The Curious Case of Gary Gilmore

There are very few people, if any, who embraced capital punishment the way Gary Gilmore did. Not only did he wave away the chance to save his own life, he appeared to have purposely engineered the events leading up to his death. His pulsating story was portrayed in Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Executioner’s Song, further adapted to screen, in the 1982 film.

On July 19, 1976, in Utah, Gary Gilmore robbed and killed a gas station attendant, Max Jensen. The very next day he repeated the same crime; a motel manager, Ben Bushnell, being the victim this time. In both cases, he admitted that he didn’t have to kill the victims (who were totally compliant with him), but he did anyway. He was immediately caught; then tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. However, at the time, there had been no executions in the country for 10 years, due to a moratorium that’d been imposed on capital punishment. When Gary Gilmore was sentenced to death, it was expected that he would use this to his advantage, and escape death row. In what would be a sensational—and pivotal—moment in US history, Gary Gilmore pressed for his own execution. Then on January 17, 1977—after sacking his lawyers who tried to appeal his case and denouncing all movements engineered to stop his execution—Gary Gilmore finally faced a firing squad. His last words: “let’s do it”. (Pun fact: those were the words that inspired Nike’s Slogan: “Just do it”.)

Gary Gilmore spent almost half of his entire life behind bars. A criminal life that’d begun with petty crimes soon developed into armed robbery and assault. For him, it was a life of drinking and crime; attributes he inherited from his father, who died while he was in prison. His father’s death would plunge him further into violence, with hints of antisocial personality and psychotic disorders. All these translated into the fact that he couldn’t deal with freedom. But Gary Gilmore was an intelligent man and often displayed ability of someone who could make it outside the prison walls. That was why he got an early release while serving a 9-year jail term, when his cousin vouched for him. It was during this release, however, that the murders happened. Gary Gilmore practically made a bloody statement, and the intent, according to Dr. John C. Woods, one of the psychiatrists who examined Gilmore, was that: “knowing he did not want to return to prison, he took the steps necessary to turn the job of his own destruction over to someone else. He went out of his way to get the death penalty; that’s why he pulled two execution‐style murders he was bound to be caught for”.

Gary Gilmore did suffer a turbulent childhood; a criminal role model for father, and a mother who’s described as a repressive figure. Probably urged on by mental disorders, he led a life of a criminal mastermind. But, the clarity with which he concluded the latter part of his life was quite strange. Many would have even thought him dignified, to face his ultimate punishment the way he did. But, it is his compulsiveness that strikes out more. This was a man who killed unlawfully, so he could be killed in return, albeit by the law.

Are there any inklings of human nature in Gary Gilmore’s case? Probably.

Admitted, circumstances beyond our control may set us on ugly trajectories. But the choices we make along the way will determine how we ultimately go down in history. The methods we employ in getting our desires do matter as well. Sometimes, we tend to be carried away by our motives, so much that we fail to put into account how much we hurt other people. Gary Gilmore’s life—and death—was the case of a man who saw some kind of redemption in the macabre. His attorney, Dennis Boaz, quoted by The New York Times, revealed that Gary Gilmore admitted to feeling guilt about his crime, “and his execution by the firing squad will help clear away his sins”.

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