HAD UTAH GOVERNOR Calvin Rampton not intervened last week, Gary Gilmore would have been executed this past Monday, the first person put to death in the United States since 1967. The Utah Supreme Court had already approved the death sentence in a 4-1 decision last Wednesday, and Utah state prison warden Samuel Smith had begun to accept the names of volunteers for a five-man firing squad. Rampton, however, decided to delay the execution pending a parole board review.
Ironically, Rampton's intervention was not appreciated by the man it ostensibly benefited; if Gary Gilmore had had his way, he would be dead now. Throwing a bizarre twist into the emotionally volatile capital punishment debate, Gilmore had asked the court to permit his execution.
From the very outset of his case, Gilmore's actions showed that he was bent on a course of self-destruction. When he was sentenced to death on November 1 for the first-degree murder of a 24-year-old hotel clerk, Gilmore declared that he wished to be executed and would not appeal the case. When his court-appointed attorneys gained a stay of execution from the Utah Supreme Court, Gilmore obtained a new attorney and asked permission to appear at a re-hearing to vacate the stay. Appearing before the court last Wednesday, Gilmore said coolly, "I believe I have been given a fair trial, and I'm willing to accept it with dignity, like a man."
"Death with dignity" has become a recurrent phrase in the ethical deliberations of recent years. But this ethic usually is cited in the context of euthanasia, or mercy killing, as in the much-publicized case of Karen Quinlan, rather than in the context of capital crimes. Until Gilmore's request, the responsibility for determining society's role in the fulfillment of an individual's death-wish had been largely confined to doctors in sanitary hospital halls. Now jurists sitting in oak-panelled courtrooms must also contemplate the question.
Approximately 300 people in the United States presently await execution on death row. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have paved the way for executions in many states that have revised their capital punishment laws to conform to Supreme Court guidelines. Now the Gilmore case, by suggesting that some felons may prefer death to life imprisonment, poses yet another threat to the lives of those convicted of capital offenses.
Aside from the consequences for death-row prisoners that may ensue from allowing the resumption of capital punishment in such extraordinary circumstances, the parole board that reexamines the court's decision should also consider the case's broader social ramifications before granting Gilmore's request.
Even if Gilmore lives, all of American society must accept the blame for the life he has led. Gary Gilmore's death-wish was bred by the despair of a society that has allowed him little chance to life within the law. Now 35 years old, Gilmore has spent 18 of the last 21 years in prison having been first incarcerated at the age of 14. In a society where convicts receive little rehabilitative training, and ex-convicts receive no consideration from potential employers, Gilmore has had no alternative but to follow his life of crime to its seemingly inevitable and unpleasant conclusion. He came to Utah on parole last April, after serving 12 years in an Oregon prison for assault and robbery convictions. In July he was arrested and charged with killing two young men during robberies committed on successive evenings. As punishment for the first of these two murders, Gilmore has asked to be put to death. If the Court, as the reflectors of society values, grants his request we will all share the blame not only for the life, but also for the death of Gary Gilmore.