Gary Mark Gilmore Trial: 1976

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Gary Mark Gilmore Trial: 1976

Defendant: Gary Mark Gilmore
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Michael Esplin and Craig Snyder
Chief Prosecutor: Noall T. Wootton
Judge: J. Robert Bullock
Place: Provo, Utah
Dates of Trial: October 5-7, 1976
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death

SIGNIFICANCE: Convicted killer Gary Gilmore's craving for self-destruction fueled a re-examination of capital punishment in America and led to a best-selling book, The Executioner's Song, and a subsequent movie.

At age 35, Gary Gilmore had spent more than half his life behind bars. In April 1976 he was paroled from the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, and went to live with family members in Utah. On July 19, 1976, he robbed and killed a gas station attendant in Orem, Utah. The next day, he held up a motel in nearby Provo, forced the manager, Ben Bushnell, to lie face down on floor, then shot him through the head. Less than 24 hours later, Gilmore was in custody. Because there were eyewitnesses to the motel killing, it was decided to try Gilmore on the Bushnell murder first.

When the trial began on October 5, 1976, the evidence against Gilmore was overwhelming. Peter Arroyo, a motel guest, described seeing Gilmore in the registration office. Prosecutor Noall Wootton asked, "How far away from him were you at the time?"

"Somewhere near ten feet."

"Did you observe anything in his possession at the time?"

"In his right hand he had a pistol with a long barrel. In his left hand he had a cash box from a cash register."

Moments later Arroyo found Ben Bushnell, shot to death in the office.

Gilmore had accidentally shot himself in the hand while escaping from the motel. When detectives traced the blood spots to some bushes, they discovered a. 22-caliber pistol. Gerald F. Wilkes, an FBI ballistics expert, compared a shell casing found there with one from the murder scene. Wootton asked him, "Would you tell the jury, please, what your conclusions were?"

"Based on my examination of these two cartridges, I was able to determine that both cartridge cases were fired with this weapon and no other weapon."

No Defense

In the face of such damning testimony, Gilmore's chief counsel, Michael Esplin, declared that the defense intended to offer no evidence, a decision that did not sit well with the defendant. Gilmore loudly protested that he be allowed to testify. Judge J. Robert Bullock told him, "I want you to fully understand that if you do that then you're subject to cross-examination by the State's attorney. Do you understand that?" Gilmore replied affirmatively.

At this point Gilmore's other attorney, Craig Snyder, stepped in with an explanation of why he and Esplin had offered no defense. Essentially both felt that there was no defense. Snyder's argument obviously impressed the mercurial Gilmore who abruptly said, "I'll withdraw my request. Just go ahead with it like it is."

"What?" gulped Judge Bullock, stunned by this turn of events.

Gilmore said it again. "I withdraw my request."

All that was left was for both sides to make their closing arguments. At 10:13 a.m. on October 7, 1976, the jury retired to consider their verdict. Before mid-day they were back with a verdict of guilty. Later that day they unanimously recommended the death penalty. Because Utah had dual methods of capital punishmenthanging and firing squadGilmore was given a choice. "I prefer to be shot," he said.

When Gary Gilmore went to Death Row, nobody in America had been executed in over a decade, and nobody expected Gilmore to be the firstexcept Gilmore. He adamantly refused to appeal his conviction or sentence, dismissed both of his lawyers when they did, and insisted that he just wanted to be shot and be done with it. Anything, he said, was preferable to spending the rest of his life behind bars. Two failed suicide bids, on November 16 and December 16, 1977, only strengthened his resolve. Despite frantic legal wrangling by opponents of capital punishment, Gilmore got his wish.

On January 17, 1977, he was strapped to a chair in the Utah State Prison. Five marksmen took aim at the white circle pinned to Gilmore's shirt, then shot him through the heart.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

McFarland, Samuel G. Journal Of Criminal Law And Criminology (Fall 1983): 1014-1032.

Mailer, Norman. The Executioners's Song. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1979.

White, Welsh S. University of Pittsburgh Law Review (Spring 1987): 853-857.