sheila Meinert, 27, got out of the car and approached him. She told him she had lost her driver’s license, but she showed him her passport. The officer asked the dispatcher by radio to check Meinert and her passenger, David Powell, 27, for outstanding warrants. The dispatcher informed Ablanedo that the computers were not functioning properly, but that there were no local warrants for Meinert. Ablanedo issued Meinert a citation for the license plate and allowed her to drive away. As she was pulling out, however, the dispatcher told Ablanedo that Powell had a possible warrant for misdemeanor theft. The dispatcher called for officer Bruce Mills, Ablanedo’s partner, to go out to back up Ablanedo. Ablanedo stopped the vehicle again. As he was approaching the car, and Meinert was walking toward him, Powell shot at the officer through the back window with an AK-47 machine gun. Initially, the weapon was set to semiautomatic mode. Ablanedo tried to get up, but Powell switched the weapon to full automatic mode fired at him again. The car then left. Officer Mills arrived a few minutes later. Ablanedo had been shot ten times. Despite the fact that he was wearing a bulletproof vest, it was not designed to withstand fire from automatic weapons.
Powell’s background was different from most other capital murder defendants. He graduated from high school a year early and was both the valedictorian and “most likely to succeed” of his small rural school class. He was accepted into the honors program at the University of Texas. While there, he became an anti-war protester and began using drugs. He never finished college. By 1978, he was a heavy user and dealer of methamphetamine. Powell was one of only twelve prisoners remaining on Texas’ death row who committed their capital offenses in the 1970′s. He was the longest-serving inmate executed in Texas since the state resumed carrying out executions in 1982.
Final/Special Meal:
Four eggs, four chicken drumsticks, salsa, four jalapeno peppers, lettuce, tortillas, hashbrowns, garlic bread, two pork chops, white and yellow grated cheese, sliced onions and tomatoes, a pitcher of milk and a vanilla shake.
Last Words:
None.
Internet Sources:
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Media Advisory: David Lee Powell scheduled for execution
AUSTIN – Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott offers the following information about David Lee Powell, who is scheduled to be executed after 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 15, for the 1978 slaying of Austin police Officer Ralph Ablanedo.
FACTS OF THE CRIME
On the evening of May 17, 1978, Austin police Officer Ralph Ablanedo stopped a car and issued a citation to the driver for failing to display a driver’s license. Ablanedo asked the dispatcher to check for local warrants on the driver and passenger David Lee Powell. The dispatcher found no warrants on the driver.
As the car pulled away, Ablanedo learned from the dispatcher that there was a possible warrant on Powell for misdemeanor theft. Ablanedo stopped the vehicle again, and as the officer approached the driver, Powell shot at the officer through the car’s back window with an AK-47, knocking him to the ground. The weapon was set to semi-automatic mode, which required him to pull the trigger more than once. Powell switched to automatic mode and fired at Officer Ablanedo again, knocking the officer to the ground a second time. The car then left.
Meanwhile, the dispatcher on learning that there was a possible arrest warrant on Powell, had sent another police officer to check on Ablanedo. When the officer arrived at the scene a few minutes later, he found Ablanedo lying on the ground. Ablanedo told the officer that he had no chance to pull his weapon. Although Ablanedo had been wearing a bullet-proof vest, it was not designed to withstand fire from an automatic weapon. Ablanedo suffered ten gunshot wounds and died on arrival at the hospital.
Other police officers tracked Powell’s car to an apartment complex parking lot. Powell fired on the officers with his AK-47 from inside the vehicle and threw a live hand grenade in the direction of the officers and then fled from the car. The hand grenade did not explode because Powell had not removed all of the safeties.
Police arrested Powell in the early morning hours in some bushes on the grounds of a nearby school. They also discovered a .45 caliber automatic pistol hidden under shrubs on the grounds as well as Powell’s backpack, containing seven packages of high-grade methamphetamine. Further investigation revealed that Powell had fired at least twenty-three rounds of ammunition, and police uncovered fifteen live rounds in Powell’s car. Police also retrieved from Powell’s car a book entitled Book of Rifles, tabbed at pages discussing a Soviet AK-47 rifle. The book contained loose notes in Powell’s handwriting about different types and models of weapons and notes referring to other books on weapons. Books and notes regarding guerrilla warfare and a pair of handcuffs were also found in the car.
A search of Powell’s residence led to the discovery of another hand grenade, additional weapons and ammunition, more books and manuals on weaponry and combat, the components of a methamphetamine lab, and three vials of methamphetamine.
PRIOR CRIMINAL HISTORY
Powell’s capital murder conviction is his only conviction. However, he was previously arrested for the following offenses: auto theft in Travis County; auto theft and possession of dangerous drugs in Travis County; obscenity in New Orleans, Louisiana; and petty theft in Travis.
David Lee Powell, 59, was executed by lethal injection on 15 June 2010 in Huntsville, Texas for killing a police officer at a traffic stop.
On the evening of 17 May 1978, Austin police officer Ralph Ablanedo, 26, pulled over a vehicle for not displaying a rear license plate. The driver, Sheila Meinert, 27, got out of the car and approached him. She told him she had lost her driver’s license, but she showed him her passport. The officer asked the dispatcher by radio to check Meinert and her passenger, David Powell, 27, for outstanding warrants. The dispatcher informed Ablanedo that the computers were not functioning properly, but that there were no local warrants for Meinert. Ablanedo issued Meinert a citation for the license plate and allowed her to drive away. As she was pulling out, however, the dispatcher told Ablanedo that Powell had a possible warrant for misdemeanor theft. The dispatcher called for officer Bruce Mills, Ablanedo’s partner, to go out to back up Ablanedo.
Ablanedo stopped the vehicle again. As he was approaching the car, and Meinert was walking toward him, Powell shot at the officer through the back window with an AK-47 machine gun. Initially, the weapon was set to semiautomatic mode. Ablanedo tried to get up, but Powell switched the weapon to full automatic mode fired at him again. The car then left.
Officer Mills arrived a few minutes later. Ablanedo had been shot ten times. Despite the fact that he was wearing a bulletproof vest, it was not designed to withstand fire from automatic weapons. Ablanedo told Mills what happened and said he had no chance to draw his weapon. He died on the operating table of the hospital about an hour after he was shot. Officers tracked Powell’s car to an apartment complex parking lot. Powell fired on them from inside the vehicle, but no one was hit. Meinert was arrested in the parking lot.
Police arrested Powell in the early morning in some bushes on the grounds of a nearby school. They discovered a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and a backpack containing 2 and 1/4 ounces of high-grade methamphetamine hidden under some shrubs. In the car, police discovered a book entitled “Book of Rifles”. Pages discussing the AK-47 were tabbed down, and the book contained notes in Powell’s handwriting about different types of weapons and other books on weapons. Also in the car were a pair of handcuffs, some ammunition, and books and notes regarding guerrilla warfare.
Back at the apartment complex, officers found a live hand grenade on the ground, about ten feet away from the driver’s door of one of the police cars. The grenade did not detonate because, although the pin was pulled out, the safety clip was still in place. A search of Powell’s residence uncovered another hand grenade, more guns and ammunition, books on weapons and combat, a methamphetamine lab, and three vials of methamphetamine.
Powell’s background was different from most other capital murder defendants. He graduated from high school a year early and was both the valedictorian and “most likely to succeed” of his small rural school class. He was accepted into the honors program at the University of Texas. While there, he became an anti-war protester and began using drugs. He never finished college. By 1978, he was a heavy user and dealer of methamphetamine, and had an arrest record for auto theft, petty theft, and drug possession. He was wanted for passing over 100 bad checks to merchants in the Austin area and had begun carrying around loaded weapons out of paranoia. He had no criminal convictions at the time of the murder.
On the day of Powell’s arrest, the trial court, at the state’s request, ordered a psychiatric examination to determine his sanity at the time of the offense and competency to stand trial. Dr. Richard Coons and Dr. George Parker conducted the evaluation and determined that Powell was sane and competent.
Bobby Bullard testified that he witnessed Ablanedo’s shooting as he was driving home from work. He saw shots fired from the Mustang that knocked out the back windshield. He saw a man sitting in the middle of the front seat, leaning into the back seat. Bullard’s description of the man he saw shooting matched Powell’s appearance at the time of his arrest. However, Bullard, Officer Mills, others who arrived at the scene, and the doctors who treated Ablanedo all testified that Ablanedo repeatedly said “that damn girl”. Witness testimony was also contradictory as to whether Powell or Meinert threw the grenade in the direction of the police car at the apartment parking lot.
In order to impose a death sentence, juries must find not only that the defendant is responsible for capital murder, but also that he poses a future danger to society. At Powell’s punishment hearing, Drs. Coon and Parker testified as to his future dangerousness, based on the examination they conducted when evaluating his sanity and competence. A jury convicted Powell of capital murder in September 1978 and sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence in July 1987.
Sheila Margaret Meinert was convicted of attempted capital murder for her part in the incident at the apartment parking lot. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison. She was paroled in June 1989. With no arrests after her parole, she was discharged from her sentence in January 2000.
In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Satterwhite v. Texas that the Fifth and Sixth Amendments guarantee criminal defendants the right to be told in advance that a psychiatric evaluation may be used to determine their future dangerousness, that they have the right to remain silent, and that their counsel must be informed that the evaluation is taking place. Because of the similarities between Satterwhite’s case and Powell’s, the Supreme Court sent Powell’s case back in June 1988 to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for reconsideration in light of this recent decision.
On review, the Texas court held that Powell waived his right to object to the testimony of Dr. Coons and Parker when his lawyers used psychiatric testimony to argue for an insanity defense. Such an argument, the court reasoned, entitles the state to present psychiatric evidence in refutation. The Court of Criminal Appeals reaffirmed Powell’s guilty verdict and death sentence in January 1989. The case then went back to the Supreme Court, which found that while the Court of Criminal Appeals dealt with the Fifth Amendment issue – the right to remain silent – it failed to answer the Sixth Amendment issue – the right to counsel. In July 1989, the Supreme Court vacated Powell’s death sentence.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated Powell’s second death sentence in December 1994 because the trial court’s instructions to the jury were inadequate. By this time, the law had been changed so that when a death sentence was thrown out, the guilty verdict remained in force, so the state could request a new punishment hearing without having to retry the defendant’s guilt. A new punishment hearing was held, and Powell was sentenced to death for the third time in November 1999. All of his subsequent appeals in state and federal court were denied.
For most of his 32 years on death row, Powell declined interview requests from reporters, while his lawyers attempted with each new hearing to shift as much of the blame for Ablanedo’s murder as possible to Sheila Meinert. In December 2009, however, as his appeals began to run out, Powell wrote a letter to the victim’s family. “I am infinitely sorry that I killed Ralph Ablanedo,” he wrote. “I shot Officer Ablanedo and I take responsibility for his death. In a few frightful seconds, I stole from you and the world the precious and irreplaceable life of a good man … There is no excuse for what I did.”
The week before his execution, Powell’s attorneys filed appeals asking that the death sentence be reduced to life in prison. They claimed that in his more than 30 years on death row, Powell was a model inmate who exhibited “exemplary and humane behavior”, contradicting the jury’s finding that he posed a future danger to society. Prosecutors countered that the juries in 1991 and 1999 considered evidence of Powell’s good behavior in prison and still sentenced him to death. State and federal courts rejected the appeals. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles also unanimously declined his request for a reduced sentence.
Bruce Mills eventually married Ablanedo’s widow, Judy, and adopted their two sons. They and other family members were escorted by Austin police officers to attend the execution. Powell kept his eyes locked on the victim’s family as the execution was being administered, but he did not acknowledge the warden’s invitation to make a last statement. He was pronounced dead at 6:10 p.m.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty law in every state was unconstitutional. Texas commuted the sentences of every death row prisoner and passed a new death penalty statute in 1973. When Powell arrived on death row in 1978, no one had yet been executed under the new law. Since then, 459 prisoners have been executed before him. About half that many have had their sentences commuted or overturned, and 36 have died from other causes. Powell was one of only twelve prisoners remaining on Texas’ death row who committed their capital offenses in the 1970′s.
Before Powell, the longest time a prisoner served on death row before being executed was 24 years. Robert Excell White killed a store owner and two customers in a robbery in 1974, and was executed in 1999. Five prisoners have been on death row longer than Powell. Two of them, Raymond Riles and Clarence Jordan, are considered mentally incompetent and ineligible for execution. Ronald Chambers and Anthony Pierce both had their death sentences vacated by the federal courts in 2008, and the state is seeking to have them reimposed. No recent information on the fifth, Harvey Earvin, was available for this report.
“Convicted killer executed in slaying of Austin police officer.” by Michael Graczyk. (Associated Press June 15, 2010, 6:56PM)
HUNTSVILLE — A former drug dealer convicted of using an assault rifle to kill an Austin police officer during a traffic stop 32 years ago was executed Tuesday evening. David Lee Powell, 59, received lethal injection about 30 minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt his punishment Tuesday evening. He was the longest-serving inmate executed in Texas since the state resumed carrying out executions in 1982. He’s also one of the longest-imprisoned in the nation to die. In 2008, a prisoner in Georgia was executed after spending more than 33 years on death row.
Powell’s attorneys had argued unsuccessfully his exemplary behavior on death row over the past three decades showed jurors were wrong when they decided he would be a continuing danger and should die for killing 26-year-old Ralph Ablanedo. Asked by a warden if he had a final statement, Powell gave no response. As the drugs began flowing into his arms, he gasped slightly, began snoring quietly, then showed no movement. Nine minutes later, at 6:19 p.m. CDT, he was pronounced dead.
Some 150 retired and active police officers from Austin traveled 135 miles east to Huntsville and waited outside the downtown prison in the 90-plus-degree heat as the punishment was carried out. Several officers in the group knew Ablanedo. “We’re not here to gloat or to celebrate a death,” Austin Police Department Chief Art Acevedo said. “We’re here to celebrate a life, and that is the life of Officer Ablanedo.”
“Powell executed for 1978 slaying of police officer; Family of Ralph Ablanedo expresses relief after 32-year wait; David Lee Powell makes no final statement,” by Tony Plohetski and Chuck Lindell. (Updated: 12:46 a.m. Wednesday, June 16, 2010)
HUNTSVILLE — Declining to make a final statement, David Lee Powell was executed Tuesday for killing an Austin police officer 32 years ago as seven members of his victim’s family watched silently from a nearby window. Strapped to the execution gurney with intravenous lines already inserted, Powell kept his eyes locked on members of officer Ralph Ablanedo’s family but did not acknowledge Warden Charles O’Reilly’s invitation to speak. His head still turned toward the window, Powell half closed his eyes as the lethal combination of drugs began flowing at 6:10 p.m.
Afterward, Bruce Mills, a former Austin officer who was Ablanedo’s friend and later married his widow, said it felt as if a weight had been lifted. “Relief would be the word to describe it,” Mills said. “No more hearings. No more appeals.”
Powell’s death concluded a 32-year case that featured three trials and multiple appeals, agonizing Ablanedo’s family but providing Powell’s friends and supporters with the slim hope that his execution could be avoided. One late appeal, filed last week, argued that jurors mistakenly labeled Powell a continuing threat to society, a requirement for imposing the death sentence.
Supporters argued that it was unconstitutional to kill Powell based on information shown to be incorrect after he spent three decades as a model inmate — helping illiterate prisoners learn to read and counseling others on death row. Travis County prosecutors responded by reminding the courts that jurors in two retrials — ordered after successful appeals in 1991 and 1999 — had already considered evidence of Powell’s good behavior and still sentenced him to death. Texas courts rejected that appeal Monday, as did the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, shortly before Powell’s execution.
In addition, Powell lawyer Richard Burr filed an execution-day appeal accusing Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg of providing false statements to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The board this month considered Powell’s request to have his death sentence reduced to a life term. The Court of Criminal Appeals denied that claim in the early afternoon, before prosecutors could file arguments denying the allegation.
About 150 current and former Austin police officers traveled to Huntsville for the execution — meeting for lunch in a local hotel to watch a video about Ablanedo’s life. Most retired officers were wearing black “Journey to Justice” T-shirts. Some wiped tears from their eyes. After being escorted to the prison by Huntsville police, the Austin officers assembled in seven lines —those who had worked with Ablanedo stood at the front — to serve as an honor guard for the slain officer’s family. The officers stood at attention and saluted as Bruce and Judy Mills; Ablanedo’s 87-year-old mother, Betsy; and other family members were greeted and given hugs by Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo.
Acevedo said later that Ablanedo’s relatives were overwhelmed by the display of support. “They were very touched,” he said, adding that the encounter was emotional for him as well. “When you see his widow and Bruce Mills and his mother start to cry it’s hard not to feel their pain,” the chief said. “A mother should never have to bury her child.” Once the prison doors closed, the officers broke ranks and milled around.
Suddenly, nearby protesters fired up their microphone: “We are here because in one hour the State of Texas is going to murder David Lee Powell,” a voice loudly proclaimed — greeted by cheers from many of the police officers. “David Powell the 27-year-old drug addict is not the same person as the sober and remorseful 59-year-old man who is being executed today,” Nell Warnes, who had visited with Powell since 2004, told protesters later. “From my long-term interaction with David, I am certain that he is no longer a threat to our society.” When it became apparent that Powell was going to be executed, the four dozen protesters, kept about 100 yards from the officers, stood silently.
Powell spent his final day packing personal property — much of it bound and loose papers — into about 10 orange mesh bags for delivery to Huntsville’s Hospitality House. Friends can pick up the items there for delivery to his relatives, who were not present in Huntsville.
“Crime and punishment: After 32 years, has Powell’s execution lost its meaning?” by Chuck Lindell and Tony Plohetski. (June 15, 2010)
Heavily armed, deeply paranoid and strung out on drugs, David Lee Powell was a nightmare personified in 1978. Sitting in a car that had been pulled over on a dark Austin side street, Powell sighted his AK-47 through the rear window. Police radios caught officer Ralph Ablanedo’s scream as the first bullet penetrated his bulletproof vest. Nine more shots found their mark. The well-liked father of two young sons died shortly after the 12:30 a.m. attack .
Barring the unexpected, Powell will be executed for that crime on June 15 — 32 years, three weeks and five days after Ablanedo was buried with honors. Texas has never executed a man after so much time has passed, giving rise to a question that speaks to a basic concept of punishment and justice: Has Powell’s execution been robbed of its meaning and purpose?
The clean-cut 59-year-old man who will be strapped to the Huntsville gurney to receive a trio of lethal drugs is nothing like the nightmare from another era. Powell’s time in prison long ago removed the methamphetamine taint that helped turn a promising honors student into a jittery, lank-haired killer, and a fiercely loyal group of supporters insists that putting him to death now would be a travesty. “He’s the old David Powell” — intelligent, compassionate, articulate and thoughtful — and no longer poses a danger to society, said attorney David Van Os, who befriended Powell in 1968. “This is not how the death penalty was intended to be used.”
But for those most touched by Ablanedo’s murder, Powell’s execution remains a meaningful — and desired — goal. Irene Ablanedo, Ralph’s sister, plans to stand at the window in the Huntsville death chamber to watch Powell die from five feet away. She will be thinking about her brother, what he meant to his family and how he was taken away too early. The pain of loss still burns. “I can’t wait for that bastard to take his last breath,” she said. “That is what he deserves.”
For some officers, Powell’s death is a matter of fairness — an eye for an eye — that validates their service in a dangerous profession and adds a measure of protection by sending a clear message: If you kill a cop, you die. More than 100 current and retired Austin police officers — including Ablanedo’s friends and some who weren’t even born when he died — will drive or take a chartered bus for an execution-day trip to Huntsville, which they’re calling the Journey to Justice. Those who can’t make it will toast Ablanedo in a downtown Austin bar at 6 p.m., the time set for Powell’s execution. “It is a matter of unfinished business,” said retired police Lt. George Vanderhule, who helped Ablanedo’s widow plan his funeral. “This has gone on for 32 years, and he has managed to evade justice.”
But defense lawyer Richard Burr argues another perspective. Powell, he said, has led an exemplary life in the harsh conditions of death row — teaching illiterate inmates to read, defusing guard-prisoner tensions and offering true friendship to many in the “free world.” “Powell is someone who contributes much more to life than his execution would contribute to the symbolic goal of retribution 32 years after the murder of Ralph Ablanedo,” Burr wrote to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in hopes of getting Powell’s sentence reduced to life in prison.
Speaking recently from death row, Powell said he wants to live. “I think I still have something to offer in this life,” he said. But he’s also begun preparing for an execution that appears increasingly likely. Saying he is horrified to have caused Ablanedo’s murder, Powell has tried to apologize to the officer’s family and to express regret for the pain he caused by “an act that was a betrayal of everything I believed in and aspired to be.” “I had wanted to do it for decades,” Powell said of his December 2009 letter to Ablanedo’s family. “Although it was obviously too little too late, it seemed like the right thing to do. It seemed like a small, tentative first step towards healing the tear in the social fabric that was caused” by the murder.
‘You’ll be all right’
It was shortly after midnight on May 18, 1978. Powell — carrying an automatic rifle with 38 rounds in the clip, a .45-caliber handgun, a hand grenade and $5,000 in methamphetamine — was on his way to Killeen for a drug deal. Girlfriend Sheila Meinert was driving his red Mustang, which was missing its rear license tag.
Ablanedo — a five-year officer who loved fishing, married his high school sweetheart and had two boys, ages 5 and 1½ — was patrolling South-Central Austin. He pulled the Mustang over on Live Oak Street and ticketed Meinert. Computer trouble prevented dispatchers from checking on Powell, so the officer let them go. But before the Mustang had traveled half a block, the computer sprang to life and revealed that Powell was wanted for theft and writing bad checks to dozens of Austin merchants. Ablanedo again signaled Meinert to pull over as the dispatcher alerted officer Bruce Mills to provide routine backup.
Mills heard a scream over the police radio — it sounded like Ablanedo, but he wasn’t sure — and arrived a short time later to find his friend bleeding on the street. “He got me with a shotgun. He got me,” Ablanedo told Mills, also describing the weapon as a machine gun. Trying to sit up, Ablanedo asked how badly he was hurt. Running a hand over his stomach, he felt blood and lay back down. You’ll be all right, Mills replied.
As paramedics arrived, other officers cornered Powell in the parking lot of a nearby apartment complex. Somehow, nobody was hurt in the shootout that followed or when the grenade with a 16-foot kill radius, its pin pulled but a safety device still engaged, failed to explode after being thrown near police. Meinert was quickly arrested. She served four years of a 15-year sentence for being a party to attempted capital murder. (Now living near Seattle, she hung up on a reporter who recently contacted her by phone.)
Powell ran. Police, believing they had him boxed into a wooded area, sent in six officers and two bloodhounds. Everyone else was told to stay out; anything moving would be considered a target. About the same time, Ablanedo, 26, died on a hospital operating room table.
Powell, only one year older than Ablanedo, was found hiding in bushes at Travis High School about 4 a.m. and arrested without incident. His capital murder conviction four months later prompted this line in the American-Statesman: “Given the long, complex appeal process that is automatic upon conviction of capital murder, Powell probably will remain in a cell for several years.” It was a lot longer than that. Powell’s appeals resulted in two new trials, in 1991 and 1999. Both times, Powell was returned to death row after jurors concluded he still posed a threat to society.
‘Not a troublemaker’
Before the death penalty can be imposed — today and when Powell was first convicted in 1978 — jurors must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant will probably commit future acts of violence that pose a “continuing threat” to society. Powell’s supporters say it’s absurd to believe the gentle, intelligent man of 2010 poses any such risk.
While on death row, Powell was disciplined a few times, but only for minor rules infractions such as having too many prison-issued socks or refusing to remove a poster from his cell wall, prison officials said. Four guards and a supervisor, testifying at Powell’s 1999 retrial, called the inmate respectful and nonviolent. “He was very quiet, always well-mannered,” Mark Morrow, a 14-year guard, testified. “Not a troublemaker, by any means.”
Psychiatrist Seth Silverman of Houston has concluded that Powell poses “virtually no risk” of future violence. Powell has no history of violence beyond that one horrific act in 1978, understands the string of bad choices that led to Ablanedo’s murder and displays a superior intellect that allows him to learn from past mistakes, said Silverman, an expert in addiction and forensic psychiatry, in an affidavit supplied by defense lawyers.
In addition, Powell’s age adds an element of safety, Silverman said, pointing to research showing that arrest rates fall 90 percent from age 20 to 60. Silverman began treating Powell about three years ago when the inmate became convinced that voices from androidlike robots were telling him to commit suicide. Aided by his intellect and ability to form healthy relationships, Powell quickly responded to psychotherapy, and the symptoms disappeared within several months, Silverman said.
Longtime friend Genevieve Hearon of Austin said Powell has kept a remarkably even temperament and displayed consistent concern for others despite living in harsh conditions, including confinement in a 60-square-foot cell since death row moved into new quarters in the Polunsky Unit in 1999. Hearon’s nonprofit, Capacity for Justice, works on behalf of prisoners with disabilities and presented Powell with its first Brothers’ Keeper Humanitarian Award in 2008. Powell, she said, helped speed accommodations for deaf and wheelchair-using prisoners at the Travis County Jail, where he was held during his retrials, and worked to connect disabled death row inmates with outside help. “In all of my contact with him, he’s been helping other prisoners,” Hearon said.
Van Os, who befriended Powell when they were University of Texas freshmen in 1968, believes Powell could safely be released from prison. “Everything that is known about David Powell demonstrates that the horrific act of violence that he perpetrated against officer Ablanedo and the Ablanedo family is an anomaly in his life. He is a very peaceful, nonviolent person,” said Van Os, a former Austin lawyer who now practices in San Antonio. “I’m not trying to excuse what he did. I don’t excuse it. It was a murder, and it was horrible,” Van Os said. “But the death penalty is supposed to be imposed only on a person who’s a continuing danger to society and in his case, that is being made into a farce.”
‘Just really scary’
With details of Ablanedo’s murder still fresh in 1978, Travis County prosecutors had little trouble arguing that Powell posed a lasting threat. And during the 1991 and 1999 retrials, with defense lawyers presenting evidence that Powell had appeared to reform while behind bars, prosecutors never wavered. “I want you to picture the blood of Ralph Ablanedo seeping through his bulletproof vest,” prosecutor Robert Smith told jurors in 1991. “David Powell is here because of a character disorder that cannot be rectified.”
Lead prosecutor Terry Keel placed Powell’s handgun on a table in front of Powell and asked jurors: “Does this make you feel safe? The death penalty is society’s self-defense. You have a very manipulative, very dangerous individual here.” Jurors in the 1991 trial deliberated for 10 hours. Nine of those hours were spent on Powell’s dangerousness, said Charles Carsner, the jury foreman who still lives in Austin. The turning point was a psychologist’s notes discussing Powell’s vision or dream “where he was driving at night on a lonely road, and a cop pulls him over, and he kills the cop,” Carsner recalled recently. “It was just really scary.”
After jurors in the 1999 retrial came to the same conclusion, Powell’s appeals argued that his death sentence was unconstitutional because there is no evidence that he still posed a danger. U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin disagreed. “Powell contends that he was ‘a different person’ when he was retried in 1999. Regardless of whether this court might agree with that statement, the jury was not compelled to accept that contention, and it plainly did not,” Austin wrote in 2005, adding that a federal appeals court has “explicitly rejected the argument that improving oneself after committing a heinous crime prevents a jury from concluding that one is a future danger.”
Powell supporters remain convinced that such a legalistic argument ignores Powell’s character, contributions and contrition. But Ronnie Earle, the former Travis County district attorney who prosecuted Powell in 1978, is unconvinced. “There was never any doubt about the applicability of the law and the appropriateness of the sentence. It was an ambush totally out of nowhere,” Earle said. “His soul is between him and his own personal higher power. His actions are between him and the law.”
‘He was a genius’
Powell was a fish out of water when he arrived at UT for the fall 1968 semester. Described as shy and naive, he came to Austin from his family’s 80-acre dairy farm near Campbell, a town of fewer than 500 about 60 miles northeast of Dallas. He had been voted most likely to succeed at Campbell High School and was valedictorian of his 15-member graduating class even after skipping his junior year.
“He was the class nerd; he was a very bright man,” former classmate Karen Hair testified at Powell’s 1999 trial. “We thought he was a genius. He had very thick glasses, and he walked around with a smile on his face all the time.” His SAT scores were almost perfect, and officials with Plan II, UT’s honors program, were excited to have him, UT adviser Donette Moss testified in 1999. After initial trouble adjusting, Powell’s grades and schoolwork improved — but trouble arose during his sophomore year, Moss said. Powell got involved in the anti-war movement and began experimenting with drugs. He dropped out of UT in 1970 and slid deeper into addiction over the next eight years.
In the years before Ablanedo’s death, Powell’s family was alarmed to find the calm, responsible boy replaced by a flighty, fast-talking man with paranoid delusions. Former friends had trouble recognizing him in his thin, disoriented, disheveled state. “He called me once and said he had to be careful talking to me because the CIA was after him,” uncle Clem Struve said. “I’ve had mental illness in my family, and I thought he was having a nervous breakdown,” Marjorie Powell, his mother, said recently from her Dallas home. “I called a psychiatrist, different people for help.” Powell, however, disappeared. No amount of searching could turn him up, Struve said.
Then came the phone call from Austin about Ablanedo’s death. “I remember screaming. Nobody could stop me from screaming,” Marjorie Powell said. “It destroyed me, really. I love him with all my heart, of course. And I have never stopped loving him.” Marjorie Powell spent her life savings on lawyers and sat through emotionally wrenching trials, crying out in anguish when her son was sentenced to death, again, in 1991. She and her husband divorced, and Bill Powell died in 2007.
If there has been any silver lining, Marjorie Powell said, it has been watching her son regain the sweet disposition he had as a child. “He tries to help anybody that’s around him, even the guards. One guard talked to me and said he was all for David, that David seemed like a wonderful person — and that’s a guard,” she said. “I’ve had mothers of different cellmates call to say how David has been so kind to their sons.”
‘What a hero’
Before he reported to duty for his final patrol shift, Ralph Ablanedo spent a few minutes sitting with his wife, Judy, on the front porch of their South Austin home. He was sniffling from spring allergies but eager to work, Judy recalled. “He was absolutely the model that you would want a police officer to be,” said former Austin police Sgt. Sam Cox, who was Ablanedo’s supervisor. “He had an even temperament, a great family, a supportive wife and a bright future, and he loved what he was doing. He was just a good, decent human being.”
Soon after her husband drove away, Judy Ablanedo put their children to bed. Several hours later, she was awakened by pounding on the front door. The officer at the door had already summoned a neighbor to care for the Ablanedo children, and he whisked Judy to the hospital in his patrol car. How bad is it? she asked. It’s serious, he told her.
They were at the hospital only a few minutes before Police Chief Frank Dyson and a doctor walked into the waiting room. Judy sank into a chair and sobbed. “Nobody had to say anything,” she said. “It was written on everyone’s face.”
Mills was already there, having ridden in the ambulance with his friend and patrol partner. Together, he and Judy took on the grim task of telling Ablanedo’s parents, who had moved to Austin in 1964, that their son was dead. Over the next two years, Judy Ablanedo and Mills spent a lot of time together. He’d listen to her anger and sadness in late-night phone calls. A relationship bloomed, and they married in October 1980.
David Ablanedo, only 17 months old when his dad was killed, has learned about the man through stories shared by other family members, from reading scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and from photographs. One of his favorite photos hangs on a wall at the Austin Police Department. He had seen it while visiting Bruce Mills, whose last name he assumed. “You think about, ‘Who was my dad?’” David Mills said. “Naturally, you want to know who he was.”
Over the years, he has thought of his father as a hero, not just because of what happened that night, but because of his devotion to his family and desire to make the world a better place. “He died in the line of duty serving the city, and as a boy, you look up to your dad,” he said. “You look to Ralph and say, ‘What a hero.’”
‘Nobody wins’
For years, Ablanedo’s family has watched in frustration as Powell’s case, which they viewed as clear-cut, prompted new trials and appeals. With Powell’s execution now days away, they are making plans for their own journey to justice.
David, who works in the San Francisco area for a human resources consulting firm, is flying in for the execution. His older brother, Steve, a 911 dispatcher in Boston, also will attend. Ralph’s sister Irene, his brother Armand and their 87-year-old mother, Betsy, are driving to Huntsville a day early to make sure nothing comes between them and the execution witness room. Ablanedo’s father died of natural causes in 1981.
They predict relief will be the prevailing emotion when the death sentence is carried out — mostly because it will mark the end of any legal proceeding. “But it is one of those things where nobody wins,” Judy Mills said. “He will be put to death, and Ralph will still be gone. It’s not about feeling better. There is nothing to feel good about.”
In recent months, Bruce Mills has pondered the death penalty and Powell’s execution. He thinks that in this instance, part of the purpose of the execution has lost its meaning. “I don’t think it is about deterrent,” he said. “It is about retribution.” Judy Mills said, “If it had been done in a timely fashion, it might have been a deterrent, but when you can play the system for that many years, I don’t think it is.”
But Bruce Mills said the passage of three decades doesn’t make Powell’s execution any less deserved. He said he supports Powell’s rights, including his ability to appeal, but said the legal course that wound through 30 years has been unfair. “That is the injustice to the family and what the death penalty was meant for,” Bruce Mills said.
‘Terribly sorry’
Hands cuffed behind his back and a guard at each shoulder, Powell is led into a cramped booth in the Polunsky Unit’s visitor lounge. The cuffs are unlocked through a hole in the metal door behind him, and he smiles widely as he picks up the phone to begin his first-ever interview with newspaper reporters. Powell at 59, his hair gone silver and his gaze steady, is a far cry from the dazed, unkempt man who appeared in photos after his arrest. He pauses often to collect his thoughts, which tend toward the philosophical.
“Thirty-two years ago, I was responsible for an enormously evil act, and it must have affected most or all people who lived in Austin and their level of comfort, the way they saw themselves and their neighbors,” he said. “And no apology I could give would be powerful enough to express my regret for that. “But every person is more than the worst thing they have ever done, and I am no exception.”
Powell’s lawyers always advised him to avoid contact with Ablanedo’s family and the media, but with his appeals exhausted, he is free to try to explain himself. He’s also free to pursue a goal he knows will be elusive: redemption.
Powell’s letter to the Ablanedo family — the first time he publicly took responsibility for the officer’s death — was meant to let them “know how terribly sorry I was.” Powell also offered to meet with anybody who feels they might be helped by the conversation, but Ablanedo’s family wasn’t interested. “I guess the question I’m asking myself is how much pain is sufficient to achieve redemption in the aftermath of irreparable damage. And I don’t guess you can ever achieve redemption in this,” he said. “I hope I’m a better person now than I was then. But the truth is, most of my life I was a better person than what you know of me. Time has allowed my true character to re-emerge and show itself. That’s how I understand it.”
With his execution looking more and more likely, Powell said he hopes to “connect with family and loved ones outside family — let them know what they’ve meant to me, apologize for my departure and say goodbye.” Inmates can have up to five people at the execution chamber, where they gather in a separate room from the one holding the victim’s family. Powell said he has tried to discourage family and friends from watching, fearing they “will be damaged by what they witness.” “I have encouraged everybody to stay away, to be honest. Nonetheless, there will be some there.”
An indelible impact
Today, Ralph Ablanedo Drive runs more than a half-mile through a South Austin neighborhood. The officer’s name is read aloud at an annual ceremony commemorating fallen officers. And sometime soon, a 5-foot-tall gray granite memorial will mark the site, near Live Oak Street and Travis Heights Boulevard, where Ablanedo was shot.
Powell has spent more of his life on death row than in freedom. Friends and supporters continue to rally on his behalf, primarily through the website letdavidlive.org, but his appeals are over. His lawyer, Burr, has compiled an extensive application asking the parole board for clemency, knowing that only five of 58 such petitions have been granted over the past four years. The governor can accept or reject the recommendation of the parole board, which has not yet acted on the request. However it ends for Powell, his case has left an indelible impact on Austin.
Carsner, the jury foreman from Powell’s second trial, recalls several jurors crying and others shaking their heads as they voted by rising from their chairs. “Nobody verbalized, ‘Let’s get rid of this guy; he needs to die,’ or anything like that,” he said. “I was voting my own thoughts about the matter, and thinking about the community and how they felt about a police officer’s death.”
As for Powell, Carsner said he walked away disappointed in the man. “It looked like he really could’ve made something of himself. He just really screwed up, and it didn’t happen to him all at once,” Carsner said. “He got into drugs, selling and using more, then got interested in guns. “He was just going down this trail, and there didn’t seem to be any way back for him.”
Lives interrupted
Since Powell’s first conviction in 1978, Texas has executed 459 inmates, including six from Travis County. Of the 322 inmates on death row, only five have been there longer than Powell. If executed, Powell will be the state’s longest-serving member of death row to receive lethal injection. Excell White was executed in 1999 after 24 years, three months.
“Drug dealer executed for 1978 slaying of Austin cop,” by Mary Rainwater.
HUNTSVILLE — After 32 years on Texas’ death row, David Lee Powell was executed Tuesday for the shooting of an Austin police officer during a routine traffic stop in 1978. Powell, 59, became the longest serving inmate executed in Texas since the state began carrying out executions again in 1982, and was the 13th death row inmate to be executed in the state this year.
When given the chance, Powell gave no last statement to witnesses, but — except for a quick gasp and soft snoring — quietly succumbed to the lethal drug cocktail released into his body. He was pronounced dead nine minutes later, at 6:19 p.m.
While all was silent inside the walls of the Huntsville Unit, the grounds outside the prison facility were bustling with activity. Both pro- and anti-death penalty activists stood outside the taped off area of the site, as television crews and other media lined the sidewalk to capture witnesses making their way to and from the unit. At another area, some 150 retired and active police officers from Austin waited outside the prison as the punishment was carried out. They stood at attention as Ablanedo’s family left the prison. “While we do not take lightly today’s events, there is a sense of relief … as the passage of time has allowed for healing,” said Wayne Benson, president of the Austin Police Officers Association. “However, no amount of time will relieve the sadness.”
Powell was executed about 30 minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. His attorneys had argued unsuccessfully that his exemplary behavior on death row over the past three decades showed jurors were wrong when they decided he would be a continuing danger and should die for killing 26-year-old Ralph Ablanedo.
In May 1978, Ablanedo pulled over a car driven by Powell’s girlfriend because it had no rear license plate. A background check showed Powell, riding in the passenger seat, was wanted for theft and passing bad checks. Powell shot the officer 10 times with a Chinese version of a Soviet-made AK-47. He was sentenced to death three times, most recently in 1999. The Supreme Court overturned his original conviction from 1978, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out his death sentence from a 1991 retrial. “I am infinitely sorry that I killed Ralph Ablanedo,” Powell said in a December 2009 letter, intended for the officer’s family and kept in the inmate’s court file. “In a few frightful seconds, I stole from you and the world the precious and irreplaceable life of a good man.”
Bruce Mills, an officer who was Ablanedo’s backup the night of the slaying and accompanied his mortally wounded partner to the hospital, eventually married Ablanedo’s widow and adopted their two sons. The family watched the execution from the viewing area. Mills had said earlier that it was time for the sentence to be carried out. “I’m a big believer in due process,” he said. “He’s had every single T crossed and I dotted to have this reviewed and that reviewed and reviewed again.”
Powell stared at the family as they entered the viewing area but said nothing. He was not a typical criminal. He grew up on a dairy farm near Campbell in Hunt County, graduated a year early as valedictorian from his small high school and went into the honors program at the University of Texas at Austin. He was majoring in physics and math and aspiring to be a doctor when he got hooked on methamphetamines and never finished college.
Powell was on his way to a drug deal when Ablanedo pulled over the car, said authorities, who later found .45-caliber handgun and about $5,000 worth of illegal drugs in the vehicle.
The next scheduled execution is that of Jonathan Marcus Green on June 30. Green was convicted in 2002 for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 12-year-old Montgomery County girl in June of 2000.
David Lee Powell was valedictorian and “most likely to succeed” in his high school class. After graduating from high school a year early, he was accepted into the Plan II Honors Program at the University of Texas. While there, he became an anti-war protester and began using drugs. He never finished college. By 1978, when he was 28 years old, he had become a heavy user of methamphetamine and was also selling it. He was wanted by the police for misdemeanor theft and for passing over 100 bad checks to merchants in the Austin area. He had become so paranoid that he had begun carrying around loaded weapons, including a .45 caliber pistol, an AK-47, and a hand grenade.
On May 17, 1978, Powell asked his former girlfriend, Sheila Meinert, to drive him from Austin to Killeen, Texas. They went in Powell’s car, a red Mustang. Powell had the .45, the AK-47, and the hand grenade with him, as well as a backpack containing about 2 1/4 ounces of methamphetamine. Officer Ralph Ablanedo was on duty in his marked patrol car when he spotted the Mustang and noticed that it did not have a rear license tag. He pulled the vehicle over. Meinert got out of the car and approached Ablanedo. She told him that she had lost her driver’s license, but showed him her passport. Ablanedo also checked Powell’s driver’s license and asked the dispatcher to run a warrant check on Meinert and Powell. The dispatcher informed Ablanedo that the computers were not functioning properly, but that there were no local warrants for Meinert. Ablanedo gave Meinert a ticket for failing to display a driver’s license and allowed her and Powell to leave.
Moments later, the dispatcher told Ablanedo that Powell had a “possible wanted” for misdemeanor theft. Ablanedo signaled for Meinert to pull over again. Meinert testified that she got out of the car and as she was approaching the officer, she heard a very loud noise and ran back to the car. As Ablanedo approached the Mustang, Powell shot him with the AK-47, in semi-automatic mode, through the car’s back window, knocking Ablanedo to the ground. As Ablanedo tried to get up, Powell fired at him again, after switching the AK-47 to automatic mode. Dr. John Blewett, an emergency room physician, and Austin Police Officer Roger Napier, testified that they, too, heard Ablanedo say “that damn girl” when he was in the emergency room prior to his death.
Bobby Bullard, who happened to be driving by on his way home from work, witnessed the shooting of Ablanedo. He testified at trial that he saw shots fired from the Mustang that knocked out the back windshield. He saw a man sitting in the middle of the front seat, lying on top of the console, sort of into the back seat. He said that the man who fired the shots had long hair and was wearing a white t-shirt, and at trial he identified Powell as the man he saw that night. Edward Segura, who lived in the area, heard what he thought sounded like machine gun fire. When he went outside, he saw a red Mustang driving away. Segura testified that Ablanedo said that he had been shot. When Segura asked, “who was it,” Ablanedo replied, “a girl.”
When the dispatcher learned that there was a possible warrant for Powell, as a matter of routine, she sent Officer Bruce Mills to assist Ablanedo. When Mills arrived at the scene a few minutes later, he found Officer Ablanedo lying on the ground. Although Ablanedo wore a bullet-proof vest, it was not designed to withstand automatic weapon fire. Ablanedo suffered ten gunshot wounds and died on the operating table at the hospital, about an hour after he was shot. Bullard, his wife Velma, who came outside after seeing the lights from the police car, Segura, and Officer Mills all attempted to aid Ablanedo while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. All of them testified that Ablanedo said, repeatedly, “that damn girl” or “that Goddamn girl.” Mills testified that Ablanedo told him that a girl and a guy were in the car, and that they were armed with a shotgun or machine gun. Mills said that Ablanedo told him, twice, that “He got me with the shotgun.” Apparently one of the shots fired by Powell flattened one of the Mustang’s rear tires.
Meinert drove the car into the parking lot of a nearby apartment complex. Officer Villegas, who was en route to the scene and who had heard a description of the Mustang in the dispatcher’s broadcast, spotted the vehicle in the apartment complex parking lot and pulled in. He immediately came under automatic weapon fire. He testified that a male with medium length hair and no shirt was firing at him. More police officers arrived, and a shoot-out ensued. Miraculously, no one was shot. Sheila Meinert testified that Powell handed her a hand grenade in the apartment complex parking lot and told her to remove the tape from it. She said that she started peeling tape off the grenade, but was hysterical and shoved it back at him and she did not know what he did with it.
Officer Bruce Boardman testified that the shooting in the apartment complex parking lot came from a person at the passenger side of the Mustang. He said that he saw that person appear again, making “a throwing motion” over the top of the Mustang, and simultaneously, a female at the driver’s side of the Mustang ran away from the car, screaming hysterically and flailing her arms. The person at the passenger’s side (Powell), after making the “throwing motion,” began running away from the scene toward the grounds of a high school across the street. Later, officers found a live hand grenade about ten feet away from the driver’s door of Officer Villegas’s car that was parked in the same parking lot. The pin for the grenade was discovered outside the passenger side of the Mustang where the person making the throwing motion had been. The grenade, which had a kill radius of 16 feet and a casualty radius of 49 feet, did not explode because the safety clip had not been removed. The State presented evidence that it was likely that only someone who had been in the Army (Powell had not) would have been familiar with the concept of a safety clip (also known as a jungle clip), which was added to the design during the Vietnam War to keep grenades from exploding accidentally if the pin got caught on a branch.
Meinert was arrested in the apartment complex parking lot. She was later convicted as a party to the attempted capital murder of Officer Villegas. Powell was arrested a few hours later, around 4:00 a.m. on May 18, after he was found hiding behind some shrubbery on the grounds of the high school. Powell’s .45 caliber pistol was found on the ground near where he was hiding, and his backpack containing methamphetamine with a street value of approximately $5,000 was found hanging in a tree. Law enforcement officers searched the Mustang and recovered handcuffs, a book entitled “The Book of Rifles”, handwritten notes about weapons, cartridge casings, the AK-47, a shoulder holster, and a gun case. Following a search of Powell’s residence, officers seized another hand grenade, methamphetamine, ammunition, chemicals and laboratory equipment for the manufacture of methamphetamine, and military manuals. In September 1978, Powell was convicted and sentenced to death for the capital murder of Officer Ablanedo.
UPDATE: In his first comments to the family of an Austin police officer he fatally shot more than 30 years ago, Texas death row inmate David Lee Powell took responsibility in a hand-written letter and apologized for “the evil I have done. I am infinitely sorry that I killed Ralph Ablanedo,” wrote Powell, who shot Ablanedo 10 times with an AK-47, according to court records. “I stole from you and the world the precious and irreplaceable life of a good man.” Powell, whose execution date could be set within days, said he has no excuse for what happened May 18, 1978, in the 900 block of Live Oak Street near Travis High School in South Austin, but wrote that his actions happened “in a few frightened seconds.” He said that he wrote the four-page letter, dated Dec. 31, after years of consideration and that he wanted to address the enormity of his action. “I felt a spiritual need and a moral obligation to offer you whatever little I could,” Powell wrote.
“I’m skeptical of the sincerity at this late date,” said Bruce Mills, who was Ablanedo’s patrol partner and later married his widow and adopted his two sons. “His taking responsibility or apologizing doesn’t change anything for me.” In the letter to Ablanedo’s family, Powell addressed Ablanedo’s mother, siblings, widow, two sons and Mills. Powell told Betsy Ablanedo that “in your son’s place, I left a deep and enduring sorrow. I know this because I left a different, but related sorrow in what had been my place in my mother’s life.” He wrote to Irene and Armand Ablanedo that they must miss their brother each day: “I placed an empty chair at the family table forever.” In his comments to Judy Mills, Powell said, “because of me, you had to explain to your sons that their father would never come home again. Because of me, you had to overcome the sorrow of your bereavement while starting life over as a single parent.” Powell told David and Steve Mills, Ablanedo’s sons, that “I stole from you a hero.” David Mills said Wednesday that “it was a good gesture to at least acknowledge to the family that he admits guilt, that he is apologetic. I guess I hope that maybe it was something that would bring him some closure as well.” But to Mills, the letter doesn’t change the facts of his father’s death or his opinion that Powell’s death sentence should be carried out.

Ronnie Lee Gardner

Executed June 18, 2010 12:17 a.m. MDT by Firing Squad in Utah
Summary:
In 1980 Gardner was sent to prison for robbery and escaped in 1981. Two weeks later, Gardner confronted a man who was sleeping with his girlfriend. He was wounded by gunfire and was eventually arrested and returned to prison. In 1984 he was taken to the hospital for a check-up where he overpowered a guard, stole his pistol and escaped again. Three months later, Gardner shot and killed Melvyn John Otterstrom as he tended bar at the Cheers Tavern in Salt Lake City.
On April 2, 1985 Gardner was under a $1.5 million bail and was transported from the Utah State Prison to the Metropolitan Hall of Justice in Salt Lake City for a pretrial hearing on a second degree murder charge for killing Melvyn Otterstrom. As Gardner and his guards entered the courthouse basement, Carma Jolley Hainsworth, walked up and handed Gardner a gun. It was later discovered that she had also hidden a bag containing men’s clothing, duct tape and a knife in a tote bag under a sink in the women’s bathroom in the basement of the courthouse. The guards exchanged gunfire with Gardner, shot him through the lung, and then retreated from the area. In attempting to escape, Gardner entered the archives room, where he shot and killed attorney Michael Burdell, hiding behind the door. Gardner then forced prison officer Richard Thomas, who was also in the basement, to conduct him out of the archives room to a stairwell leading to the second floor. As Gardner crossed the lobby, he shot and seriously wounded Nicholas G. Kirk, then 58, a uniformed bailiff who was unarmed and had just stepped off an elevator. Gardner climbed the stairs to the next floor, where he took hostage Wilburn Miller, a vending machine serviceman. As Gardner exited the building, Miller broke free and escaped. Outside, Gardner was surrounded by half a dozen waiting policemen with drawn weapons. Ordered to drop his weapon, he threw down his gun and lay down, surrendering to the officers.
Final/Special Meal:
Gardner fasted from food in the 36 hours leading up to his death, drinking only liquids. He ate his last meal Tuesday evening — a feast of steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7UP.
Last Words:
None.
Internet Sources:
“Gardner executed,” by Christopher Smart. (Updated:06/18/2010 04:01:19 AM MDT)
Ronnie Lee Gardner’s quarter-century on death row ended at 12:20 today when a firing squad executed one of Utah’s most notorious killers. His death signaled the end of a gut-wrenching saga for the families of the Utah men Gardner murdered or wounded and those who had hoped to spare the killer’s life.
Barb Webb, daughter of Gardner victim Nick Kirk, sobbed when news of the execution came. “I’m so relieved it’s all over,” she said, hugging her daughter, Mandi Hull. “I just hope my sister, who just passed away, and my father, and all of the other victims are waiting for his sorry ass. I hope they get to go down after him.”
Just after midnight, Gardner’s family members leaned against each other in a tight cluster and sobbed. They played Lynyrd’s Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” singing along. “I’m just glad it’s over. I’m glad he’s free,” said Randy Gardner after his brother’s death. Other Gardner relatives whooped and cheered as they released 24 balloons decorated with messages. “I love you, Ron!” some of them screamed, falling into each other’s arms. Gardner’s daughter, Brandie Gardner, put her hands to her face and sobbed.
For the nation, the 49-year-old Salt Laker’s death by four bullets marked what could be the last execution of its kind in the country. Utah is the only state still using a firing squad, and only four men on death row could still choose it — the state switched to lethal injection in 2004. Gardner’s story went global when he told a judge how he preferred to become one of the 50-odd people executed in the United States each year: “I would like the firing squad, please.” Some hope the attention will highlight problems meting out capital punishment in Utah. Both death penalty opponents and believers decry the nearly 25 years Gardner spent between his conviction and execution for the April 1985 murder of Michael Burdell.
Earlier this month, attorneys for the son of a Provo woman killed in her home during a 1985 robbery by death row inmate Douglas Stewart Carter asked a federal judge to speed up appeals in that 25-year-old case. “My dad passed away last year. He didn’t have any closure,” said Gary Olesen, son of victim Eva Olesen. “I’m hoping Gardner’s execution will help. But I’m not sure it will.” Jani S. Tillery, from the Maryland Crimes Victims’ Resource Center, said her client is only asking the court to “move forward.”
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has pushed to streamline death row appeals, said the run-up to today’s execution may have generated legislative momentum to remake state law. “I’m hearing from a lot of people, 25 years is just too long,” said Shurtleff. “It’s ridiculous.”
Ralph Dellapiana, an attorney affiliated with Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said he hopes Gardner’s death will spark discussion “that this arbitrary process be changed to something else.” The last two executions in Utah have been of killers who halted their own death-row appeals. John Albert Taylor was executed in 1996 after eight years on death row, while Joseph Mitchell Parsons spent 11 years on death row before his 1999 execution. Unlike them, Gardner has fought to the bitter end.
Gardner’s appellate attorneys have argued unsuccessfully over the years that if his jurors had known about the mitigating facts surrounding his troubled childhood — poverty, drugs, violence and sex abuse — they would have sentenced him to life in prison. As part of Gardner’s bid for commutation before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, three of those jurors signed affidavits saying they would have sentenced Gardner to life without parole if that possibility had been available. A fourth said he would have seriously considered it. Life without parole was not possible until 1992 in Utah. Gardner himself told the parole board last week he was a changed man from the person who shot and killed Melvyn Otterstrom at The Cheers Tavern on Oct. 24, 1984.
Just before an April 2, 1985, court hearing in the Otterstrom case, Gardner killed attorney Michael Burdell and seriously wounded bailiff Nick Kirk in a failed courthouse escape. Gardner said over the past decade he had become cognizant of the pain he had caused his victims and their families. He told the parole board he had developed a new awareness of why he had been so violent and impulsive. “I can’t even apologize to the victims, and it makes me sad,” said a crying Gardner. “People at that courthouse that didn’t even get hurt, I’m sure it traumatized them.”
He told the parole board he wanted to spend the rest of his life counseling young inmates and helping abused children with an organic farm program. Gardner also argued his execution would bring the families of his victims little comfort. “I know killing me is going to hurt them just as bad,” he said. “I’ve been on the other side of that gun.”
Yet Gardner was unable to shed his reputation. Over the past 25 years Gardner has captured headlines numerous times for attacks on other inmates and misbehavior including a standoff at a prison visiting room where he broke down a glass partition, barricaded the door and had sex with his half-brother’s wife as officers looked on helplessly.
Members of the victims’ families argued both for and against Gardner’s death. All said they wanted to end a long nightmare. “This story must be allowed to slip into history,” said Jason Otterstrom during the commutation hearing. “Our families need peace.” The parole board unanimously voted against Gardner. A flurry of last-minute appeals to the governor, U.S. Supreme Court, and 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also failed.
A bishop with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints served as Gardner’s spiritual adviser at the end of his life, his attorneys said. Gardner became the 1,213th person nationally and the seventh in Utah to be executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The justices halted executions four years earlier, finding the ultimate punishment was not being applied equally.
Gardner’s life and death exemplifies a troubling pattern often seen by psychologists, said Craig Haney, a University of California psychologist who has studied people who commit violent crimes for 30 years. “We know that abused and neglected children grow up to be impulsive and violent,” Haney told the parole board.” Ronnie Lee Gardner is a perfect model for someone who grows up to commit horrendous crimes.”
“Ronnie Lee Gardner executed by firing squad, by Aaron Falk and Emiley Morgan. Published: Friday, June 18, 2010 12:21 a.m. MDT)
UTAH STATE PRISON — Ronnie Lee Gardner, who a quarter century ago put bullets into the heads of two good men, died in the earliest minutes of this morning with wounds from four .30-caliber rifle rounds in his chest. He became the third inmate in Utah — and the United States — to be executed by firing squad since a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in 1976 and the first since John Albert Taylor’s execution in 1996.
Just after midnight, five anonymous executioners raised their rifles and fired from behind curtains and a ported brick wall. One rifle held a blank round, leaving room for doubt in the minds of the marksmen. Gardner was pronounced dead at 12:17 a.m. He died strapped in a chair, a hood over his head and a white target on his heart.
Gardner’s path to execution began in 1985, when he was sentenced to death for shooting and killing attorney Michael Burdell during an attempted escape from a Salt Lake City courthouse in April of that year. An accomplice smuggled a gun to Gardner while he was in the courthouse on charges of killing Melvyn John Otterstrom during a 1984 robbery at Cheers Tavern. In the escape attempt, Gardner also shot and wounded George “Nick” Kirk, a bailiff, whose family said he died 11 years later as a result of his injuries.
Though Gardner wavered at times in his efforts to fight his execution, he and his attorneys launched numerous appeals in state, federal and appellate courts. During his final hours of life, both the U.S Supreme Court and Gov. Gary Herbert denied requests to stay Gardner’s execution. Herbert twice denied last minute attempts by Gardner’s attorney to spare his client’s life. “No court has given us a full and fair adjudication,” attorney Andrew Parnes told reporters Thursday evening as he arrived at the prison to inform his client of the decision from the nation’s high court. “It’s a shame, because if they had, Ronnie Gardner would have a life sentence.”
As he had numerous times in a courtroom, Parnes pointed to Gardner’s troubled upbringing — a sordid history of physical and sexual abuse, neglect and a drug addiction that started when he was just 5 years old — as the reasons to spare his life. “We as a society didn’t give him the benefit we give a lot of people,” Parnes said. “He really is a changed person. … He understands now what created him.”
In a parking lot overlooking the prison where Gardner spent more than half his 49 years, friends and family hugged and wiped tears from their eyes as the execution approached. “It’s hard to say goodbye to somebody you love,” said Brandie Gardner, who grew up with her father behind bars. Gardner’s brother, Randy Gardner, said his brother had changed over the last decade and had hoped to help start an organic farm to benefit troubled youths.
Gardner had been on Utah’s death row since October 1985. He lived in a 6-by-12 cell in Uinta 1, a maximum-security facility in the prison. He slept on a thin mattress atop a hard bunk. His cell’s only other amenities were a stainless steel toilet, a sink, a mirror and a small window that overlooked part of the prison yard. Wednesday night, for the first time in about 25 years, Gardner was permitted to reach through the bars of his cell and touch his family. “He’s never touched no one but his lawyer’s hand” since coming to prison, Randy Gardner said.
In the midst of those who loved Gardner, there were some who never knew him at all, but wanted to offer support — even if he had killed someone they had loved. Donna Taylor, Burdell’s niece, and her husband, Lynn, sought out Gardner’s family early on, to let them know that there are people who care about them. “We put it behind us 25 years ago when it happened,” she said. “We didn’t like that they kept saying he’s being killed because he killed Mike. … This is the last thing (Burdell) would have wanted. I just hate that his family has to go through this now.”
She said many members of her family have felt angry “like they were shut out” when they constantly tried to point out that Burdell wouldn’t have wanted to see Gardner die on his behalf. But she is certain that the two men will meet, and there will be no qualms between them. “I think Mike will be right there to welcome him home,” she said. “You just forgive, you just do, and if you don’t forgive, it just hurts you. Michael is at peace. He’s fine.” Gardner’s family said they would not witness the execution. “He don’t want that to be our last image,” Randy Gardner said. “He don’t want us to have nightmares and bad dreams.”
Gardner fasted from food in the 36 hours leading up to his death, drinking only vitamin water, Sprite, Coke, 7UP and Mountain Dew, prison officials said. Gardner ate his last meal Tuesday evening — a feast of steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7UP. Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said Gardner was moved to a smaller observation cell after meeting with family Wednesday night.
In the hours leading up to his execution, prison officials described Gardner’s mood as “reflective” and “calm.” Gardner slept, read mail and David Baldacci’s “Divine Justice,” a novel about a former CIA assassin. Gardner intermittently slept and watched “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. By 8:45 p.m., Gehrke said Gardner had met with an LDS bishop, a person he had known for several years and whom he trusted. Gardner sat on a bunk in the observation cell and spoke to the bishop through a small port used for handcuffing inmates. Gardner finished meeting with his clergy and attorneys by 9:30 p.m., Gehrke said. As the execution neared, family and friends of the condemned killer held a candlelight vigil outside the prison. They sang along to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” held each other and wept.
Gardner, meanwhile, slept and waited alone until he was escorted 90 feet down a hallway and around a corner to the prison’s execution chamber just before midnight. At 12 a.m., Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff spoke with prison officials by telephone and told them there was no legal reason not to go through with the execution.
Families of Gardner’s victims and others waited at the Utah State Capitol. The nervous sounds of tapping feet or whispered conversations were all that remained as a small crowd waited for the attorney general to re-emerge. “Ronnie Lee Gardner will never kill again. He will never assault anyone again,” Shurtleff said to a silenced audience. Gardner was pronounced dead at 12:20 and 25 seconds. “Now Ronnie Lee Gardner will be held accountable to a higher power, and I pray he will find more mercy than he showed his victims,” Shurtleff said.
“Ronnie Lee Gardner Executed By Firing Squad In Utah,” by Jennifer Dobner. (06/18/10 06:51 AM)
DRAPER, Utah — A death row inmate who had used a gun to fatally shoot two men suffered the same fate Friday morning as he was executed by a team of marksmen – the first time Utah used the firing squad to carry out a death sentence in 14 years. A barrage of bullets tore into Ronnie Lee Gardner’s chest where a target was pinned over his heart. Two minutes later an ashen Gardner, blood pooling in his dark blue jumpsuit, was pronounced dead at 12:17 a.m.
He was the third man to die by firing squad since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Unlike Gary Gilmore, who famously uttered the last words “Let’s do it” on Jan. 17, 1977, Gardner could muster few words before a black hood was fastened over his head. Asked if he had anything to say during the two minutes afforded him, Gardner said simply, “I do not, no.”
The five executioners, certified police officers who volunteered for the task and remain anonymous, stood about 25 feet away, behind a wall cut with a gunport, and were armed with matching .30-caliber Winchester rifles. One was loaded with a blank so no one knows who fired the fatal shot. Sandbags stacked behind Gardner’s chair kept the bullets from ricocheting around the cinderblock room. Utah Department of Corrections Director Thomas Patterson said the countdown cadence went “5-4-3…” with the shooters starting to fire at the count of 2. Gardner’s arm tensed and jerked back when he was hit. As the medical examiner checked for vital signs the hood was pulled back, revealing that Gardner’s head was tilted back and to the right, his mouth slightly open.
“I don’t agree with what he done or what they done but I’m relieved he’s free,” said Gardner’s brother, Randy Gardner, after the execution. “He’s had a rough life. He’s been incarcerated and in chains his whole damn life, now he’s free. I’m happy he’s free, just sad the way he went.” The execution was witnessed by media representatives who are separated from witnesses for the victims or the condemned in rooms on opposite ends of the execution chamber behind reflective glass so they can’t be seen. Gardner walked willingly to his execution, a stark contrast to the fatal escape attempt he undertook 25 years ago that resulted in his death sentence.
Gardner was sentenced to death after being convicted of murder in 1985 for the fatal courthouse shooting of attorney Michael Burdell during a failed escape attempt. Gardner was at the Salt Lake City court facing a murder charge in the shooting death of a bartender, Melvyn Otterstrom when he took a gun smuggled into him and he shot Burdell in the face as the attorney hid behind a door in the chaotic courthouse.
The execution process was set in motion in March when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request from Gardner’s attorney to review the case. On April 23, state court Judge Robin Reese signed a warrant ordering the state to carry out the death sentence. At that hearing, Gardner politely declared, “I would like the firing squad, please.” He told his lawyer he did it because he preferred to die that way. Gardner was allowed to choose between the firing squad and lethal injection because he was sentenced to death before Utah eliminated the firing squad as an option in 2004. State officials did not like the negative publicity fire squad executions generated.
Gardner, 49, chose his manner of death and then worked furiously with his lawyers to prevent it. They filed petitions with state and federal courts, asked a Utah parole board to commute his sentence to life in prison without parole, and finally unsuccessfully appealed to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the U.S. Supreme Court. Gardner’s attorneys argued the jury that sentenced him to death in 1985 heard no mitigating evidence that might have led them to instead impose a life sentence. Gardner’s life was marked by early drug addiction, physical and sexual abuse and possible brain damage, court records show. They also argued he could not get a “fair and impartial hearing” before Utah’s Board of Pardons and Parole because lawyers that represent the board work for the Utah attorney general’s office, which sought his death warrant and argued against the board commuting Gardner’s death sentence
The firing squad has been Utah’s most-used form of capital punishment. Of the 49 executions held in the state since the 1850s, 40 were by firing squad. John Albert Taylor, who raped and strangled an 11-year-old girl, was the last person executed by firing squad on Jan. 26, 1996.
Historians say the method stems from 19th Century doctrine of the state’s predominant religion. Early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believed in the concept of “blood atonement” – that only through spilling one’s own blood could a condemned person adequately atone for their crimes and be redeemed in the next life. The church no longer preaches such teachings and offers no opinion on the use of the firing squad.
Gardner, who once described himself as a “nasty little bugger” with a mean streak, spent his last day sleeping, reading the novel “Divine Justice,” watching the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy and meeting with his attorneys and a bishop with the Mormon church. A prison spokesman said officers described his mood as relaxed. He had eaten his last requested meal – steak, lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and 7UP – two days earlier. Members of his family gathered outside the prison, some wearing T-shirts displaying his prisoner number, 14873. None witnessed the execution, at Gardner’s request. “He didn’t want nobody to see him get shot,” Randy Gardner said. “I would have liked to be there for him. I love him to death. He’s my little brother.”
The American Civil Liberties Union decried Gardner’s execution as an example of what it called the United States’ “barbaric, arbitrary and bankrupting practice of capital punishment.” And religious leaders called for an end to the death penalty at an interfaith vigil in Salt Lake City on Thursday evening. “Murdering the murderer doesn’t create justice or settle any score,” said Rev. Tom Goldsmith of the First Unitarian Church.
Burdell’s family opposes the death penalty and asked for Gardner’s life to be spared. But Otterstrom’s family lobbied the parole board against Gardner’s request for clemency and a reduced sentence. George “Nick” Kirk, was a bailiff at the courthouse the day of Gardner’s botched escape. Shot and wounded in the lower abdomen, Kirk suffered chronic health problems the rest of his life. Kirk’s daughter, Tami Stewart, said before the execution she believed Gardner’s death would bring her family some closure. “I think at that moment, he will feel that fear that his victims felt,” she said.
Associated Press Writers Paul Foy and Rich Matthews contributed to this report.
“Gardner on verge of claiming his spot in infamy; Firing squad method has garnered international attention,” by Pamela Manson. (6/16/10)
If all goes as expected, Ronnie Lee Gardner will take his place in history Friday as the third person in the nation to die by firing squad since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. He could also be the last — or one of the last — in the nation to be executed that way in the United States.
Utah is the only state still using shooters, and only the four men on death row who initially selected the firing squad before the state eliminated it in 2004 could still choose bullets over lethal injection. Forty of the 50 men legally executed in Utah since 1852 have been killed by firing squad, according to Weber State University criminologist L. Kay Gillespie. Six were executed by hanging — an option along with beheading under Utah’s first capital-punishment law — and four by lethal injection.
When lawmakers were debating the use of firing squads in 2004, then-Sen. David Thomas, R-South Weber, said the firing squad had been an effective method since statehood and supported keeping it. But he was outvoted, with some legislators citing the publicity that surrounds firing squad executions. The last Utah inmate to die by firing squad was John Albert Taylor in 1996, who said he selected the method to embarrass the state. His death made international headlines. Before Taylor, Gary Gilmore ultimately chose to die by bullets rather than lethal injection. Gilmore’s crimes and execution spawned the book The Executioner’s Song and a television movie of the same name.
The state Attorney General’s Office has said it could have argued Gardner, 49, did not have the right to switch back to firing squad but decided not to dispute his choice. The other death-row inmates who initially picked firing squad are Ron Lafferty, Ralph Leroy Menzies, Troy Michael Kell and Taberon Dave Honie.
How will the execution take place?
A firing squad is scheduled to execute Ronnie Lee Gardner at 12:05 a.m. Friday at the Utah State Prison in Draper. Gardner will be strapped to a chair with a target over his heart, and can give his last words before a hood is placed over his head. Five anonymous shooters, all certified peace officers, will then open fire. Four will have live rounds in their rifles; one will have a wax bullet.
Why was Gardner sentenced to die?
Twelve jurors sentenced Gardner to death for the slaying of lawyer Michael Burdell during an April 2, 1985, escape attempt from a Salt Lake City courthouse. Gardner had been appearing in court for the 1984 murder and robbery of Melvyn Otterstrom when he was slipped a gun. He wounded bailiff Nick Kirk before fatally shooting Burdell.
Who will witness the execution?
Gardner can invite five witnesses, and up to five relatives of his victims can also witness his death. Other allowed witnesses include Attorney General Mark Shurtleff or a designee; a prosecutor and two law-enforcement officers from Salt Lake County; and nine news reporters. Witnesses can comment at a news conference to be held at the prison after the execution.
Will there be protests? The Utah Department of Corrections has set up a demonstration area at the Department of Motor Vehicles, 14555 S. Minuteman Drive (50 East) in Draper. Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty is sponsoring two events today. An interdenominational prayer service will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at St. Mark’s Cathedral, 231 E. 100 South, Salt Lake City. At 9 p.m., the group will rally on the south steps of the Utah State Capitol Building.
How will television stations cover the execution?
All four local television newscasts will update their newscasts with live coverage of events Thursday. KTVX Channel 4 and KUTV Channel 2 will have live news updates at the beginning of their 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts. KSL Channel 5 will have live coverage during all of their nighttime news casts from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and at 10 p.m. KSTU Channel 13 will have updates on their 5, 5:30 and 9 p.m. newscasts as well as another update at 10 p.m. All four channels will carry the news conference announcing Gardner’s death early Friday live.
Is there any chance defense attorneys could stop the execution?
As of late Wednesday, Gardner had appeals pending at the U.S. Supreme Court and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Word of any last-minute stays of execution Thursday night will come over a direct phone line set up between the prison and the Utah Attorney General’s Office.