• U.S.

The Law: Death Watch in Salt Lake City

5 minute read

“I think this time it’s going to go through. I think I’ll relax, play it cool and see if they’ll leave me alone. And see if they’ll bug out. ”

—Gary Gilmore

Throughout last week’s countdown for the execution of Gary Gilmore, scheduled for 7:49 a.m., Jan. 17, lawyers kept bombarding the courts with petitions to delay—for the third time—the convicted murderer’s death by firing squad. Not knowing whether they would succeed, Gilmore was finding it hard to play it cool. “He’s like a caged animal,” said a prison official. “He’s very nervous —more nervous about someone trying to stop the execution than the date coming closer.” For a time, a family reunion with his two brothers and an aunt and uncle put Gilmore in a better mood, though he was disappointed that his mother, Bessie Gilmore, was ill and could not make the trip. “The family should be together on an occasion like this,” said his uncle, Vern Damico.

Last Efforts. Outside the prison, the many-sided legal battles raced on. Attorney Douglas Wallace, an excommunicated Mormon, petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the firing squad because, he claimed, it was part of “a paganistic ritual” supported by the Mormon-dominated Utah legislature. The court rejected his petition. Two last-minute efforts to save Gilmore began on Friday. American Civil Liberties Union Lawyer V. Jinks Dabney filed a class-action suit in district court seeking a delay. His claim: that the execution was a waste of taxpayers’ money, and that the state would be liable for damages if Gilmore was shot. Then into federal court went Gilbert Athay and Robert Van Sciver, lawyers for two other death-row inmates. The pair argued that the U.S. Constitution requires automatic review of the death penalty by the Utah Supreme Court. Both arguments were rejected. Athay then unsuccessfully appealed to the 10th circuit court in Salt Lake City.

The most lugubrious request was a petition by the Salt Lake City Tribune and television station KUTV that the federal court should break the state’s 82-year-old ban on press attendance at executions and let them, the Deseret News and two other TV stations cover Gilmore’s death. There was a precedent for the claim since a Texas court ruled three weeks ago that a Dallas television station had the right to film an execution at the state prison. The judge in Utah ruled, however, that the Tribune and KUTV had no particular right to cover the execution. That left Gilmore free to assign the five seats granted to him by law. He gave one of them to Larry Schiller, the entrepreneur who paid $125,000 for the rights to his story.

Highlights of Gilmore’s story appeared in the National Enquirer, including an interview about his thoughts on death and a series of letters to his onetime mistress. Nicole Barrett, 20, who has been hospitalized ever since she joined him in an unsuccessful suicide pact last November. On sleepless nights in prison, Gilmore said, he has been haunted by ghosts. “They’re slippery, sneaky, and get tangled in your hair like bats . . . demons with dirty, furry bodies whispering vile things . . . creeping, crawling, red-eyed soul less beasts. They bite and claw, scratch and screech.”

Souls and Devils. Asked what his last thoughts would be just before the firing squad shoots, Gilmore said, “Nicole. Just Nicole.” As for death itself: “It will be familiar, whatever it is. There will be a few rough seconds, a period of adjustment. There will be souls grasping and calling to me. I must keep my mind singular and strong. I know what I want, and in death you can choose in a way that you can’t choose in life.” Gilmore said he believes that he has had previous lives, and devils, but this time “I don’t want to come back.”

All around the prison, 20 miles south of Salt Lake City, security was tight. Religious groups announced plans to hold a vigil outside the prison, and the war den was worried about the possibility that demonstrators might try to storm the prison in order to stop the execution. Several helicopters were reserved by reporters and cameramen, but the Federal Aviation Administration banned all aircraft from the area. The execution site is a closely guarded secret. Even the five-man firing squad will not know the location until shortly before the event. Afterward, according to the plan, a hearse will transport Gilmore’s bullet-ridden body to a Salt Lake City medical center; he requested that his vital organs be donated to science.

In the meantime. Gilmore sat in his solitary cell, guarded round the clock, answering a foot-high pile of fan mail. “His mind hasn’t changed,” said his uncle, Damico. “I think Gary will get what he wants.” And it still appeared that all Gary wanted was to finish up his last meal and face a firing squad. He was not without supporters: a Harris poll reported last week that 71% of the country believed that after the nation’s decade-long moratorium on capital punishment, Gilmore should be executed.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com