Entrepreneur Louis Harris released a poll in 1977, asking the American public whether they thought a convicted murderer should receive the death penalty. An overwhelming 71% of people thought the man should die, although 86% of people opposed filming the execution and putting it on TV. The case caught the attention of the American public because the murderer demanded “his life not be spared” and even attempted to die by suicide multiple times in prison. He wanted death by firing squad as soon as possible. 46% of respondents to the Harris poll believed the murderer wanted to die to avoid life in prison, while 26% believed he just wanted publicity and attention for himself.
The year before, Gregg v. Georgia was a landmark Supreme Court decision in the United States. In 1972, according to History, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was in violation of the Eighth Amendment in Furman v. Georgia, qualifying as “cruel and unusual punishment” due to the racial disparities and arbitrary ways it was being implemented by different states.
However, in 1976, the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty after legislatures still imposed it and the majority of Americans supported it. In a 7–2 decision, Gregg allowed the use of the death penalty when in extreme criminal cases and ruled the death penalty did not violate the Eighth Amendment in all cases.
The Harris poll highlighted many differences in approval of the death penalty by race — while 56% of Americans supported the death penalty once a prisoner exhausted all legal appeals, 49% of Black Americans opposed the death penalty in these cases. By contrast, 61% of white Americans supported the death penalty.
A man named Gary Gilmore would be the first person killed in the post-Gregg era. According to TIME Magazine, his lawyers tried again and again to delay his death, and during the time, Gilmore was nervous. He was not nervous his lawyers wouldn’t be able to stop his execution, but he was nervous they would be able to delay the execution. Gilmore was sentenced to death by firing squad, which one of his lawyers called “a paganistic ritual.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tried to intervene and provide attorneys for Gilmore not to be executed, claiming the execution was a travesty in how the state of Utah decided to spend taxpayer dollars.
However, Gilmore himself never wanted to appeal his death sentence. To protest these legal efforts made on his behalf, he stopped eating for 25 days. He was especially mad at the ACLU for intervening in the case. According to Vern Anderson at the Los Angeles Times, he could have still been alive in 1987 if he kept following the appeals process. Gilmore told a judge:
Gilmore would be executed on January 17, 1977, the first person executed in the U.S. since 1967. While Gilmore sat in a chair at the Utah State Prison, he said “let’s do it” right before five people in a firing squad shot and killed him. This is the story of Gary Gilmore and the unusual circumstances over requesting his own death. It would be memorialized by author Norman Mailer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for writing The Executioner’s Song based on Gilmore’s life and crimes.
Who was Gary Gilmore?
According to Biography, Gilmore had a long rap sheet, starting with petty robberies and ultimately culminating in the murder of two BYU students in Provo, Utah.
But you can’t talk about his crimes without talking about his life. Gilmore was born in 1940 in Stonewall, Texas, as one of four kids to Frank and Bessie Gilmore. His father was a con man and alcoholic who frequently abused his kids, and Gilmore suffered the worst of his father’s wrath.
One of Gilmore’s brothers, Mikal Gilmore, would eventually become a renowned music journalist. Mikal wrote Shot in the Heart in 1994, a memoir detailing Gary’s life and the family’s troubles. According to Mikal, when Gilmore was born, his father had the pseudonym of “Coffman” to escape accountability. Bessie also went by the Coffman name when they gave birth to the boy. Frankie named the child without Bessie’s input: Faye Robert Coffman. The nurse praised Frankie as a “truly devoted husband” who stayed with Bessie the whole time she gave birth, and the whole time, Bessie was surprised given Frankie’s incredibly abusive and manipulative nature:
Meanwhile, Bessie hated the name. When the family traveled to New Mexico, Frankie said he was going to rip up the birth certificate and let Bessie choose the name. She decided to name him Gary, after famous actor Gary Cooper. Frankie did not like the name Gary because a similar name, Grady, was the name of a man who “stole Robert’s mother from me.” Bessie eventually got the last word, and his name would be Gary Gilmore.
Biography notes Gilmore started getting in trouble when he was 10, having “explosions of violence” and already following his father’s example going down a “criminal path.” He started committing petty crimes like auto theft. Mikal Gilmore says Gary would be a frequent point of contention between their parents, and what they fought about on most nights. The family moved around significantly, and Gary eventually went to reform school and was held in the Oregon State Correctional Institution as an adult.
One therapist’s note said this about Gilmore when he was 16:
Gary Gilmore eventually started to commit crimes that escalated in seriousness. He committed armed robbery and assault and spent much time in prison as a result. Despite dropping out of high school, Gilmore was extremely intelligent with an IQ of 133. In prison, Gilmore frequently worked in the prison art shop, and the prison warden and others who worked in prison liked his work so much they decided to buy some of his art.
In 1972, after Gary Gilmore won first place in several art competitions, the prison warden decided to grant him a conditional release to attend community college in Eugene, Oregon, to study art. Mikal says the conditions were that he couldn’t leave the Eugene area and he needed to attend his classes, get good grades, and follow the rules of campus and the halfway house. If Gilmore followed all these conditions, he would get an early release from jail.
The family was optimistic, with Mikal describing the episode as a potential “turning point.” However, Gilmore would commit another robbery and receive nine years in jail. He got transferred to a maximum-security jail in Illinois. Gilmore would get conditionally released again in 1976, living with a cousin in Provo. But Gilmore fell back into old habits almost right away.
Biography notes that at 35, Gilmore started a relationship with a 19-year-old named Nicole Baker Barrett. He would abuse and beat her, and only a few months later, she left him, a fact highlighting a broader issue of Gilmore’s failure to adjust to life outside prison.
According to ABC4 Utah, Gilmore killed a 24-year-old gas station attendant named Max Jensen on July 19, 1976. Jensen complied with all of Gilmore’s demands, but Gilmore shot and killed him anyway. The next day, he robbed a motel manager named Ben Bushnell and killed him under similar circumstances.
He was arrested after a mechanic noticed a fresh wound on his hand, and after he was seen throwing a gun into the bushes. Gilmore would only be tried for the murder of Bushnell due to a lack of evidence, and his trial lasted only two days in October of 1976 before he was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. He was given a choice of how he wished to die: hanging or firing squad. He chose the latter.
In prison, his execution would be delayed several times upon appeal. He attempted suicide twice. Despite Gilmore’s refusal to accept appeals, his mother, the ACLU and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) intervened anyway, much to his chagrin. The intervention wasn’t out of love for Gilmore but about the precedent his execution would set.
But despite all the appeals and even two stays of execution from Utah’s governor, Gilmore still insisted on dying and insisted the state of Utah was getting cold feet.
Gilmore presents a very unusual case in that he demanded to die. Some accounts say Gilmore chose the firing squad to taunt Utah’s barbaric death penalty measures.
But the ACLU was right that his execution would open the floodgates for executions around the country. Hundreds of executions followed in the decades after Gilmore’s death.
It remains strange that Gilmore’s last words were “let’s do it” and there wouldn’t be another death by firing squad for 19 years. His brother, Mikal, attributes many factors to Gilmore’s heinous acts of violence and murders. One was the faith of Mormonism the family grew up with, with its history of “blood atonement” in the words of Owen McNally at The Hartford Courant. Another is the prison system, which Mikal claims makes prisoners even more unfit for a normal life after being in. But lastly, Mikal blamed his family most — the abusive father, as well as the other dark secrets the family kept.
“Gary’s fate was finished at about the instant in which my parents conceived him,” Mikal said.
This post was previously published on History of Yesterday.
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