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For almost two decades, Andrew Valdez was legally prevented from talking to former client Ronnie Lee Gardner because the death-row inmate's appeals centered on his attorneys' alleged bungling of his murder trial.

As the execution date got close, Valdez thought Gardner was all out of appeals and wanted to see him one last time. But when he called the Utah State Prison in Draper, he learned that the killer's current lawyers were making a last-ditch attempt to get a reprieve from the courts, which once again blocked any contact between the two.

By the time Gardner's final appeal was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, it was too late. Less than five hours later, the 49-year-old killer was put to death by firing squad early Friday.

Valdez, now a 3rd District Juvenile Court judge, said Monday that he and Gardner had grown up in the same Salt Lake City neighborhood and knew of each other. But even with that connection, Gardner was a hard man to represent.

Valdez and his brother, James Valdez, were public defenders with a client who had committed a murder when he was being prosecuted in an earlier slaying.

"It was a difficult case on a day-to-day basis," Valdez said. "We had a client who had dug himself a hole."

Gardner was charged with capital murder in the shooting death of lawyer Michael Burdell during an April 2, 1985, escape attempt from a Salt Lake City courthouse. He had been brought there for a hearing on another capital murder charge stemming from the slaying six months earlier of Melvyn Otterstrom during a robbery.

The defense lawyers were able to strike a plea bargain in the Otterstrom case -- the one they thought was more likely to get death -- and Gardner received a sentence of five years to life in prison.

In the meantime, the Burdell murder case was moving quickly, with the trial judge denying motions for a change of venue or any delays, Valdez said. The trial began in 3rd District Court about six months after the slaying.

The Valdezes argued Gardner did not intentionally shoot Burdell but instead fired accidentally when he came across the lawyer in his frantic escape attempt. The argument failed to sway the jury, which returned a guilty verdict on capital murder after three hours of deliberations.

At the penalty phase, the defense used Gardner's possible brain damage and dysfunctional background, which included stints in foster care at a very early age and time in juvenile detention, to argue for life over death.

"The mitigation essentially was that the state of Utah had raised him," Valdez said. "His upbringing was all we had."

But Gardner didn't want evidence of any intellectual limitation or sexual abuse he suffered to come out and refused to cooperate, Valdez said. And some of the evidence was a double-edged sword, such as the harm he inflicted on other children while in foster care, he said.

The defense also had trouble finding mental-health experts who were willing to get involved in the case. Valdez said he "literally begged" one doctor to examine Gardner.

In the end, Gardner was sentenced to die. Years of appeals followed, with a central claim that the Valdezes were ineffective because they failed to present adequate mitigating evidence.

"We worked our heart out to try to help him," Valdez said. "Ultimately, being a public defender is a thankless job."

However, he added: "I'm not bitter about anything that went on. I don't have any regrets. I think we did the best we could with him. The facts were egregious."

Court after court rejected Gardner's claims. Throughout the years, Gardner occasionally tried to phone Valdez, who had to decline the call because appeals were still pending.

The judge noted Gardner's family visited the inmate in prison shortly before he was executed.

"Ultimately, his children and grandchildren got their chance to express their love for him," Valdez said. "I'm not sure Ronnie had a lot of love in his life. At least in the end there, he got that."

pmanson@sltrib.com

The case

Ronnie Lee Gardner, 49, was sentenced to die for killing attorney Michael Burdell during an April 2, 1985, escape attempt from a courthouse in Salt Lake City. He had been brought there for a hearing on charges in the 1984 robbery and slaying of Melvyn John Otterstrom at a Salt Lake City bar.

After a woman slipped him a gun, Gardner wounded bailiff Nick Kirk and fatally shot Burdell before being captured on the courthouse lawn.

Gardner also was charged with capital murder for killing Otterstrom, a husband and father who was a comptroller for the Utah Paper Box Co. by day and a part-time bartender in the evening. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder as part of a plea bargain and received a sentence of five years to life in prison.

An execution warrant was issued this spring after Gardner exhausted his appeals. In the last weeks of his life, his attorneys made last-ditch efforts to save the killer at the Utah Supreme Court, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole.

All appeals and pleas for clemency were rejected and Gardner was executed by firing squad early Friday.

Gardner's body cremated

The state released Ronnie Lee Gardner's remains Monday to his daughter.

Brandie Gardner said she planned to take the remains back to Idaho where she lives. She and other family members intend to wait a while before deciding whether to have a wake or a funeral.

"We've been through something very traumatic and we need some time to heal," she said.

A firing squad executed Gardner early Friday at the Utah State Prison for the murder 25 years ago of attorney Michael Burdell during a courthouse escape attempt.

Following the execution, the state medical examiner performed an autopsy as required by law. The state then honored Gardner's request that he be cremated.

Lisa Carricaburu

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