On this date in 1977, Gary Gilmore uttered the last words “Let’s do it” and was shot by a five-person firing squad in Utah as the curtain raised on a “modern” death penalty era in the United States.
Famous for volunteering for death — he had nothing but disdain for his outside advocates and angrily prevented his own lawyers pursuing last-minute appeals — Gilmore rocketed through the justice system at a pace now unthinkable.
Mere days after courts blessed the resumption of executions in 1976, the career criminal — just paroled from a decade mostly behind bars in Oregon — murdered two people in the Provo, Utah, area. He was convicted in a three-day trial in October 1976 … and dead little more than three months later.
Owing to his milestone status and the unfamiliar public persona he cut insisting on his own death, Gilmore left a trail of cultural artifacts far surpassing his personal stature as small-time crook.
Norman Mailer wrote a book about Gilmore (The Executioner’s Song) and adapted it into an award-winning television movie. Gary’s brother Mikal published his own memoir (Shot in the Heart), later made into an HBO movie.
Gary Gilmore’s was the first execution of any kind in the United States since June 2, 1967. According to the Espy file, it was also the first firing squad execution since James Rodgers was shot in Utah March 30, 1960; only one of the other 1,098 men and women put to death since Gilmore — John Taylor in 1996, also in Utah — faced a firing squad. (Update: After this post was published, another Utah condemned man also opted for a firing squad execution: Ronnie Lee Gardner, shot in 2010.)
Both Gilmore and Taylor chose to be shot in preference to hanging. The firing squad is all but extinct in the U.S., though it still remains on the books in some form in Idaho, Oklahoma and (for prisoners convicted before 2004) Utah.