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Corrections creating commemorative coin for Ronnie Lee Gardner execution

Utah Department of Corrections in the past gave pins to people helping with executions.
Utah Department of Corrections in the past gave pins to people helping with executions.
Geoff Liesik, Deseret News

DRAPER — They sit forgotten and dusty in a storage room on the top floor of the Utah Department of Corrections' administration building that overlooks the state prison.

Once on display in the lobby of the nearby Fred House Academy, the three shadowbox frames contain rows of pins earned by Corrections staff over the years for "service beyond their ordinary daily duties."

One pin recognizes those who developed the prison's medical master plan. Others acknowledge those who helped apprehend escaped inmates, transferred prisoners from Utah to Texas or quelled a prison riot.

And then there are the pins that represent participation in the execution of a condemned man.

But no pin will be issued to commemorate Ronnie Lee Gardner's execution, which is scheduled to occur June 18.

Instead, Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said, officials will create a special coin that will be presented to staff members who play any role in carrying out the execution.

"The staff preferred something a little more modern than the ribbons," Gehrke said. "Since people don't walk around displaying those anyway, we're switching to a coin."

Third District Judge Robin Reese issued an execution warrant for Gardner Friday. Gardner, 49, has been sentenced to die for killing attorney Michael Burdell and severely wounding Salt Lake County sheriff's bailiff George "Nick" Kirk while trying to escape from the old Salt Lake County courthouse in 1985.

Recognizing the extraordinary efforts of staff members with metal pins began when Gary DeLand served as executive director of Corrections.

"There's nothing unusual about them," said DeLand, who held the top Corrections post from 1985 to 1992. "We did them for every special assignment people were put in."

During his tenure, DeLand oversaw the lethal-injection executions of Dale Pierre Selby and Gary Arthur Bishop. Pins denoting those executions, and the executions of William Andrews and John Albert Taylor, are all in the shadowboxes that are now relegated to the storage room.

Richard Billings, whose law enforcement and corrections career spans nearly 40 years, participated in the executions of Selby, Bishop, Andrews and Taylor during his time as a member and later commander of the Department of Corrections SWAT team. He has a pin from each execution.

"It wasn't something I sought out or pursued," Billings told the Deseret News. "I think (the pins were) just Mr. DeLand's way of showing his appreciation and acknowledgment for these particular tasks."

"Just because somebody has one doesn't mean that they were a (firing squad) shooter," he added. "They could have simply been on duty providing extra security."

For three of the executions, Billings' chief job with the SWAT teams was to provide that "extra security."

But in Taylor's case, Billings said it was his team that developed the blank cartridge used by members of the firing squad that executed Taylor on Jan. 26, 1996, for the 1988 rape and strangulation of 11-year-old Charla King. The round, he said, was designed to have a report and recoil consistent with a real cartridge so firing squad members couldn't tell who fired the fatal shot.

"We tested them and nobody was able to determine was this a live round or the blank round," he said. "That was part of the entire process."

Billings, a supporter of capital punishment, said he viewed each execution he participated in as an extension of his duty as an officer to "obey a lawful court's order of execution." He also decried society's unwillingness to impose the death penalty in cases where he believes it is warranted and its concern over whether condemned prisoners suffer when they are executed.

"Nobody thinks about what they inflicted on their victims," Billings said. "It's sad. People can't even name the victims, but they can name these guys."

Asked when he last thought about the pins he was given for helping to execute four men, Billings said he couldn't recall.

"I keep them in a box," he said. "I've never really worn them. They're more of a memento, I think."

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