In a stunning twist on the night before he was set to be executed, Ronnie Lee Gardner was found to have revealed his name as the man who killed a Southern California man after a 1968 visit to his home.
Gardner was set to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. Monday after a judicial trial that stretched over 24 years, years of appeals and appeals that stretched into a life beyond death row. But instead of remaining silent, he shocked family members, attorneys and even Gov. Haley Barbour in the final hours by admitting that he used the name “Ronnie Lee Gardner” when he killed Joseph Paul Franklin in San Bernardino County in 1968, according to a report by NBC News.
“In all the last night’s conversations, Ronnie Lee Gardner has reiterated his desire to come to terms with and accept the sentence of execution. But then, in the face of a lethal injection order issued by the governor and the law permitting all criminal defendants in the state of Mississippi to avail themselves of the appellate courts, Ronnie Lee Gardner requested a 15-minute furlough to go to a San Bernardino County Superior Court … where on July 1, 2012, he agreed to make a confession, to the satisfaction of a court which found that his confession to the murder of Joseph Paul Franklin was true,” U.S. District Judge Jose Linares wrote Monday.
“Not surprisingly, although Gardner expressed a desire to maintain the silence that has prevailed for nearly three decades, he did not identify himself as the person who committed the crime,” Linares continued. “At the time, Ronnie Lee Gardner was convicted of the murder of Karen Houser. He is now deceased. That denial does not solve the murder of Joseph Paul Franklin.”
Ronnie Lee Gardner has been on death row for the murder of Karen Houser.
In the last few days, those who had worked to save Gardner’s life testified about his progress in declining to fight for life at the last minute and executing his last appeals, saying he became more sympathetic as the years passed.
But Gardner, who passed away in his sleep at 6:44 a.m. Tuesday, left no final words.
“Judge Linares had a difficult choice to make, and chose the most consistent and intelligent decision he could,” said Reid Givens, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice. “It is an extremely bold move by a judge to make a secret order, and I don’t think there is anything in Mississippi or anywhere else that says a judge can just arrest and hold people and then make a secret order, especially in an execution case,” he said.
Tom Gardner, Ronnie Lee Gardner’s brother, said that although his brother has admitted his involvement in the 1967 murders of a Hollywood prostitute and a motel clerk in Mississippi, he remains staunchly opposed to capital punishment.
“You can be sure that I am deeply relieved and at peace knowing that my brother is no longer in a pit of agony and anguish. I know that he is in a better place. However, his death does not absolve me of a life sentence he has ordered for the crime that he carried out. I love my brother. His life was taken in the heat of anger that he believes is rightfully and should have been mine,” Tom Gardner said.
Jack Sullivan, a deputy U.S. Marshal and Ronnie Lee Gardner’s friend, said that he is relieved that the former murderer has finally accepted that he murdered the motel clerk in 1969.
“He accepted that he killed that woman. I think it’s better that way. He took responsibility for his actions. I’m glad,” Sullivan said.