Until the volley of rifle fire ripped through the target over his heart 10 years ago, Gary Gilmore could have changed the script. He was, after all, its author.
The death sentence he refused to appeal on Jan. 17, 1977, became the first carried out in the United States in a decade. It was bound to bring public attention and stir debate.
It was the killer’s demand for his own death, however--his preference for the firing squad over the cells that had held him--that brought his case into international celebrity.
“You sentenced me to die. Unless it’s a joke or something, I want to go ahead and do it,” Gilmore told District Judge J. Robert Bullock as he refused to file appeals that could still be keeping him alive today.
In the ensuing 2 1/2-month death watch, Gilmore twice attempted suicide with the only woman he said he ever loved, stopped eating for 25 days to protest unwanted legal efforts to keep him alive, sold his life story and made the cover of Newsweek.
Spurned ACLU’s Help
He told the American Civil Liberties Union, among others, to “butt out” of his case, and convinced the U.S. Supreme Court that he was knowingly waiving his appeal rights. Finally, he dodged a federal judge’s 11th-hour stay. State lawyers took a predawn flight to Denver and got the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to lift the order 31 minutes before the execution.
Strapped into a chair in an old cannery at Utah State Prison, Gilmore said, “Let’s do it,” and the five-man firing squad pulled the triggers.
It was a tale worthy of a book, Norman Mailer decided as he strolled down New York’s Fifth Avenue with Lawrence Schiller, who had paid Gilmore $52,000 for the rights to his story. That book, “The Executioner’s Song” earned Mailer a Pulitzer Prize and was the basis of Schiller’s television movie of the same title.
Many lives were changed by Gary Gilmore, whose notoriety in death obscured his earlier crimes.
In the summer of 1976, three months after he had served 11 years for armed robbery, Gilmore robbed and killed Orem service station attendant Max Jensen, 24, and Provo motel manager Bennie Bushnell, 25, on the nights of July 21 and 22.
Victims Left Families
The young men were ordered to lie down and then were shot in the head. Both were students at Brigham Young University; both left widows with infants.
Debbie Bushnell, who held her husband’s head in her lap as he died, gave birth to the couple’s second child a few weeks after Gilmore’s execution.
Unlike Jensen’s widow, Colleen, Debbie Bushnell has not remarried. It was a long time before she could get over the smell of blood, and 10 years hasn’t erased the feeling that much of her own life died on that motel floor.
“It is a lonely nightmare, and there’s no other way to describe it,” Bushnell said. “I was widowed at 24, but I might as well have been 80. I really went through the ringer.”
Colleen Jensen Ostergaard, who is close to Bushnell, acknowledges the differences in their grief: “I didn’t find my husband dead, and I’m grateful for that.”
Bushnell said that Gilmore’s death “didn’t make things right with me,” but that she feels better off than the families of murder victims who must endure years of appeals for the killers.
Killed in Jealous Rage
Gilmore committed the murders in a rage over the breakup of his romance with Nicole Baker, a pretty, thrice-married mother of two. In Mailer’s account, Gilmore punctuated the shots that killed Jensen with the words: “This one is for me. This one is for Nicole.”
“He was killing Nicole twice,” Gilmore’s cousin and lifelong friend, Brenda Nicol, agreed in a recent interview. "(The victims) were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Nicol, who had co-sponsored Gilmore’s parole and whose testimony later helped to convict him of the murders, suffered a nervous collapse a year after the execution. She tried to commit suicide the night a man tried to pay his tab at the tavern where she worked with a belt made from a strap that had held Gilmore’s leg to the death chair.
“I really felt guilty about the men Gary had killed,” she said.
For years, Gilmore’s uncle, Vern Damico, dreamed about the execution his nephew asked him to attend. “I could hear those rifles going off so many times you wouldn’t believe,” he said.
Killer’s Last Night
Damico smuggled Gilmore some miniature bottles of bourbon on the eve of the execution. He said the condemned man knew that he deserved to die and wanted to prove that he could accept punishment like a man.
“No one--and I mean not even James Cagney--could have been any braver,” Damico said.
Nicole Baker, now 30, is trying to forget her former lover without much success.
“I have a tendency to think about Gary, about how it might have been,” she said in an interview.
Although he forgave her many past loves, Gilmore was wildly jealous of any but him in her future. When the couple reconciled after the murders, Gilmore persuaded her to slip him sleeping pills and join him in a suicide pact.
A friend found Baker comatose in her apartment. She was committed to a mental hospital until after the execution. Gilmore, more easily revived, tried suicide again a month before his execution.
Gilmore’s execution, the first since Luis Monge died in Colorado’s gas chamber in 1967, was decried by death penalty opponents as likely to trigger a legal blood bath for about 400 other inmates waiting on Death Rows across the country.
End of Moratorium
The Supreme Court, which had ruled in 1972 that capital punishment was being unconstitutionally applied, upheld revised death penalty laws in 1976.
After Gilmore, it was 2 1/2 years before Florida murderer John Spenkelink had exhausted all his appeals; 66 other prisoners have been put to death since he was. Meantime, the nation’s Death Row population has more than quadrupled, exceeding 1,800.
Utah Assistant Atty. Gen. Earl Dorius, who was among the lawyers on that plane to Denver, believes Gilmore’s execution had no effect, psychological or legal, on the capital cases that followed.
“The Gilmore case has virtually no precedent value in issues of capital punishment,” Dorius said, mainly because the inmate filed no appeals.
On the morning of his death, as Gilmore was about to be escorted out of maximum security, he called out to two fellow murderers: “Be seeing you directly!” Many at the time thought he was right.
But those men, Dale Selby and William Andrews, have spent 12 years on Death Row for the torture-murders of three people in a 1974 robbery.
As they wait out their seventh, perhaps final, appeals, corrections officials are preparing a new site at the prison for Utah’s first executions since Gilmore’s.