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Gary Gilmore Executed

By Patrick Mondout

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 come around."

Speedy Trial

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 accident.

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.

Multiple Appeals

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.

Firing Squad

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. 

Executioner's Song

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.

Shot In The Heart

Mikal Gilmore, Gary's younger brother, wrote a book about his family called Shot in the Heart in 1994. In 2001, HBO Films used the book for the basis of a film. Here is HBO's description: "January, 1977. Gary Gilmore is about to become the first convicted murderer to be executed in a decade. His youngest brother, Mikal Gilmore, can help prevent the execution, but first he has to get to know the brother he barely remembers. Deep in the bowels of a dark prison, they discover their shared past, born of a brutal father, raised in a family haunted by death, religion and superstition. Outside the prison, a media storm is raging fueled by television, newspapers and magazine covers. But inside the prison, another storm is brewing, fueled by the buried anger of a tortured son about to meet his brother and his fate."



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"I have a story to tell. It is a story of murder told from inside the house where murder is born. It is the house where I grew up, a house that, in some ways, I have never been able to leave." --Mikal Gilmore is a Rolling Stone writer and the youngest brother of murderer Gary Gilmore. He wrote Shot in the Heart in 1994. HBO made it a movie in 2001. You can buy it here.

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