Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

When a Condemned Criminal Chooses His Own Death

In the United States, it appears that many are aware of the last meal offered to prisoners on death row. A day or two before execution, the condemned individual chooses to enjoy his (or her) last meal on earth. The cost of the meal depends on the state and what type of regulations are in place.

A few moments of peaceful dining bliss before their body is pumped full of chemicals or electricity. A good meal and then the lights go out.

Is the last meal one of the final decisions of a soon-to-be executed prisoner? Well, that all depends on the state. Some individuals in the United States are given the option of choosing their method of death.

Allowing a prisoner the option to choose how they meet their demise appears to be rooted in superstitions and religious beliefs. Although they are paying for their crime with the most precious gift–their life–some believe that even allowing them to choose how they die is giving them too much control.

Delaware, up until 1986, allowed hanging as an option. Now lethal injection is the only choice, which is pretty consistent with the majority of states that allow the death penalty. New Hampshire, however, authorizes hanging only if lethal injection “cannot be given.”

A handful of states allow the prisoner to choose. The laws that apply are controversial in nature and make deciding who gets to choose their method of execution quite complicated.

Things become difficult when a prisoner prefers death rather than living out the rest of his life in prison. In one case,  Michael Passaro was executed for killing his two-year-old daughter, Maggie.

After an ongoing feud with his second wife, he strapped the child into the car and started it on fire. He escaped and she was left to die.

Joe Savitz, an appellate attorney in South Carolina, seemed to do everything in his power to make sure that execution did not take place, not because he thought that Passaro was innocent but because it was his “wish” to see his own demise.

Passaro had lost his first wife in 1992 after a car hit her. She was attempting to help an accident victim when she was struck.

In his arguments, Savitz claimed that executing Passaro would not be punishment at all; the courts would be complying with his death wish. Death, he argued, would be a reward.

Savitz gives good perspective on the meaning of judicial punishment. It’s not about taking away the life of the individual, but having a prisoner suffer through the worst possible–yet humane–life.

By allowing a person on death row to pick their demise, it’s sort of like saying: “Alright, we’re not going to be lenient with you, and you’re still paying for your crime, but here–why not choose between two or three options on how you want to die? Good luck, buddy.”

Robert Gleason. Prison photo.

A more recent case, that of Robert Gleason, Jr., highlights how one serial killer not only sped up his execution, but how he was also was allowed to choose his type of death.

Gleason was serving life in prison without parole after a 2007 murder. In 2009 and 2010, he killed two inmates, one of them a cellmate. Both were slowly, brutally strangled.

In January, 2013, Gleason was killed by electrocution, which he picked over lethal injection. The electric chair had not been used since March 2010 in the United States.

Minutes before his death, while strapped in the chair, Gleason muttered, “Put me on the highway going to Jackson and call my Irish buddies. … God bless,” in addition to telling people to kiss his ass.

The five approved forms of execution in the United States have included lethal injection (the most “popular,” and often the default in most states,) hanging, electrocution, the gas chamber and–perhaps most terrifying–the firing squad. As constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, careful deliberation has occurred over the years in order to approve the various execution styles.

Although lethal injection is now the most common form, it wasn’t used that much prior to the 1980′s. All five methods are still in use; the seeminly outdated gas chamber was last used in 2010 to execute bank robber-turned-killer Walter LaGrand.

Also in 2010, people around the world were captivated by the decision of a convicted killer in Draper, Utah. Only a crazy person would choose to die by a firing squad, right?

Just after midnight on June 18, 2010, five anonymous executioners fired rounds into the body of Ronnie Lee Gardner. Gardner, who was 49 years old, was pronounced dead shortly after. To cast doubt in the minds of those who were part of the squad, one of the guns were filled with non-lethal wax bullets.

This case intrigued the nation for a variety of reasons, particularly because Gardner not only picked how he would die, but also cited his Mormon backgrond as his reason for choosing the firing squad. Prior to his execution, the use of a firing squad had not been used for almost fifteen years in the United States.

In a response to his decision to die by firing squad, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints actually put out a statement in hopes of clarifying its view on “blood atonement,” which read:

“In the mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives.

However, so-called ‘blood atonement,’ by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.”

Gardner killed Melvyn John Otterstrom during a robbery in Salt Lake City in October 1984 and attorney Michael Burdell in April 1985 in an unsuccessful prison escape attempt.

Both men were killed with a gun, which one can assume inspired his “blood atonement” death sentence. When asked if he had any last words, Gardner responded that he did not. However, prior to the killing, his lawyers stated that he had been influenced by “spiritual reasons.

No matter the influence, the option of choosing one’s own death is an emotionally charged situation that not only impacts the condemned person, but those associated with them, especially the families of their victims. At times, it gains national attention because capital punishment is, and will continue to be, a hot button issue in American politics.

For most, no matter the choice, it brings a dramatic closure to a gruesome cycle of murder, which ironically, puts control back into the hands of the murderers.

Jeffrey Hartinger is a writer who lives in New York City. You can visit his website at

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