On January 17, 1977, Gary Gilmore, a habitual criminal who, at age thirty-six, had spent more than half of his life incarcerated was executed by a Utah state firing squad. His death, the first in the state in sixteen years and the first in the nation in ten years, ignited renewed and heated debate over the legitimacy of capital punishment.
In April 1976, Gilmore, a talented, intelligent, though violent high school drop-out, had been released from the Oregon State Penitentiary into the state of Utah, where a cousin lived, after serving a sentence for armed robbery. In just three months, however, Gilmore was back in jail, accused of two armed robberies and the brutal, unprovoked murders of a gas station attendant and a motel clerk. In November, after a two-day trial, Gilmore was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced by the trial jury to be executed the next month. Given a choice of execution by hanging or by firing squad, Gilmore chose the latter.
Gilmore’s sentencing provoked nationwide debate over capital punishment on several fronts. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), that the arbitrary and capricious way in which states applied the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment as forbidden by the Eighth Amendment. That ruling had effectively suspended executions in the United States. By 1976, however, states had significantly revised their death penalty statutes to meet the Court’s constitutional objections. Utah’s had just become law on July 2, 1976, only three weeks before Gilmore committed his murders.
Death penalty opponents had long argued that capital punishment was an anomaly in civilized society, where the deliberate taking of human life could not be morally sanctioned. Anticapital punishment groups insisted that the death penalty was an irreversible sentence that did not function as an effective deterrent against future crime. Over Gilmore’s objections, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, among other parties, including Gilmore’s mother, entered appeals of the sentence.
Those appeals raised another objection to Gilmore’s sentence that also disturbed death penalty opponents. Gilmore had refused to sanction the appeals. He argued that he had no desire to spend the remainder of his life in prison and considered the penalty to be fair and proper. The underlying problem here, however, was whether or not Gilmore’s execution would amount to state-assisted suicide, for Gilmore was putting the full burden of his death upon the state. It was even suggested that Gilmore had committed the murders, for which he was bound to get caught, to force the state to kill him. Gilmore offered the most articulate answer to those arguments. In a last hearing before the Utah pardon board, Gilmore contended that he accepted his fate, bluntly saying to all those attempting to have his sentence commuted, ‘‘I’d like them to butt out. It’s my life and my death.’’
Gilmore was executed, according to his wishes, by firing squad, on January 17, 1977. According to author Norman Mailer, when asked for his final words, Gilmore, with a phrase that would enter American popular culture, replied simply, ‘‘Let’s do it.’’
References and Further Reading