No more badges for firing squad

Posted June 18, 2010, at 10:18 p.m.

Ever since my mother sewed my first hard-earned badge on the sash of my Brownie uniform, I’ve been a fan of them.

Badges of honor, bravery, hard work and selflessness — they all look sharp whether pinned upon the chest of a veteran, a police officer or a Brownie scout.

Those who wear them do so proudly, I suspect.

In Utah, the Department of Corrections has traditionally awarded badges or ribbons to those who participate in the execution of death row inmates.

But for Friday’s execution of 49-year-old Ronnie Lee Gardner, those on the five-man firing squad will receive a “commemorative coin” instead.

“The staff preferred something more modern than the ribbons,” corrections department spokesman Steve Gehrke told reporters. “Since people don’t walk around displaying those anyway, we’re switching to a coin.”

The death penalty is an emotional subject. Some of my best and truest friends are strong believers in it. I am not.

Eight years ago, when my 11-year-old niece sat on my lap in a Florida funeral home and sobbed uncontrollably just five days after witnessing her father shoot her mother to death, the thought might have crossed my mind that perhaps the death penalty wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

But the thought passed and I suspect if that tragedy didn’t change my mind, then nothing will.

In 1989 I found myself deep in the bowels of the old Maine State Prison in Thomaston. There, in the last cell off a narrow, dark and dank hallway, lived John Lane. Five years earlier Lane had killed 4-year-old Angela Palmer by burning her alive in the family’s oven.

There was no natural light in that segregated portion of the prison and the prisoners assigned there were allowed out of their cells for one hour per day.

When John Lane killed that little girl in 1984, I recall pondering the death penalty. Perhaps there are such horrific acts committed by such evil souls that the only true justice is death by the state.

But in 1989 as I stood outside Lane’s tiny cell and gazed around at the total gloom that surrounded him every single day, I thought, “I hope he lives to be 100. Death would be too kind.”

Every once in a while a Maine state lawmaker will submit a death penalty bill. The submission of the bill gets a little routine press and then the bill dies a quiet death.

A few years ago when one such bill was submitted, I mentioned it to a friend of mine who was a homicide prosecutor.

“The day that passes is the day I stop prosecuting homicides,” he said.

Unequivocal.

I got the feeling that unlike me, he had never wavered on this particular issue, and I’m fairly sure his deep religious faith was the foundation of his position.

This from a man who has seen the meanest Maine has to offer. He’s seen them up close and personal and comforted their victims, and many times he’s argued that they spend the rest of their lives behind bars, but he would never argue that the state of Maine should kill them.

The five men who made up the firing squad at Ronnie Lee Gardner’s execution Friday morning were volunteer police officers from area communities.

They were armed with rifles. One of the rifles fired a blank so that when the deed was over, no one knew whether he fired the fatal shot.

I guess that’s supposed to ease whatever troublesome feelings may emerge, because though supporters call the death penalty just and right, apparently it’s better if the shooters can walk away and think that perhaps they actually fired a blank.

There is something a bit disturbing about that.

And should those troublesome feelings emerge, Utah will provide them with counseling.

Free counseling and a commemorative coin.

I kid you not!

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