• U.S.

The Law: After Gilmore, Who’s Next to Die?

6 minute read

It was an old mahogany office chair with a black vinyl seat and back. There, in an old tannery known as the Slaughterhouse in the southwest corner of the Utah State Prison, sat Gary Mark Gilmore, 36, freshly shaven and wearing a black T shirt, crumpled white trousers and red, white and blue sneakers. His neck, waist, wrists and feet were loosely bound to the chair. Twenty-six feet away hung a sailcloth partition with five slits. Hidden behind the curtain stood five riflemen armed with .30-.30 deer rifles, four loaded with steel-jacketed shells, the fifth with a blank.

Five yards to Gilmore’s right, behind a green line, were 20 people; four were the convict’s invited guests: his uncle Vern Damico; his two lawyers, Robert Moody and Ronald Stanger; and Lawrence Schiller, a West Coast promoter who owns the rights to Gilmore’s story. Warden Sam Smith invited them to say farewell, and then read to him the court’s sentence of death for the murder of a young motel manager. Gilmore peered around the cold, harshly lit room, stared at the warden for a moment and finally said, “Let’s do it.”

Three Noises. The Rev. Thomas Meersman, the Roman Catholic prison chaplain, intoned the last rites. Fortified by a bit of contraband whisky smuggled into the prison, Gilmore remained calm as the state medical examiner pinned a target over his heart. Nor did he flinch when the doctor fitted the black corduroy hood over his head. Then the priest placed his hand on Gilmore’s shoulder. Tilting his head, the condemned man, who was reared as a Catholic, spoke his last words: “Dominus vobiscum [The Lord be with you].” Replied Father Meersman: “Et cum spiritu tuo [And with your spirit].”

With that, the warden made a slight motion with his left hand, and a rifle volley shattered the silence. “Bang! Bang! Bang! Three noises,” Witness Schiller reported later. Actually, four bullets tore into Gilmore’s heart, twisting his body, which then turned limp. Blood slowly poured out, staining the bullet-pocked chair. Two minutes later, at 8:07 a.m. on Jan. 17, Gary Gilmore was declared dead. He was the first prisoner to be executed in the U.S. since 1967. After a series of unsuccessful appeals that lasted until the very morning of the execution, what the warden called “the event” took just 18 minutes. Hearing the fusillade, prisoners in three nearby cellblocks screamed obscenities.

Gilmore’s body was quickly removed and rushed to a Salt Lake City medical center. After a three-hour autopsy that included the removal of eyes, kidneys and pituitary glands for scientific research, his remains were sent to Damico, who, according to Gilmore’s wish, had them cremated. The following day, as Gilmore had also wished, his ashes were scattered from a plane flying over Provo, Utah, where six months ago he had committed the murder that led to his execution. The chair in which he had been executed was burned.

For Schiller, Gilmore’s violent end was a new stage in a multimillion-dollar project to dramatize the dead man’s story. Schiller, 40, has made a small career of wedging himself into the midst of sensational news events. When Jack Ruby was dying in 1967, for example, Schiller smuggled a recorder into Ruby’s hospital room and taped his deathbed statement that he killed Lee Harvey Oswald on a whim.

Born in New York City, Schiller started as a photographer and worked for 16 years for such periodicals as LIFE and the Saturday Evening Post. But he realized in the late ’60s that the big picture magazines were failing, “so I got into producing books and movies.” Among his projects: the bestselling Marilyn, a collection of over 100 pictures of Marilyn Monroe by 24 top photographers, with text by Norman Mailer, and the movie The Man Who Skied Down Everest. Nonetheless, he wants to be considered as “an investigative journalist and not a wheeler-dealer or an entrepreneur or even a hardened hustler.”

Great Story. Schiller played all those roles in cornering the Gilmore story. After reading about the case in early November, Schiller decided to sniff around Provo and immediately “became thoroughly convinced that this was a great story.” He wangled permission to visit the prisoner and two weeks later signed a contract with Gilmore’s uncle and lawyers because the murderer, says Schiller, “liked my style and sense of humor.” Next he made a deal with Playboy and signed on Freelance Writer Barry Farrell to write Gilmore’s story from 36 tapes of conversations with him. Schiller hopes the eventual book and movie will gross up to $10 million, with a $100,000 profit for himself. Provided, of course, that he finds a buyer. No one doubts he will.

For 358 other inmates on death rows in 20 states, the big question now is: Who will be next? Jerry Lane Jurek, 22, convicted of the murder of a ten-year-old girl, was scheduled to die in the Texas electric chair last Wednesday. But hours after Gilmore’s execution, the Supreme Court delayed Jurek’s death until it could consider his appeal. Next up could be Calvin Woodkins, another Texas murderer, scheduled to die on Feb. 10. But that date too is likely to be postponed. The Supreme Court, however, has upheld the death-penalty laws in Texas, Georgia and Florida, and it is in one of those states that condemned man No. 2 is likely to die. Opponents of capital punishment have argued that the death of Gilmore would break a psychological barrier created by the years of moratorium. Most experts, however, believe Gilmore’s fate is not likely to set off a large number of executions. The main reason: most of those now confined to death row are not so eager to die. Says Yale Law Professor Charles L. Black Jr.: “Gilmore would not allow the legal points to be made. Gilmore cannot give away other people’s rights.” The end of the moratorium places a new burden on the trial courts. “Now they know for the first tune in ten years that to condemn someone to death may very well mean that the person will be put to death,” says Jack Greenberg, director-counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The sense of responsibility will be greater.” And although the American Civil Liberties Union lost its battle to keep Gilmore from the firing squad, Executive Director Aryeh Neier says he is “determined to make it as difficult as possible to execute anyone else.”

One thing, however, is certain: public opinion strongly favors the death penalty. For the moment, anyway. But, according to Columbia Law Professor Michael Meltsner, the history of capital punishment demonstrates that “when the death penalty is used frequently, it provokes resistance.”

Finally, the validity of capital punishment is still up to the Supreme Court, which will probably be forced to review the statutes in the 35 states that have rewritten their death-penalty laws since 1972. In a decision last July, the court ruled that there must be specific guidelines governing death sentences and that state appellate courts must review the application of these guidelines. Whether that system will really work remains to be tested.

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