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The Daily Herald in Utah posed this question:
Should the state allow an inmate to waive his death sentence appeals because he is chronically ill and wants to end his misery, as in assisted suicide?

U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell was confronted with that question when Ronnie Lee Gardner said he is suffering too much from rheumatoid arthritis to continue fighting the state’s plans to execute him. He also claimed that a prison doctor hinted that he should withdraw his appeals to end his suffering.

“You should always follow your doctor’s orders, except in legal matters,” Campbell advised Gardner. She asked Gardner to continue with his current appeals until she rules in several weeks. He will also get an attorney to help him get treatment for his arthritis in prison.

Gardner has agreed to hold off on his request until he speaks with a civil rights attorney.

Gardner’s request is the latest step in an odyssey that began when he was facing charges for fatally shooting Melvyn John Otterstrom during a robbery at a Salt Lake City bar in 1984. At a 1985 court hearing at the old Metropolitan Courthouse, Gardner’s girlfriend smuggled him a loaded gun for an escape attempt. Gardner shot and wounded bailiff Nick Kirk and killed attorney Michael Burdell before he was captured on the courthouse lawn.

He was sentenced to death for killing Burdell, and received a life sentence for Otterstrom’s death. The state argued that by having a gun smuggled to him and plotting an escape, Gardner knowingly committed murder and thus deserved a death sentence.

It’s not unheard of for death row inmates to drop their appeals and demand execution as soon as possible. Some know they are going to be executed and would rather just get it over with rather than sit in prison for 10 or 20 years. Others, like Utah’s Gary Gilmore, acknowledge their crimes and see the death sentence as a way to end both their criminal careers and miserable lives.

But should an inmate be allowed to seek execution as a form of euthanasia?

Utahns generally do not believe in killing the chronically or terminally ill to end their suffering. There’s a fine line between asking medical providers to avoid extraordinary steps to keep one alive and actively putting a person out of his misery. Yet the latter is what Gardner is asking the state to do, to put an end to his suffering. He would turn the court’s sentence into an act many Utahns find morally reprehensible.

To some people, that’s not a problem. Gardner is sentenced to die and, given the facts in his case, the sentence will be carried out eventually. Who cares what Gardner’s reasons are for hastening the process, as long as he dies in the end?

But if Gardner is in as much pain as he claims, is he then truly in a position to make a rational decision? Such pain could interfere with his judgment, which some would argue makes execution morally wrong.

Perhaps Gardner should receive treatment for his condition, and when his suffering is reduced as far as possible, the court should see if he still wants to die. Treatment may not change his mind, but at least he would seem better positioned to make that call.

Another factor that needs to be weighed is whether his request serves justice. From the perspective of the victims’ families, it would. They could move on with their lives, forever severing all ties to a living killer.

But Gardner’s request is not one of remorse for his crime or a simple acceptance of the inevitable. It is based in a selfish desire to ease his own physical suffering. Allowing him to die under such circumstances, some might argue, seems to negate the punitive effect of execution. Rather than it being the state’s ultimate sanction, it tends to put the criminal in control.

The question is, does it matter what his motive is? Convicts have dropped appeals for countless reasons, and nobody feels a need to slice and dice their motives and endlessly analyze each little chunk. The killer simply thinks it serves some greater good to stop fighting.

If an execution serves a state interest, then the death is good for the state by definition. If it also happens to be good for the killer, it sounds like a win-win scenario. It’s a Pyrrhic victory for the dead guy, so why worry about it?

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