SALT LAKE CITY — Shortly before midnight on Jan. 25, 1996, five men gathered at a table in a darkened room at the Utah State Prison and prepared to kill a sixth.
They watched the clock and waited. In just moments, John Albert Taylor would die for the 1989 murder of Charla Nicole King, an 11-year-old girl he raped, then strangled with a telephone cord.
Convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to die, Taylor spent a decade on death row before abruptly ending his appeals and requesting the punishment be carried out. At 12:03 a.m., the five-man squad leaned into their rifles and shot him to death.
In the 14 years since, the men – all police officers – have kept largely silent about their participation in what was the nation’s first firing squad execution since Gary Gilmore’s in 1977.
On Friday, unless a last-minute stay intervenes, another Utah firing squad is scheduled to execute Ronnie Lee Gilmore, 49, convicted of shooting attorney Michael Burdell during an escape attempt in 1985.
The veterans of the earlier execution say they performed their sworn duty to enforce the law even when they found it personally disagreeable or unpopular – as they did every day, whatever their police duty was.
“To me it was just an assignment, nothing more than getting an order to do something like kicking in a door to serve a warrant,” said a member of the squad, one of three who agreed to break their silence.
They want to help people understand.
“I don’t think any of us were motivated by a sense of revenge,” another of the trio said. “We took it very seriously and wanted to do it right.”
The Salt Lake Tribune agreed not to identify the three who spoke, all of whom were officers in the same police agency in 1996. One has since retired; the other two are now supervisors in that agency. Married, fathers and religious to one degree or another, all knew the details of King’s murder.
How they came to be part of the firing squad is simple: Their police agency designated one of the officers to select the other four.
He said he approached one of the other two interviewed, and his fellow officer didn’t hesitate. A death penalty advocate, he felt comfortable carrying out the court’s order.
The third officer felt much the same. Proficient with firearms, he was more concerned the legal process may break down.
“I was worried about some lawyer working the courts to have us all charged with homicide,” he said. “That still worries me.”
The officer said he chose members of the squad for their maturity and responsibility. “They were well trained and I knew they wouldn’t go around bragging about it. I wanted the best in order to get the job done right.”
In the case of Gardner, the shooters will come from the Unified Police Department. Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder has said they must volunteer and then will be selected by a lottery.
Winder has declined to share any other details, so the process the three members of the Taylor squad spelled out may be the only description available of the lead-up to a firing squad execution.
Several weeks before Taylor’s execution, a prison official interviewed the officers and cleared them for participation.
Squad members traveled to the prison to practice. The actual death chamber was replicated in an old warehouse, including the execution chair and a screen with gun ports through which the officers would fire.
“There was a table with sandbags and rifles on it,” one of the officers said. “The chair where Taylor would sit was only 17 feet away.”
They practised for accuracy and to ensure everyone was familiar with the process so it would go smoothly.
“They wanted a single boom,” one of the officers said. “They didn’t want a whole bunch of shots.”
The more they practised, the more they realized the execution was actually going to take place.
“My wife was worried over possible retaliation from people if they learned I was one of the shooters,” said one officer, who also talked to his Mormon leader. “I wrestled with the morality. I’m not a super-religious or spiritual person. I go to church every Sunday. I did wrestle with ‘thou shall not kill.’ But I still felt that it was part of my job.”
Another of the trio was less troubled. He likened Taylor’s execution to “returning a defective product to the manufacturer.”
The third officer said he wasn’t troubled in the slightest by his involvement and would do it again if asked.
On the evening before the execution, a “blacked out” van picked the officers up and drove them to the prison. They sat in the “gun room” and waited several hours.
Just before midnight, the Winchester Model 94 30.30-caliber rifles were loaded. Four had live rounds. The fifth contained a wax bullet.
A prison official selected each rifle at random from the table and handed them to another sitting out of sight in a small room. The second official loaded the rifle but was unable to see the position it was returned to on the table.
Corrections officers brought Taylor into the execution chamber and strapped him to the chair. He appeared calm and cooperative.
Everyone watched two phones on the wall, one of which was a line to the attorney general, the other to the governor, both of whom could have authorized a delay. No delay came.
When ordered, all five officers took position behind their rifles. The death chamber was brilliantly lit, with the lights shining directly on Taylor. The barrels of the rifles did not extend through the ports in the wall.
“Then they opened the curtains to the witness area,” one officer said. “I don’t remember being able to see who was there, but I knew they couldn’t see us.”
The firing squad captain walked down the line and tapped each shooter on the shoulder. “If you were ready to go, you held up a thumb,” one of the officers said.
The captain called off the cadence: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Everyone fired. The target patch pinned to Taylor’s shirt flew off.
“There was one boom,” one of the officers said. “My first thought was ‘holy s—, we missed’.” “From my vantage point there was absolutely no reaction from Taylor. Nothing. I honest to God thought we missed.”
Except for Taylor’s head relaxing and dropping forward, none of the officers recalled any visible reaction.
“There was no gore, no real sign of blood,” one of them recalled. “My wife recorded the news accounts at home and there was all this stuff about blood and the smell of death. I got quite upset about that.”
When the drapes to the witness area closed and Taylor’s body was removed, the shooters were allowed to briefly examine the execution chamber. They then were driven back to the drop-off point and released.
“I got home at 3 a.m. and was back in the office by 8 a.m. the following morning,” one said. “By 9 a.m. we were kicking in a door on a narcotics warrant.”
Another said he slept fine that night and has had no negative feelings about his participation. He said he would volunteer again if the opportunity presented itself.
The third of the trio was more circumspect. He has had mixed feelings about his involvement, but has come to terms with them.
After it was over, they were offered counselling.
“I didn’t need it,” the third officer said. “On the one hand, I had a good feeling that we had successfully completed the task. But I also felt guilty about volunteering for it. I would have felt better if I had been directly ordered to be on it . . . I had issues about shooting a guy strapped in a seat, helpless. But the state had ordered us to do this and we had a job to do. I don’t regret doing it, but I would never do it again.”
Robert Kirby writes for the Salt Lake Tribune.