On Monday, July 19, 1976, Max Jensen went to work as usual at the self-service
gas station in Orem, Utah. That night, Gilmore had a spat with his
girlfriend and went driving with her mentally unstable younger sister,
At around 10:30 pm he told April he wanted to make a
phone call. He left her in the truck and walked away. Gilmore went
around the corner, out of her sight, and into the Sinclair service
He spotted the attendant and quickly saw that no one
else was around. He walked up to Max Jensen and pulled out a .22
Browning Automatic. He instructed Jensen to empty his pockets, which the
young Mormon quickly did. Then he told Jensen to go into the bathroom
and lie down on the floor with his arms under his body. Jensen got into
the position. He was obeying everything that Gilmore said.
Then inexplicably, Gilmore put the gun close to
Jensen's head. "This one is for me," he said, and fired. Then he placed
the muzzle right against Jensen's skull and shot him once again, this
time "for Nicole." (girlfriend Nicole Baker Barrett)
Gilmore spent the night with April at a motel and the
following night, he walked into the City Center Motel in Provo, not far
from Brigham Young University. He confronted the attendant, Ben Bushnell,
who lived on the premises with his wife and baby. Gilmore told Ben to
give him the cash box and get down on the floor. Then he shot Bushnell
in the head. Bushnell's wife came in, so Gilmore grabbed the cash box
and left. Trying to dispose of the gun in a nearby bush, Gilmore shot
himself in the hand.
By Wednesday, Gilmore's cousin, Brenda Nicol, turned
him into the police. Gilmore gave up near a roadblock without a fight.
At first, he denied the murders, but later admitted both.
In October, Gilmore was tried, convicted, and
sentenced to death. He chose death by firing squad and waived all
appeals. Despite the efforts of other groups to stop it, 6 months after
the murders, the execution was carried out.
Gary Gilmore was the first person executed in the U.S.
in almost 10 years. In prison most of his life and paroled only four
months before the murders, Gilmore becomes a celebrity with his efforts
to hasten his execution. His last words: “Let’s do it.”
The Crime Library.com
"Gary Gilmore: Death Wish," by Katherine Ramsland.
It's not that his ambitions were great that got him
into trouble, but that he hadn't the patience to earn what he desired.
From a young age, Gary Mark Gilmore just went out and took whatever he
wanted—beer, cigarettes, cars, money. More times than not (according to
him) he was successful, but when he wasn't, he landed in the slammer.
He'd just get an idea into his head and do it. He said he couldn't help
Gilmore’s story is documented in a book written by
his younger brother, Mikal Gilmore, called Shot in the Heart, and by
Norman Mailer, who wrote a narrative nonfiction account, The
Executioner’s Song, in which he utilized letters that Gilmore wrote,
interviews with many of his intimates, trial transcripts, and interviews
or statements that Gilmore gave to the press. Mailer did not himself
interview Gilmore, but his account relies on actual documents, with an
emphasis on how those around Gilmore perceived him.
There are also a few film clips available of Gilmore
as he spoke to the press or to the courts, and an A&E documentary
collected these into an overview of his fight to die rather then face
years in prison. Gilmore is a historical case, in that he was the first
man to be executed after the U. S. Supreme Court reinstated the death
penalty, and because he refused all appeals to which he was legally
Born on December 4, 1940, he'd aspired as a boy to
become a man of God. By the time he was thirty-five, he'd spent more
than half of his life in prison, from juvenile detention to a federal
penitentiary. At age 14, he dropped out of school. By fifteen, he was
running an illegal car theft ring. That's when he was first arrested,
although he'd been drinking for three years, harassing teachers, playing
hooky, and stealing petty items.
According to his own statements to court-ordered
psychologists, he developed a need for bravado, which meant staring down
approaching trains until near-impact or sticking a wet finger into an
outlet. Upon his first arrest, his father Frank got a lawyer and got him
off, teaching him to manipulate the legal system and skirt
responsibility for criminal acts. After all, Frank had made a living at
it for many years. He was a professional con man, but could not abide
the taint of criminality in his son.
However, Gilmore then stole something that got him
into Oregon's MacLaren Reform School for Boys. He spent a year there,
and then went in and out of jail until he was eighteen. At that point,
he ended up in the Oregon State Correctional Institution on a car theft
charge. His father couldn't do much for him, especially after he piled
up an array of disciplinary charges while in prison. Then he was out and
then in again, and this time while he was behind bars, Frank Gilmore
died. According to statements made by one of the wardens in the
documentary, “A Fight to Die,” Gary went wild, tearing up his cell and
attempting suicide. This was a blow he could not bear.
Yet there was no release for him, no respite to mourn.
He became violent to guards and inmates alike. Because he was so
difficult to handle, he was heavily drugged with an anti-psychotic
called Prolixin, and only with his mother's horrified intervention was
he removed from this dehumanizing regimen. He never forgot its
paralyzing effects. He got out when he was 21 and promptly committed
robbery and assault for $11.
At this point, the State of Oregon decided that he
was a repeat offender with a poor prognosis. He went to Oregon State
Penitentiary. While incarcerated, his brother Gaylen, the third of
Bessie and Frank's four boys, was stabbed in the stomach. Mikal Gilmore
documents this tragic incident. Having no money for medical care, Gaylen
died. This time, Gary was allowed to attend the funeral, but losing
Gaylen had its effect. Gary often ended up in solitary confinement over
his inability to conform to the prison routines.
Yet spending so much time alone in solitary proved
beneficial. With an IQ of 130, he educated himself in literature and
began to write poetry. More notably, he developed an artistic talent
that won contests. For that, he was granted an early release in 1972 to
live in a halfway house in Eugene and attend art school at the local
While he welcomed this opportunity, it apparently
intimidated him. Rather than show up to register, he stayed away and
drank. He visited his brother Mikal, who reported that he was afraid of
Gary. Within a month, Gilmore had committed armed robbery and was
arrested. When he went to trial again, he asked permission to address
the court, which was granted, and his actual words are recorded in
several places, including court transcripts.
With great articulation, Gilmore made an appeal for
leniency. He said that he had been locked up for the past nine and a
half years, with only two years of freedom since he was fourteen.
Justice had been harsh and he'd never asked for a break until now.
He argued that “you can keep a person locked up too
long” and that “there is an appropriate time to release somebody or to
give them a break. …I stagnated in prison a long time and I have wasted
most of my life. I want freedom and I realize that the only way to get
it is to quit breaking the law. …I’ve got problems and if you sentence
me to additional time, I’m going to compound them.”
The judge told him that he had already been convicted
once for armed robbery, a serious charge, so there was no option but to
sentence him to another nine years. Gilmore was hurt and angry. As
promised, he became more violent while in prison and on a number of
occasions tried unsuccessfully to kill himself. They wanted to try
Prolixin again, but Gilmore begged for an alternative. He was
transferred to a maximum-security penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. That
meant that no one in his family could visit him. He started writing to a
cousin in Utah, Brenda Nicol, and only three years into his sentence, a
parole plan was worked out. Brenda gave several interviews about her
involvement with Gary, and Mailer offers a complete description of her
Brenda orchestrated Gilmore’s release. She hadn't
seen Gary since he was a boy, but she remembered how distinctive he was.
She believed that if she and her family could help him out with a loving
community and a job, he'd get along okay. She didn't know that he'd been
diagnosed (according the reports that Mailer documents) with a
psychopathic personality disorder. She had no idea how compulsive he was,
or demanding. It was in her mind to do a good deed, so she worked on
bringing Gary home. Finally in 1977, he was released to go live in Provo.
He arrived with everything he owned packed in a small gym bag. He was
ready for freedom, he firmly believed.
Yet life in Utah proved to be hard. He'd hated prison,
but the skills he'd developed there to survive just didn't work in a
conservative Mormon community. He was briefly employed in his Uncle Vern
Damico's shoe shop and then did insulation for a man named Spencer
McGrath, but he had a hard time concentrating.
The first chance he got, according to interviews that
Vern Damico gave to Mailer, he went out drinking. When he couldn't
afford beer, he stole it. Then he found himself a beautiful girlfriend,
Nicole Baker Barrett, thrice divorced by age 19, and soon returned to a
life of compulsive theft because he wanted what he wanted…right now. It
was the sight of a white Ford pickup truck priced well beyond his means
that appeared to those who knew him to have sparked a spree that could
only have ended badly.
Gilmore had bought a blue Mustang from Val Conlin, a
used car dealer, but it had problems and often wouldn't run. He still
owed on that but he'd seen a ten-year-old, overpriced white truck on the
lot that he really wanted. The dealer said no way, not unless he found
himself a co-signer. That frustrated Gilmore. By hook or by crook, he
intended to have that truck. To his mind, there were always ways of
getting money. He'd already stolen some merchandise to sell. Then he
managed to collect a bag full of guns---nine of them. He gave one to
Nicole, she later told police officers, showed her the rest, and said he
intended to sell whatever he could. Nicole’s interview for A&E is the
best source of information for what happened in those final days, along
with Gilmore’s own documented admissions. Each person who saw him over
the next few days later gave interviews on film as well. Gilmore had
scared her. He'd already shown a violent side, she later related, and
now this. She didn't know what to do.
Gilmore had moved into her rented home in Spanish
Fork, near Provo, but things weren't always so good. He often took a
drug, Fiorinal, for headaches and he drank all the time, which created
sexual dysfunction, an inability to think clearly, and a great deal of
frustrated anger. He was impulsive and demanding, and there were times
when Nicole was actually afraid of him, though she loved him. Once when
he'd picked her up she'd had the feeling of an evil presence emanating
from him. She thought he might be the devil, and there were times when
he acted like he was. He even claimed he knew Charles Manson.
Finally it all just got to her. She just took her two
children and went to live in an apartment five miles away. Gary went
looking for her. He was in a state. She wasn't going to run out on him.
He told his cousin Brenda he might just kill her. But he couldn't find
her. On top of that, he was now deeply in debt with no clear way out…except
the only way he knew. He'd been free less than three months and already
he couldn't cope.
Mailer interviewed the families of Gilmore’s victim’s
and Gilmore’s friends to put together the following accounts:
On Monday, July 19, 1976, Max Jensen went to work as
usual at the self-service gas station in Orem, Utah. His shift went from
3 in the afternoon until 11. He was just there until he could find a job
that paid more so that he and his new wife could get a little security.
At around the same time that Max was going through the routines of his
job, Gilmore learned that no one would co-sign on the truck for him, so
he insisted that he himself could pay it off within a few weeks.
Conlin assured Gilmore that he would repossess the
truck at once if the payments weren't made. Then Gilmore left with the
truck and headed toward Nicole's mother's house. Nicole wasn't there,
but her mentally unstable younger sister, April, had a crush on Gary and
was happy to go for a ride in his new truck. She told him she wanted to
stay out all night. Angry and hurt by Nicole, as he later said in
letters to her, he was pleased to oblige. Around 10:30 that evening, he
told April he wanted to make a phone call. He left her in the truck and
walked away. She had no idea where he was going.
Gilmore went around the corner, out of her sight, and
into the Sinclair service station. He spotted the attendant and quickly
saw that no one else was around. He walked up to the man, whose
nameplate read "Max Jensen" and pulled out a .22 Browning Automatic. He
instructed Jensen to empty his pockets, which the young Mormon quickly
did. Then he told Jensen to go into the bathroom and lie down on the
floor with his arms under his body. Jensen got into the position. He was
obeying everything that Gilmore said. Then inexplicably, Gilmore put the
gun close to Jensen's head. "This one is for me," he said, and fired.
Then he placed the muzzle right against Jensen's skull and shot him once
again, this time "for Nicole."
To his surprise, the blood spread fast and got on his
pants. He turned around and left the gas station, not even noticing the
wad of cash on the counter. His next move was to take April to see a
movie, "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest." Then they went over to
Brenda's. She thought Gilmore was strangely agitated. He had some
clothes that he didn't seem to want her to see. He didn't stay long and
she couldn't get over the feeling that something was up. Without further
explanation, Gary drove off with April and they got a room at a Holiday
Inn. While they slept, the hunt began for Max Jensen's killer. Around
11:00 p.m., a customer had found the body.
The Killing Continues
Ben Bushnell, 25, was the manager of the City Center
Motel in Provo, not far from Brigham Young University. He and his wife
lived on the premises with their infant son, and things looked promising
for Ben's future.
On Tuesday July 20, Gilmore had trouble with his new
truck, so he took it to gas station three blocks from his Uncle Vern's
house. Upon learning that a fix could take twenty minutes, according to
Norman Fulmer, the man who ran the gas station, Gilmore decided to run a
little errand. He walked down the street and saw the City Center Motel
next to Uncle Vern's. Emboldened by his previous murder, he got an idea.
He went into the lobby.
Ben had just come in from the store so he asked
Gilmore what he wanted. Gary told Ben to give him the cash box and get
down on the floor. Then he shot Bushnell in the head. But the man wasn't
dead yet. He lay there twitching and trying to move. Gilmore wasn't sure
what to do, but just then Bushnell's wife, Debbie, came out so Gilmore
grabbed the cash box and left. He pocketed the cash and placed the box
under a bush.
A block later, he took the gun he'd used by the
muzzle and shoved it into another bush, but something caught the trigger
and he took a bullet in the fleshy part of his hand, between the thumb
and palm. He went into the garage to get his truck and the owner, Norman
Fulmer, spotted the trail of blood. Then on the police scanner Fulmer
heard about an assault and robbery at a nearby hotel. He wrote down the
truck's license plate number and after Gilmore drove away, Fulmer called
it in. Patrol cars sped through town and SWAT teams turned out to track
and capture Gilmore. They figured he'd just killed a man for around
$125. Pretty much like the murder in Orem the night before.
Uncle Vern came out to see what all the excitement
was about, and it wasn't long before he realized that his nephew was
involved. Over the past month, he'd watched Gilmore go from bad to worse,
especially when he drank, and this brutal act seemed to cap his latest
escalation of acting out. Vern's wife called Brenda, and she in turn
called a police dispatcher she knew. Then Gilmore called her. He
admitted he'd been shot and needed help. He told her where he was.
Brenda sent the police to go get him. About the same time that they were
evacuating neighbors and closing in, Debbie Bushnell was learning that
the paramedics couldn't save her husband. He was dead.
Afraid that Brenda wasn't coming, Gilmore left the
house where he'd gotten some first aid and drove right through a police
roadblock. Then it dawned on the cops that he was the guy. They set out
after him and eventually ordered him to stop just outside Nicole's
mother's house. Gilmore gave up without a fight. He asked only that they
be careful of his wounded hand. Nicole was there. She went out and saw
him lying on the ground. Then she overheard the cops suggest that he'd
just committed two murders. She couldn't help but wonder if her leaving
him had something to do with it, but she also though he was one stupid,
Brenda soon learned that no one else had been hurt
and Gilmore was now in custody. She knew he'd hate her for it, and when
he asked her the next day why she had turned him in, she said, "You
commit a murder Monday, and commit a murder Tuesday. I wasn't waiting
for Wednesday to roll around." (This is her recollection as she
recounted it to both Mailer and the A&E crew.) While Gilmore eventually
accepted the fact that what he'd done was wrong and he deserved to be
punished, he never totally forgave her for this betrayal. When she
turned him in, she had effectively separated him forever from Nicole. To
his mind, she could have driven him to the border and let him go up to
Oregon. He didn't seem to get it.
Upon his arrest, Gary said that he'd talk with one
cop, Gerald Nielsen, and he freely spoke about his various interactions
with Gilmore in film and to Mailer. At the hospital, a test on Gilmore's
hand indicated that he'd recently held metal in it. Then it was set in a
cast. Nielsen then tried to get him to admit to the murders. He said
that he had not killed anyone and that he could account for his
whereabouts. He even said there were witnesses who would vouch for him.
The facts were, as he recounted them, that he'd come across a guy
holding up the man at the motel. He tried to stop it and got shot in the
hand for his trouble. On the night before, he'd been with April the
whole night and she'd be able to tell them that he hadn't killed anyone.
The story didn't check out; it was full of holes. In
fact, there was a witness who had seen Gilmore with the gun and the cash
box at the motel. April knew that Gilmore had left her to "make a phone
call." Then Val Conlin found Gilmore's stash of stolen guns. He called
the police and turned them in. Nielsen went back to try again. This time
Gary simply said he didn't know why he had killed the two Mormons. He
didn't have a reason. He admitted that if he hadn't been caught, he'd
likely have gone on killing. Not much later, he said that he ought to
die for what he'd done.
On August 3, at the preliminary hearing, prosecutor
Noall Wootton met Gilmore for the first time. Mailer indicates from
interviews that Wootton was impressed with the prisoner's intelligence,
and it struck him that this man embodied the system's utter failure to
rehabilitate. Gilmore would never be anything but dangerous---yet he
might have been so much better than that.
For the next few months, Gilmore and Nicole wrote
love letters to each other with great intensity, sometimes three a day.
She knew that he faced life in prison, and possibly worse, yet she
couldn't unhook herself from this enigmatic man who'd walked into her
life and changed it forever. They swore an eternal bond. By October,
everything was ready for trial. Since the case for the Bushnell murder
was the strongest, the prosecution concentrated on it. If need be, they
could go back and try Gilmore for Jensen's murder, but Wootton expected
to prove his case. He had plenty of witnesses, even without the
questionable confession. If Harry Houdini was really Gary Gilmore's
grandfather, as his mother had often intimated, perhaps he'd passed down
a few tricks on getting out of hopeless situations. Gilmore would need
Destined For Death
How does someone with talent and intelligence fall
into such a life? Why would Gary Mark Gilmore develop into a habitual
criminal who so thoughtlessly took the lives of two young men who'd done
nothing to him? In his case, the answer seems to lie with the turbulent
family in which he'd grown up; it had been full of fantasy and denial,
coupled with rampant and random abuse.
Years later, Gary's youngest brother, Mikal,
researched their family's history for his book, Shot in the Heart, to
see where things went wrong. His feeling was that Gary reminded their
father of his own failings in life and therefore got the brunt of the
man's anger. Gary's conduct disorders as a juvenile, coupled with his
compulsive personality, took the path of least resistance ---straight
into the narcissistic and remorseless depths of psychopathy. He never
knew when he'd get beaten, nor why, so he formed a notion of a harsh and
punitive reality that made no sense. In many ways, the prison system
itself was a metaphor of his father. No matter how he resisted and
reacted, he'd always get beat up.
Frank Gilmore Sr. was a con man and an alcoholic.
He'd married Bessie on a whim, and he'd had many wives and families
before her, none of whom he cared about or supported. They had a son,
Frank Jr., and then Gary came along while they were wandering aimlessly
through Texas under the pseudonym of Coffman to avoid the law. Frank
christened him Faye Robert Coffman, which Bessie quickly changed to Gary,
but this birth certificate proved to be a sore spot years later. Gary
thought he'd been illegitimate, deciding that this was the reason that
his father had never loved him.
Frank had many dark secrets and Bessie was a Mormon
outcast. They seemed to cling to each other to escape the realities of
their pathetic lives. Frank craved independence and would disappear for
long stretches of time. Bessie, for her part, did not allow the children
to touch or hug her, so there was emotional deprivation from both
parents. Yet Bessie did want security, so she persuaded Frank to settle
in Portland, Oregon, and open a legitimate business.
He actually succeeded at it and for a while they were
happier. Yet Frank drank heavily, which sent him into terrible rages.
He'd whip his sons severely. The boys soon learned that no matter what
they said or did, their father simply wanted to brutalize them, all the
while insisting that they love him. One time, Gary was abandoned on a
park bench while his father went to scam someone and he ended up in an
orphanage for several days.
As he grew older, Gary reacted. He began to despise
people in authority, and they in turn, treated him in a way that
reminded him of his father. Both parents turned a blind eye to his
problems, pretending they would just go away somehow. Neither respected
the law, and they would rather get their children off than let them
learn the consequences of their actions. The point at which
psychological intervention might have made a difference for Gary, Frank
refused to pay for it.
On top of all of this, Bessie had a deep-rooted
superstition about Gary that went back to her own childhood. She
believed that as a girl playing with a Ouija board, she had conjured up
a demonic ghost that had attached itself to her family. When one of her
sisters was killed and another paralyzed in an accident, she felt
certain it was the ghost. Then she married Frank and found out that his
mother, Fay, was a medium who could get spirits to materialize. One
night while at Fay’s house with three of her sons, including Gary, she
learned that there was to be a “special” séance to contact a spirit who
had died under the shameful suspicion of murder. Bessie stayed away.
After the ceremony, she found Fay in a state of
exhaustion with an expression on her face of great fear and helplessness.
She helped the older woman to bed, but later that night Bessie woke up
to the feel of being touched, and when she turned over, she was looking
into the face of a leering inhuman creature. She jumped out of bed and
saw Fay, an invalid, staggering toward her, insisting that she get out
now. “It knows who you are!” Fay shouted. Bessie ran to Gary’s room and
saw the same figure leaning over her son, staring into his eyes. She
grabbed the kids and ran. Fay died shortly thereafter and Gary began to
have terrible, shuddering nightmares that he was being beheaded. He was
certain something was trying to get him and the nightmares haunted him
the rest of his life.
Bessie saw the entity again in their house, and
that’s when Gary began to get into trouble. He continued having dreams,
swearing that something was in the room with him. Bessie concluded that
the thing had taken over her son’s soul. His life thereafter was filled
with angry, malevolent energy that seemed bent on self-destruction.
Whether influenced by a demon or by familial abuse, Gary developed a
death wish that guided his actions.
He seemed destined to die in some violent manner,
though he'd often heard his mother's horror stories of an execution that
she claimed to have witnessed as a girl. She'd been enraged that her
father had taken her, a mere child, to witness a hanging. She told this
story over and over. All of the boys believed that she'd really
witnessed this incident and it had left a deep impression on them. Yet
when Mikal researched it in Utah records, he realized that it was
impossible for her to have witnessed such an event. She had made it up,
possibly deriving this metaphor from her helplessness and anger. Yet it
was a fatal vision that may have marked her second son with a sense of
inevitability. Mikal concludes that the lies she told revealed terrible
psychological truths that became an unspoken emotional legacy for her
sons. They wanted to erase themselves from existence, and in fact, one
was murdered, one was executed, one dropped into a psychological coma…and
one (Mikal) became a writer.
Two public defenders, Craig Snyder and Mike Esplin,
took on Gilmore's case, but it looked pretty hopeless. There was an
eyewitness who placed him near the Bushnell murder with the cash box and
gun in his hand, and to top it all, he'd shot himself with the same gun.
Then there was his cache of stolen guns, not to mention his apparent
confession to a cop and later to his cousin. He'd told Brenda to tell
his mother "it was true." As vague as that was, the jury could construe
it as an admission of guilt. Their best hope was to find some legal
technicality and take it to an appeals court.
While Noall Wootton was asking for the death penalty
on the grounds that Gilmore was a danger to society should he ever
escape and a threat to other inmates if sent to prison, no one had been
executed in Utah for sixteen years. Wootton wasn't a death penalty
advocate, but he did believe there was no possibility for Gilmore's
rehabilitation. And even if he managed to get this sentence, he believed
there was small likelihood of its being carried out. Gilmore's trial
lasted only two days, starting on October 5, 1976.
The transcripts lay out the main events: An FBI
ballistics expert matched two spent cartridges and the bullet from
Bushnell to the gun left in the bush, a patrolman had traced Gilmore's
trail of blood to that same bush, and the witness named Gilmore as the
person he saw at the motel. The defense had no defense. When the two
lawyers quickly rested without calling witnesses, Gilmore protested.
The following day he asked the judge if he could take
the stand to present his own defense. He figured that, based on what
they had heard from the prosecution, it would take the jury less than
half an hour to convict him and he wanted the chance to tell his story.
He thought he had a good case for insanity. After all, he'd felt
completely dissociated during the commission of the crime, like it was
inevitable and he couldn't have done anything differently. He didn't
His lawyers stood up and indicated that they had
consulted four separate psychiatrists, all of whom had said that Gilmore
had known what he was doing and that it was wrong. While he did have an
antisocial personality disorder, which may have been aggravated by
drinking and Fiorinal, he still did not meet the legal criteria for
Faced with that, Gilmore withdrew his request. He
seemed suddenly to resign himself to the hopelessness of his situation.
He'd already experienced some remorse for what he'd done but thought
he'd probably end up doing it again. Never had he felt so much pain as
that week without Nicole, according to what he said in his letters to
her, and he knew he'd have kept up the spree, mindlessly hurting others.
In closing, Wootton took pains to point out that Ben
Bushnell had been shot by a gun held directly against his head. It had
been no random shot but quite deliberate. Esplin countered with the fact
that Gilmore himself had been wounded by the gun going off accidentally.
It could have been the case that it had discharged accidentally in the
incident that had resulted in Bushnell's death, even if held against him.
Maybe Bushnell had moved suddenly. Since there are no eyewitnesses, who
was to say differently? He urged the jury to find Gilmore guilty of a
lesser crime of second-degree murder committed during a robbery, or even
to acquit him altogether.
On October 7, 1976, after an hour and twenty minutes,
the jury returned a verdict of Guilty of Murder in the First Degree.
Then after lunch, the sentencing phase—called the Mitigation Hearing--
began. Again, the defense lawyers were at a disadvantage, since it was
Gary's own family who had turned him in. Clearly they were afraid of him.
Brenda felt that Gilmore had betrayed her trust and that he ought to pay
for what he'd done. Getting good witnesses looked pretty hopeless. Yet
no one could have predicted at that moment that Gilmore's own worst
enemy in this regard would be himself.
At the end of the hearing, Gilmore was asked if he
had anything to say, with the expectation that he would show some
remorse, but all he said was, "I am finally glad to see that the jury is
looking at me." The sentence was death, arrived at unanimously, and to
be carried out on November 15, just over a month hence. Gilmore was
asked to choose between being hanged or shot by a firing squad. He chose
the latter, believing that a hanging could easily be botched. While his
attorneys prepared the expected course of action, Gilmore took the
Although his attorneys had every intention of running
an appeal, they told Mailer, Gilmore made up his mind to accept his due.
He fired Esplin and Snyder and hired Dennis Boaz, a lawyer from
California who had written to him on a whim in support of his desire to
go through with the execution. Boaz also revealed his interactions with
Gilmore to Mailer, who talked with various other people who’d spoken to
Boaz. Gilmore traded an exclusive interview for the man's services, but
as Mailer saw it, Boaz got hungry for the writer's life and started
talking too much to the media. Gary decided to fire him.
Yet the very idea that a man was going to be executed
stirred the residents of Utah into attention. This hadn't happened in
sixteen years. To top it off, in 1972 the U. S. Supreme Court had ruled
in the case of Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty as currently
applied was cruel and unusual.
Therefore, it was unconstitutional. All states were
ordered to commute death sentences to life imprisonment. There was no
more death row. Then four years later, after the states had revised
their laws, the Supreme Court made a series of rulings that allowed
capital punishment to be reinstated for certain types of murders. Thus,
as of July 2, 1976, just three weeks before Gilmore committed his
murders, such an act became a capital offense in Utah, and not without
considerable controversy. While the hiatus had only lasted four years,
it had been ten full years since the U. S. had executed anyone.
Then when Gilmore said that he did not wish to
appeal, the Attorney General, Earl Dorius, wondered if the court might
be caught in a net of its own making. Gilmore was supposed to be
executed within sixty days of sentencing. There were no provisions for
what might happen if they didn't get the deed done within the scheduled
time frame. They hadn't executed a man in so long he couldn't be certain
that they'd be ready in time. Dorius wondered if it was possible that,
on a technicality, Gilmore might just go free. In fact, as he indicated
to Mailer, he wasn't altogether certain how to put together a firing
Just a few days before his scheduled execution,
Gilmore argued his case before the Justices of the Utah Supreme Court,
insisting that he did not wish to spend his life in prison, particularly
not on death row. He thought the sentence was fair and proper and he
wanted to accept it like a man. "It's been sanctioned by the courts," he
said, "and I accept that." To his mind, it was his karma to die. He'd
had dreams of it all his life and had come to believe that he owed a
debt from a past life. The manner in which he was to die would be a
learning experience for others. That was all right with him. By a vote
of 4 to 1, the Justices granted his wish. He requested that his last
meal be a six-pack of beer.
But there were groups who could not abide such a
decision, either on Gilmore's part or on the part of the law. The
protests began at once, and his former lawyers felt duty-bound to
continue to file an appeal. When Gilmore's mother heard about it, she
told her youngest son. Mikal's comment, according to Mailer, was not to
worry. "They haven't executed anyone in this country for ten years," he
said, "and they're not going to start with Gary."
November 15th came and went. Associations against the
death penalty, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, intended to
stop this execution. They did not want such a precedent on the record of
the court giving in to a defendant and dispensing with the appeals
process. On behalf of the prison population, as well as future prisoners,
they felt they could not allow this procedure to continue in the
direction in which it was going. A Stay of execution was granted,
despite Gilmore's protests. He was ready to die. He wanted this over
Then he and Nicole formed a plan, which was
documented in their letters to each other. She also admitted to it later
in filmed interviews. Gilmore instructed her to go around to various
doctors to collect as many barbiturates as she could get. She managed 50
pills. Smuggling half in a balloon inside her vagina, she handed them
over to Gary. Then at midnight, she swallowed her dose. Gary was
supposed to do likewise, but he waited till closer to morning, which
gave the appearance that he wanted her to die while he was found and
saved. In fact they both survived, but now Nicole was effectively cut
off from her lover. There were to be no more communications between them.
Nicole was signed in to a psychiatric facility for observation.
In the meantime, the rights to Gilmore's story were
up for sale. He authorized Uncle Vern to negotiate, and he ended up
selling to Lawrence Schiller and ABC for $50,000, which Gilmore
distributed randomly among relatives and former associates from prison.
He fully expected to die in December.
Authorizing another lawyer, Ron Stanger, to speak on
his behalf, he went before the Utah Board of Pardons to plead his case
once more and ask all the religious and civil rights groups to butt out.
"It's my life and my death," he insisted on film. He hadn't realized
that no one had taken the sentence seriously. He didn't know it was all
a joke. He expected that if they were going to hand it down, they were
going to carry it out. As he spoke, his courage and anger were both
evident. He wanted this over with.
His execution was set for December 6, two days after
his thirty-sixth birthday. Then on December 3, Gilmore’s mother stepped
in. She was represented by the same lawyer whose rhetoric had convinced
the Supreme Court to stop capital punishment several years earlier until
the laws were changed. She requested a Stay on her son's behalf. He'd
been on a hunger strike ever since he'd been separated from Nicole, she
claimed through the lawyer, so he didn't know what he was doing. She
should be able to step in.
Gilmore composed an open letter to her, published by
the press, to ask that she allow him to get on with it. Ten days later,
the Stay was overturned and Gilmore ended his 25-day hunger strike. Upon
learning that he would still have to wait another month for his
execution, he tried once again to kill himself, but was found in time.
Then Mikal decided that he needed to try to stop the process. He went to
Utah to talk with his brother, describing the meeting in detail in his
book, and was ultimately convinced that Gary knew what he was doing and
wanted to do it.
On film, Mikal said that Gary had quoted Nietzsche to
him, that "a time comes when a man should rise to meet the occasion."
That's what he was trying to do. During their last meeting, Gary kissed
Mikal on the mouth and said, "See you in the darkness." Mikal left
without taking any further action.
Finally it was scheduled for January 17, 1977.
Overnight, the courts had continued to wrestle with the legal questions
before them. A federal court judge in Salt Lake City ordered a Stay, but
the Tenth Circuit Court in Denver set it aside. The ACLU continued to
protest this right up to the moment that Gilmore began his walk as a
dead man. Even as late as 7:30 a.m., Gilmore's fate hung in the balance.
It was the U. S. Supreme Court that finally decided the issue. The
execution was allowed to go on as scheduled.
The End and the Beginning
The night before he was to die, Gilmore had been
given plenty of drugs. His relatives visited and he was in good spirits.
Uncle Vern admitted on A&E that he’d brought him some whiskey, which
Gilmore drank down. Then Johnny Cash, his favorite singer, called and
sang him a song. Gilmore tried to sing it with him. Then he made a tape
for Nicole on which he asked her to kill herself for him. Finally, the
circus was over. All of those who believed the con was bluffing, that
he'd change his mind at the last minute, were in shock. Gilmore had
asked to be allowed to die and he was going to die.
At 8:00 a.m. on January 17, 1977, the volunteer
firing squad got into place. Four of the five weapons were loaded and
one would fire a blank. That way, each man would have some idea that
perhaps he was not the one who had ended another man's life. They placed
the barrels of their rifles through small square holes in a wall as
Gilmore was strapped into a chair. He gave his watch to Vern to give to
Nicole; he'd broken it at his estimated time of execution. A paper
target was placed over his heart and a black corduroy hood over his head.
He was strapped into the chair. The least movement could make the
bullets miss their mark. Mailer gives a full account of the final
minutes, which were also described on film by some of those who attended.
Asked for last words, Gilmore said, "Let's do it."
Then to the priest delivering last rights, he said in Latin, "There will
always be a father." The countdown began. Gilmore appeared calm. There
were three distinct shots. His head went forward into the strap, his
right hand delicately lifted, then dropped. The spectators he'd
requested to witness the event watched as blood flowed from his heart
down his shirt and onto the floor. The doctor went forward to listen,
and said that he was still alive. In twenty more seconds, it was over.
Three lives had been tragically wasted.
Bessie got the news that there had been a Stay, but
then she saw on the television that her second son, Gary Mark Gilmore,
had been executed. Some of his organs were donated before he was
cremated, and his ashes were spread in three designated areas of Utah,
including Spanish Fork. His immortal words, "Let's do it," opened the
door for other convicted criminals to be put to death.
Since 1977, there have been 711 executions in the
United States. [Katherine Ramsland has written a dozen books and
numerous articles, as well as publishing folklore and short stories.
After publishing two books in psychology, Engaging
the Immediate and The Art of Learning, she wrote Prism of the Night: A
Biography of Anne Rice. At that time, she had a cover story in
Psychology Today on our culture's fascination with vampires. Then she
wrote guide books to Anne Rice's fictional worlds: The Vampire Companion:
The Official Guide to Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, The Witches'
Companion: The Official Guide to Anne Rice's Lives of the Mayfair
Witches, The Roquelaure Reader: A Companion to Anne Rice's Erotica, and
The Anne Rice Reader. Her next book was Dean Koontz: A Writer’s
Biography, and then she ventured into journalism with Piercing the
Darkness: Undercover with Vampires in America Today. She has also
written for The New York Times Book Review, The Writer, Million: The
Magazine of Popular Fiction, The Newark Star Ledger, Magical Blend,
Publishers Weekly, and The Trenton Times. Her background in forensic
studies positioned her to assist former FBI profiler John Douglas on his
book, The Cases that Haunt Us. Ramsland holds master’s degrees,
respectively, in clinical and forensic psychology and a Ph.D. in
philosophy. She has been a professor at Rutgers University, a therapist,
and a psycho-educator specializing in the psyche's dark side.]
Executions Out of the Ordinary During the 1950s and
1960s 10 states, including Michigan and New York, abolished the death
penalty and the rate of executions nationwide began to decline. By 1968
executions had stopped and in 1972 the Supreme Court ruled, in the case
of Furman v Georgia, "that the imposition of the death penalty
constituted cruel and unusual punishment". But 35 states responded by
drafting new death penalty statutes and in 1976 the Supreme Court
reversed its decision, ruling that the punishment of death did not
violate the constitution provided that "guided discretion" was exercised
in imposing it.
In October 1976 Gary Gilmore was convicted of a
double murder in Utah and sentenced to death. Gilmore, who had spent
much of his life in prison, could not bear the prospect of spending
years behind bars and decided not to appeal the sentence. The American
Civil Liberties Union appealed on his behalf - and to his annoyance -
but on 17 January 1977 Gilmore was executed by firing squad, the first
execution in the US for a decade. Norman Mailer later wrote a book about
Gilmore, The Executioner's Song, which was made into a TV movie starring
Tommy Lee Jones.
By William Greider - The Washington Post
January 18, 1977
PROVO, Utah - Early this morning at the mountain
prison, attended by scribes and camera crews, the state of Utah
delivered Gary Mark Gilmore back to his maker. Gilmore was judged
defective as a human being in October. Last summer he murdered 2 Utah
citizens, a service station attendant named Max Jensen and a motel clerk
named Bennie Bushnell.
While in prison awaiting execution, Gilmore twice
tried to kill himself and insisted that the legal authorities proceed to
do it for him without further delay. This morning the government of Utah
complied, despite a last-minute legal flurry from civil liberties
lawyers. It was done as tastefully as possible under the circumstances.
Gilmore was taken to a cinder block shed, strapped in a chair and shot.
As easy as pouring blood into water. Gilmore, alive
for 36 unsuccessful years, attained celebrity by being the subject of
the 1st American execution in nearly a decade. His official last words
to the warden, witnesses and 5 anonymous gunmen with their .30-cal.
rifles was: "Let's do it."...
It was an unpleasant spectacle -- not the killing
itself, which was done in privacy, but the swarming attention and
brittle humor of the news media, which, after all, made Gilmore into a
mythical creature larger than his real self, perhaps made him even
enviable to others with freakish wishes for self-destruction. For those
who need to know these things, Gilmore bled profusely when shot. The
prison people pinned a paper target to his clothing, over his heart, and
4 riflemen hit it (1 of the 5 had a blank in his gun though nobody is
supposed to know which one).
The scene was then cleaned up a bit before the press
was taken in to look it over. Some sort of gravel was spread around the
platform to cover the blood stains under the black leather arm chair.
The chair had been wiped clean but it had 4 bullet holes in its back,
stained with blood, and there was a drying trickle of blood on the
plywood board behind where Gilmore had sat. The 4 slugs are presumably
still buried in the backstop of sandbags and a flowered mattress --
valuable souvenirs if anyone takes the trouble to retrieve them.
Gilmore, it was reported by an eyewitness, did
nothing untoward at the moment of his death. He did not quiver with fear.
He did not shrink from the black corduroy hood placed over his head and
shoulders, did not struggle or cry out at the last moment. His head
turned slightly when he was shot. His body shrugged a trifle. That's all.
Norman Mailer, Gary Gilmore, and the Untold Stories
of the Law
By Simon Petch
Australian Humanities Review
Early in the morning of Wednesday July 21 1976 Gary
Gilmore was arrested in Provo, Utah, on suspicion of the murder of a
motel owner in Provo on the previous Tuesday evening, and of a gas
station attendant, in nearby Orem, on the Monday night. At the time of
the killings Gilmore was on parole from a twelve-year sentence for armed
robbery, and was being harboured by relatives.
He was effectively turned in by his cousin Brenda
Nicol, who told him, by way of explanation: "You commit a murder Monday,
and commit a murder Tuesday. I wasn't waiting for Wednesday to come
around". In October of the same year Gilmore was tried, convicted, and
sentenced to death. Offered a choice as to the mode of execution, he
opted to be shot. Both victims had been Mormon, and, in the opinion of
his brother Mikal, Gary exercised his choice in knowing fulfillment of
the Mormon doctrine of Blood Atonement. 1
The sentence was carried out six months after the
murders: on Monday January 17 1977, a few minutes after 8am local time,
Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in a disused cannery in Utah
State prison. It was the first judicial homicide in the United States
for ten years, and it had not, from a legal point of view, been easy to
The date first set for the execution had been
November 15 1976, and on November 1 Gilmore announced his intention not
to appeal against his sentence. His refusal to appeal galvanised the
American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People to make strenuous attempts to stop this
execution, on behalf of the many prisoners on death row throughout the
United States for whom it could be a fatal precedent.
Several judicial Stays delayed the execution for two
months, and the appeals continued until the end. Within ten minutes of
the time scheduled for the execution, the ACLU--in extremis after a
night of legal turmoil in which a Stay ordered in Salt Lake City by a
Federal Court judge had been set aside by the Tenth Circuit Court in
Denver--unsuccessfully petitioned the Supreme Court in Washington for a
final Stay of execution.
More than a dozen years before the Gilmore case,
Truman Capote compared "the system of appeals that pervades America
jurisprudence ...to a legalistic wheel of fortune, a game of chance ...that
the participants play interminably, first in the state courts, then
through the Federal Courts until the ultimate tribunal is reached--the
United States Supreme Court. But even defeat there does not signify if
petitioner's counsel can discover or invent new grounds for appeal;
usually they can, and so once more the wheel turns ...But at intervals
the wheel does pause to declare a winner--or, though with increasing
rarity, a loser". 2
Gilmore's unwavering refusal to play the game put him
in the paradoxical position of a defendant who apparently agreed with
the prosecution. It consequently put a spoke in the wheels of justice by
jamming the usual process of argument and counter-argument through which
the adversarial discourse of the law sustains itself. This denial of
habitual procedure led to near panic in the legal institution, but the
law came to its own rescue: the courts of Utah and the Federal Tenth
Circuit Court between them restored some semblance of an adversarial
context through which the untidy legal plot could be knocked into the
shape of a judicial narrative.
The appeals process exhausted itself at about the
same time as the triggers were due to be squeezed, and, as if in
gracious acknowledgment to all concerned, the United States Supreme
Court provided the closure that is the necessary constraint of all legal
story-telling. Gilmore had fought the law and won, but he could only win
by losing, and so the law itself could reasonably claim victory too.
Gilmore's paradoxical position of having to lose the
game in order to win it, and his disturbance of the processes by which
legal stories are produced, suggested imaginative spaces in which
alternative stories about him could be told. In The Executioner's Song (which
follows Gilmore from his release on parole in April 1976 to his
execution nine months later), Norman Mailer gives shape to some
alternative stories by exploiting the tension between legal and other
ways of talking about Gary Mark Gilmore.
The Executioner's Song, which Mailer calls a 'true
life story', is on the cusp of legal and novelistic discourses. Its
fictive methods play law and literature against each other. As it draws
out the stories which lie just beneath the surface of legal narrative--stories
which the law suppresses because it apparently has no interest in them--the
novel amplifies that which the law would suppress or exclude. And in
these processes the novel challenges the authority of legal story-telling.
On July 22 1976, the day after his arrest for murder,
Gilmore made a private call (from the police station in Orem, to which
he had been transferred) to Brenda Nicol. The call was important to
Gilmore's trial, and also to The Executioner's Song, in which Mailer's
first account of this call is economical and direct: Brenda said, 'Gary,
you're going to go down hard this time. You're going to ride this one
clear to the bottom.' He said, 'Man, how do you know I'm not innocent?'
'Gary, what's the matter with your head?' 'I don't know,' Gary said, 'I
must have been insane.' Brenda asked, 'What about your mother? What do
you want me to tell her?' He was quiet for a while. Then he said, 'Tell
her it's true.' Brenda said, 'Okay. Anything else?' 'Just tell her I
The evident clarity of this conversation was muddied
in the courtroom, where Gilmore's words came back to haunt both him and
Brenda through her testimony at his trial. Her very presence at the
Preliminary Hearing (the first stage of the trial) created
misunderstanding, for Gilmore thought she was there to see him, although
she had in fact been called as a witness by the prosecution. She "told
of the phone call Gary made from the Orem Police Station", Mailer wrote.
"'I asked him what he would like me to tell his mother,' Brenda had said
on the stand. 'He said, I guess you can tell her it's true.' Mike Esplin
[for the defence] tried to get Brenda to agree Gary meant it was true he
had been charged with murder. Brenda repeated her testimony and took no
sides. Gary found that hard to forgive". Esplin intensifies the
situation for Brenda by trying to pin her down to a particular
interpretation of Gilmore's words, but she refuses to agree, and the
refusal creates tension between her and Gilmore.
The increasing complication of the relationship
between Gilmore and Brenda is rendered through the thickening of the
narrative style, and is beautifully suggested by the final sentence. By
expressing Brenda's unease about Gilmore's response to her testimony, "Gary
found that hard to forgive" tells us much as about Brenda's feelings as
it does about Gilmore's; it subtly shifts the legal discourse of the
courtroom exchange into an exploration of the relationship between the
The feelings of both are indirectly rendered through
Brenda's apprehension about Gilmore's response, and Mailer's economical
sentence moves freely between them. As a narrative device through which
he can explore alternative dimensions of meaning latent in but
suppressed by legal discourse, such free indirect discourse is Mailer's
most powerful counter-legal strategy. It enables him to take the reader
away from the determinate jurisdiction of the court, and to bring other
systems of value into play. 3
The gradual reworkings of the telephone conversation
as testimony take increasing account of Brenda's feelings, and the legal
interpretation of Gilmore's words becomes secondary to the more
emotionally-charged issues of loyalty and responsibility. Mailer
progressively nudges Brenda's testimony into the meanings it has beyond
the law, and as the conversation is transferred from the police station
to the court its imprecision bristles with the complexity of Gilmore's
relationship with Brenda.
Brenda Nicol's conscience, and her sense of social
responsibility, are significantly non-legal points of reference
throughout The Executioner's Song, and she was also one of the main
sources of Mailer's information about Gilmore's life between his release
from prison in April 1976 and his arrest three months later. Mailer must
have learned about the phone call and the testimony from her. As far as
possible in The Executioner's Song Mailer presents Gilmore (whom he
never met) in his own words as they were recorded or remembered, and
reproduces them directly, as in this conversation.
This method permits Mailer's Gilmore to speak from a
number of positions to a number of audiences, whose responses or
reactions are then used as a commentary or gloss on what Gilmore says.
Such responses are usually given in the free indirect style described
above, a narrative technique which indicates Mailer's access to the
minds of his sources and which is used to establish relationship between
them and Gilmore.
As Gilmore's words are registered through the
particular and individual perspectives of those who heard him, this
technique creates an audience-effect. It enables Mailer to transcend the
legal discourse on which so much of the novel is based, and the meanings
that were closed off in court are opened and explored, in the novel, on
levels beyond the law. This is what happens both to Gilmore's words to
Brenda, and to Brenda's testimony, and these exchanges between them,
direct and indirect, richly illustrate the sensitivity of the novel's
discourse to the extra-legal levels on which the language of the law
Unlike Capote's In Cold Blood, Mailer could claim no
personal relationship with his subject, and he makes no attempt to mount
a case for him. But Mailer swerves most radically from his precursor in
that he claims no access to the mind of his subject beyond what he is
recorded as having written or said: The Executioner's Song uses no free
indirect discourse for Gilmore himself, whose meanings are interpreted
or rendered through what I have called the audience-effects of his words.
This method establishes Gary Gilmore less as a continuous personality
than as an enigma, whose multiple meanings are simultaneously increased
and delimited by the urgency and intensity of others' responses to him.
Like Capote, Mailer criticizes the ways and means by
which a trial narrative was produced. But the methods of Mailer's 'true
life story' are more radical than those of Capote's 'non-fiction novel'.
For by opening the ambiguous meanings of testimony and evidence into
fictional possibilities the novel challenges the hermeneutics of the law,
and through the epistemological insecurity afforded by its free indirect
discourse it suggests levels of meaning unacknowledged by legal
Brook Thomas has recently argued that literature,
like equity, exists in supplemental relation to the law, and has claimed
that literature should provoke us into new ways of understanding by
pointing to what he calls the untold story of the law. Such provocation,
claims Thomas, may "stimulate an audience to generate new ways of
constructing evidence, evidence that does not easily fit into accepted
public opinion, evidence that is not deemed admissible in existing
courts of law. If accepted, such evidence can alter a society's sense of
justice." 4 In The Executioner's Song the untold stories that gather
around Gilmore challenge both the interpretive practices of the law and
the justice dispensed by the institutions of the state, and liberate him,
not from his guilt, but from the 'legal processing' to which he was
Gilmore, who had been executed, autopsied, cremated,
and dispersed several months before Mailer signed his contract, is
continuously re-formed, in The Executioner's Song, as a series of
shifting reference-points in the complex socio-cultural network of the
United States of America in its Bicentennial year of 1976, in which the
Vietnam war is a bad dream from which the country has barely wakened,
and in which Mormonism is a long-surviving embodiment of the Old
Testament Puritan fundamentalism on which the country was founded. In
this, his Great American Novel of the seventies, Mailer's avowedly
fictive methods interrogate the unacknowledged fictions of the law, and
crack the codes of his country's conscience. By releasing the stories
the law did not know, or could not or would not tell, the rhetorical
strategies of The Executioner's Song endorse Shelley's famously radical
claim that poets--for which we can today read 'writers'--are the
unacknowledged legislators of the world.
[Simon Petch teaches Literature at Sydney University
and is a past president of the Literature and Law Association of
Notes and References
1. Norman Mailer, The Executioner's Song, 1979
2. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood: A True Account of Multiple Murder and
Its Consequences, 1965
3. The term 'free indirect discourse' is used here as it is defined by
Cohan and Shires, that is as a narrative mode which 'conflates monologue
and psycho-narration, with the narrator seeming to mimic the voice of
the character who functions as focalizer and focalized. For this reason
the narration is "free," not limited to what the character thinks
exactly, and "indirect," using language which the character himself
could conceivably use but narrating rather than quoting it.' Steven
Cohan and Linda M. Shires, Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of
Narrative Fiction (London: Routledge, 1988), 102.
4. Brook Thomas, 'Reflections on the Law and Literature Revival',
Critical Inquiry 17:3 (Spring, 1991), 537-38.
The Execution of Gary Gilmore
At eight minutes after 8:00 a.m on January 17, 1977,
Gary Mark Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in Draper, Utah. The
execution ended the life of a man who had killed at least two people and
who had spent 18 of his 36 years behind bars for various offenses. Two
aspects of the case kept it on the front pages for months. First, the
death penalty had been reinstated in the United States in 1976 (not
without controversy) after a 10-year hiatus and Gilmore was to become
the first prisoner to be executed. Second, he fought the justice system
to ensure he would be executed quickly.
In Cold Blood
Over the course of two nights in mid-July 1976, Gary
Gilmore murdered a motel owner (Bennie Bushnell) in Provo, Utah and a
gas station attendant (Max Jensen) in nearby Orem in an apparent attempt
to get the attention of his estranged girlfriend Nichole Baker. Both men
were forced to lie face down on the floor before he shot them in each in
the head at point-blank range.
In the early morning hours of July 21, 1976 Gary
Gilmore was arrested in Provo, Utah for the murders of the two men. At
the time of his arrest Gilmore was on probation from a 12-year sentence
for armed robbery and had been staying with relatives. He was turned in
by his cousin Brenda Nicol, who later told him "You commit a murder
Monday, and commit a murder Tuesday. I wasn't waiting for Wednesday to
One of the most remarkable aspects of the case was
the speed at which he went through the justice system. He was that he
was arrested in July, then tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by
October and the sentence was carried out in January. The pace was no
Multiple Suicide Attempts
Not satisfied with the amount of time the state was
taking to execute him, Gilmore tried to speed things up with repeated
suicide attempts (by drug overdose) and became front page news for this,
the attempts by others to stop the execution, and his own refusal to
make any appeals. He had said "Death is the only inescapable,
unavoidable, sure thing. We are sentenced to die the day that we are
born." His girlfriend Nicole also tried to take her own life at the same
time as him. She failed too and was placed in a mental hospital and was
not allowed to see Gary again. The only contact she had with him until
his execution was via letters.
His original execution date was November 15, but the
ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and the NAACP (National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People) - both death penalty
opponents - filed motions in the courts and multiple Stays were ordered.
But the final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on the morning of January
17th, 1977 was denied and Gilmore's wish to be executed was granted. It
had been only nine months since he had been paroled.
When asked if he had any last words by the warden, he
simply replied "Let's do this." As is the custom with a firing squad,
four of the five rifles were loaded with real bullets and the fifth had
a blank (None of the members knows which gun is which. This leaves a
shadow of doubt in each member's mind about whether or not they really
killed him.) He was shot at 8:08 a.m. and pronounced dead a minute later.
His body was cremated and his ashes spread over three areas in Utah by a
family member in accordance with his wishes.
The Executioner's Song , a book written by Norman Mailer in 1979, is a must read if
you are interested in reading about the Gilmore case. The book, which
won a 1980 Pulitzer Prize, was later turned into a made-for-TV movie
starring Tommy Lee Jones, Eli Wallach and Rosanna Arquette. Jones won an
Emmy for his portrayal of Gilmore.
The Story of Gary Gilmore: Executioner's Song by
Norman Mailer and Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore
By Scott Vollum,
Doctoral Student, College of Criminal Justice, Sam Houston State
I submit these two books together because they are,
in many ways, good companions to one another. Together, these two books
provide you with a thorough history and analysis of a single criminal--Gary
Gilmore. After reading both of these books you feel like you actually
know and understand Gary Gilmore and what drove and motivated him to his
In Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize
winning novel, we are presented with the adult criminal life of Gary
Gilmore and the resulting execution that would be the first in America
since the Furman v. Georgia decision. The book starts with Gilmore
getting out of prison, follows his failed attempts at a "legitimate"
life, the events leading up to a killing spree, and the resulting path
back through the justice system.
This time, however, he would not be released back
into society. He was sentenced to death and in response demanded that
the sentence be carried out. He refused to cooperate in any attempt to
appeal his death penalty sentence and even went so far as to challenge
the system to put actions to their words. This is significant because no
one had been executed since the Furman case. Gary Gilmore would force
the hand of a system that was reluctant to begin executing people again.
Arguably, he opened up the flood gates for the
implementation of the death penalty in the decades that were to follow.
Executioner's Song paints a very thorough portrait of a man driven to
murder and to eventually demanding the end of his own life. In regard to
the Sutherland's three elements of Criminology: The making of law,
breaking of law, and reaction to the breaking of law, they are all
represented in this book.
Making of Law:
The representation of the making of law in
Executioner's Song is not explicit but the execution of Gary Gilmore
began a new era for the use of death as a punishment in American society
effectively making it part of law once again. Also, the question of
whether the state can force an individual to adhere to the appeals
processes so important in death penalty cases was asked. Ultimately,
there was a situation in which the offender was asking the state to take
his life. This raises a lot of potential legal issues surrounding the
death penalty. The door was closed on these issues when the execution of
Gary Gilmore was carried out. While these are not explicit examples of
the portrayal of the making of law, they were important events that
molded the way the death sentence is perceived and implemented under the
Breaking of Law:
The representation of the breaking of law is more
clear and pervasive in Executioner's Song. We are presented with a good
example of a life-course-persistent criminal in Gary Gilmore. We are
also presented with some good examples of Agnew's General Strain Theory
at work. Gary Gilmore is a man that wants things in life but does not
see the legitimate means to obtain them as existing for him. He feels
that the world is against him and reacts to this with anger and violence.
The many forms of strain that persisted throughout Gary Gilmore's life
resulted in frustration and anger that ultimately led to a murderous
Reaction to the Breaking of Law:
The reaction to the breaking of law is clear in this
book. This books depiction of Gilmore's adjudication and time spent in
prison and ultimately his execution are great examples of the system at
SHOT IN THE HEART
Shot in the Heart, too, presents us with the life of
Gary Gilmore. However, this book is written by his youngest brother and
presents us with a portrayal of Gilmore's childhood and life growing up
in a family with an abusive father. This book gives us the background
from which Gary Gilmore came and provides a deeper understanding of the
man presented to us so well in Mailer's Executioner's Song. What we
begin to see, as this book chronicles Gilmore's young life, is the
genesis of a murderer. The crime correlates of social class and family
are clearly analyzed in this very poignant account of a future
Killed by a firing squad just after 8 a.m. on Monday,
Jan. 17, 1977, Gilmore became the first convict to be executed in the
United States after a near-decade pause following a Supreme Court ruling.
Gilmore, who had asked to be executed, had been convicted of murdering
Bennie Bushnell and Max David Jensen, both shot during robberies. Asked
if he had any last words, Gilmore said, "Let's do it."
Gilmore, who had vowed not to flinch before the
firing squad, sat placidly, a hood covering his head, as five anonymous
gunmen armed with .30-caliber rifles took aim and fired. Four of the
rifles were loaded with live ammunition; one held a blank. Prior to his
execution, Gilmore drew attention with two suicide attempts by drug
overdose and his pleas for death.
Gilmore's uncle, one of the only people to have close
contact with the convict before his death said of the execution, "I
would like to say at this time, Gary, my nephew, died like he wanted to
die, in dignity. He got his wish to die. He died in dignity. That's all
I have to say." At the time there were 358 other Americans - including
four women - on death row throughout the country. Gilmore's death
publicly marked the resumption of executions in the United States.
Gary Mark Gilmore
(December 4, 1940 – January 17, 1977) was an American career criminal
who gained international notoriety as the first person executed in the
United States after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 after
Gregg v. Georgia lifted the four-year moratorium instated by
Furman v. Georgia.
Gary Mark Gilmore was born in a rural Texas town
in December 1940, the second of four sons. His parents drifted around
the country most of the time while he and his brothers were growing up,
with his father peddling and scamming people with phony magazine and
The Gilmore family settled in Portland, Oregon in
the early 1950s, where Gary Gilmore began getting into trouble with the
law, with offences ranging from shoplifing to assault and battery
charges. He dropped out of high school at age 15 and drifted across the
Midwest making a living out of robbing houses and stores.
He was convicted of armed robbery in Indianapolis,
Indiana in 1964, and received an 18-year prison sentence. He was
conditionally paroled in March 1976 and sent to Provo, Utah to live with
a distant cousin of his who tried to help him find work and make a
living for himself. But Gilmore's self-destructive nature soon got the
best of him, as he couldn't stay away from the quick and easy life of
crime as he saw it. Gilmore began stealing money and items from stores
Gilmore was convicted of killing Ben Bushnell, a
motel manager, in Provo, Utah on July 20, 1976. He had also been charged
with murdering Max Jensen, a Sinclair gas station employee in Orem, Utah
the previous day, but that case never went to trial apparently because
there were no witnesses. Gilmore's trial was held from October 5 to
October 7, 1976 — he was quickly convicted of the murder, mostly because
there was no defense on his part. The jury also recommended the death
penalty for Gilmore due to the special circumstances to the crime.
Because Utah then had two methods of execution, firing squad or death by
hanging, Gilmore was given a choice, in which he replied, "I'd prefer to
During the three months Gilmore was on death row
awaiting his execution, he attempted suicide twice. The first was on
November 16, 1976 and the second was a month later on December 16. The
execution was stayed three times. While incarcerated, Gilmore developed
a deep dislike for two of his fellow inmates, convicted murderers and
rapists Pierre Dale Selby and William Andrews, the "Hi-Fi Murderers."
Gilmore had to pass the men's cells on his way to the firing squad, and
as he was led past he laughed at the men and called out, "I'll see you
in Hell, Andrews and Pierre!"
Gilmore was shot by a firing squad on January 17,
1977, at 8:07 AM, after angrily telling his lawyers to drop the appeals
they had filed in defiance of his wishes. The night before, Gilmore had
requested an all-night gathering of friends and family at the prison
mess hall. On the morning of the 17th, he enjoyed a last meal consisting
of a hamburger, hard-boiled eggs, a baked potato, a few cups of coffee,
and three shots of whiskey. He was then taken to an abandoned cannery
behind the prison which served as the prison's death house. He was
strapped to a chair, with a wall of sandbags placed behind him to absorb
the bullets. Five prison guards stood concealed behind a curtain with
five small holes cut for them to place their rifles through which were
aimed at him. Gilmore's last words were: "Let's do it."
Gilmore requested that, following his execution,
his eyes be used for transplant purposes. Within hours of the execution,
two people received his corneas, inspiring the British punk rock band
The Adverts to write and release "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" later that year.
Gilmore's body was cremated.
According to Mikal Gilmore's memoir, Utah's
tradition dictated that five men comprise a firing squad - four of them
with loaded rifles and one with a gun containing a blank, so as to not
know who fired the fatal shot. Upon inspecting the clothes worn by Gary
Gilmore at his execution, Mikal noticed five holes in the shirt —
indicating, he wrote, that "the state of Utah, apparently, had taken no
chances on the morning that it put my brother to death" (p. 390).
References to the execution
Oakland-based performance artist Monte Cazazza sent out photos of
himself in an electric chair on the day of Gilmore's execution. One
of these was mistakenly printed in a Hong Kong newspaper as the real
execution. Cazazza was also photographed alongside COUM
Transmissions/Throbbing Gristle members Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey
Fanni Tutti for the "Gary Gilmore Memorial Society" postcard, in
which the three artists posed blindfolded and tied to chairs to
depict Gilmore's execution.
11, 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live featured the cast singing a
Christmas-themed medley enitled "Let's Kill Gary Gilmore For
Christmas." Among its more memorable lyrics are set to "Winter
Wonderland": "In the meadow we can build a snowman/One with Gary
Gilmore packed inside/We'll ask him, "Are you dead yet?" He'll say,
'No, man'/But we'll wait out the frostbite 'till he dies."
Gilmore's brothers, Mikal, wrote a memoir, Shot In The Heart,
that chronicles his relationship with his brother, and their often
troubled family history. In 2001, it was made into an HBO movie
starring Giovanni Ribisi, Elias Koteas, and Sam Shepard.