Gary Gilmore was born in Texas in 1940. His father was an abusive alcoholic and a con man whose violence and contempt for the law was passed on to his son. After committing a series of escalating petty crimes in Oregon during his teens, Gilmore was sent to reform school and later served his first stretch in prison. By the age of 35, he had spent half his life incarcerated. After receiving a conditional release in May 1976, Gilmore moved in with a cousin in Provo, Utah, and briefly led a normal life. However, two months later he killed two men in cold blood during separate robberies and was arrested shortly thereafter. Found guilty of first-degree murder in his October 1976 trial, Gilmore chose not to appeal his death sentence. His case became a rallying point for opponents of the death penalty, and his execution was delayed for a time. He was executed by a firing squad in January 1977.
Born Into Trouble
Gary Mark Gilmore was born on December 4, 1940, in Stonewall, Texas. One of four children born to petty con man Frank and his wife Bessie, Gilmore endured a troubled childhood. The family moved constantly about the country while Frank plied his criminal trade, creating an unstable environment exacerbated by his alcoholism and physically abusive rages.
By the time Gary was 10, they were living in Portland, Oregon, and Gary was beginning to show signs of trouble. Having absorbed his father’s disregard for the law, and deeply scarred by his explosions of violence, Gary himself set off down a criminal path, committing various petty crimes that increased in seriousness over time. When he was in his teens he was arrested for auto theft and spent time at the MacLaren Reform School for Boys, eventually being held at the Oregon State Correctional Institution as an adult.
A Life of Crime
But Gilmore’s punishment did nothing to deter him from future offenses. On the contrary, his crimes only grew more serious in nature, escalating to armed robbery and assault, and he was soon spending as much time in prison as out of it. Yet despite his propensity for violence, Gilmore was also extremely intelligent and devoted many hours of his incarceration to writing poetry and creating artwork. In 1972 these talents earned Gilmore a conditional release so he could attend art classes at a community college, but he quickly committed another robbery and was sentenced to nine more years.
While serving his time in a maximum-security facility in Illinois, Gilmore began a correspondence with his cousin Brenda Nicol, who became convinced that Gilmore deserved a second chance. In 1976, he was again conditionally released, this time to live with Nicol in Provo, where she would help find him work and give him the support he needed to reform. However, after a brief attempt at a life on the straight and narrow, Gilmore fell back into his old habits and began a downward descent that would spiral out of control.
While living in Provo, the 35-year-old Gilmore began a relationship with 19-year-old Nicole Baker Barrett, but when his behavior became increasingly threatening, she left him a few months later. Their split only served to underscore Gilmore’s inability to adjust to life on the outside.
On July 19, 1976, Gilmore robbed gas station attendant Max Jensen at gunpoint in Orem, Utah. Despite that fact that Jensen complied with his demands, Gilmore shot him in the head twice and killed him. The very next day in Provo, Gilmore robbed motel manager Ben Bushnell, who, like Jensen, complied with Gilmore’s demands but was shot and killed nonetheless. Gilmore accidentally shot his hand during the incident, and when the mechanic who was repairing Gilmore’s truck noticed the fresh wound, he notified the police. Seeking help with his injury, Gilmore contacted his cousin, but she called the police as well. Gilmore was arrested on the edge of town shortly thereafter.
Execution by Firing Squad
Though he admitted killing both Jensen and Bushnell, due to the lack of evidence in Jensen’s murder Gilmore was only tried for the murder of Bushnell. The case went to trial on October 5, 1976, and lasted just two days. After a brief deliberation, the jury found Gilmore guilty of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to death. Given a choice in the mode of his execution—firing squad or hanging—Gilmore opted to be shot. The sentence was to be carried out the following month.
When Gilmore’s lawyers subsequently attempted to appeal his case, Gilmore fired them, choosing instead to accept his fate. However, his refusal to appeal galvanized the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to make strenuous attempts to stop the execution, on behalf of the many prisoners on death row throughout the United States.
During the ensuing legal wrangling, Gilmore twice attempted suicide, and then went on a hunger strike in protest of the delay. When his mother tried to intervene on his behalf, he also had a letter published in the press to ask her to stop. On January 17, 1977, Gilmore was executed by a volunteer firing squad in the Utah State Prison in Draper.
Gilmore was the first man to be executed in the United States in 10 years, and the first after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. Since 1977, there have been more than 1,400 executions carried out in the United States. Gilmore’s story and the events surrounding his execution served as the subject of Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Executioner's Song, published in 1979. A TV-movie adaption of the book starring Tommy Lee Jones as Gilmore and Rosanna Arquette as Barrett was released in 1982.
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