The U.S. Supreme Court has denied Ronnie Lee Gardner's final appeals, setting the stage for his execution to go forward just after midnight on Friday.
Earlier on Thursday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert had turned down a request to exercise his authority to temporarily halt the execution until Gardner could be awarded another commutation hearing.
For the past 24 hours, Gardner's legal team has fought non-stop to save the killer's life. They argued in the court for a stay of execution and a new sentencing on several grounds, citing an allegedly biased hearing before the Board of Pardons and Parole and claiming that no state court had ever fully reviewed all the mitigating evidence that likely would have given him a life sentence.
With each denial by a judge or an appeals court, they kept going higher. Finally, the nation's highest court turned down three appeals by Gardner that were pending.
The request to Herbert alleged that Gardner did not get a fair hearing last week because a lawyer from the Utah Attorney General's Office was acting as legal adviser to the board -- which has the power to reduce the death sentence to life in prison without parole -- while other lawyers from the office were arguing for his execution.
The five-member Utah Board of Pardons and Parole unanimously denied Gardner's petition for commutation in a three-page decision earlier this week.
The conflict-of-interest argument failed to sway U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell in Salt Lake City, who rejected a request earlier this week to stay the execution. On Thursday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld her decision and Gardner's legal team immediately filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
A few hours later, Herbert denied a respite.
"Upon careful review, there is nothing in the materials provided this morning that has not already been considered and decided by the Board of Pardons and Parole or numerous courts. Mr. Gardner has had a full and fair opportunity to have his case considered by numerous tribunals," he wrote.
The governor does not have the authority to issue a pardon or to commute Gardner's sentence, only to grant a respite until another commutation hearing can be held.
By then, only three U.S. Supreme Court petitions asking for a stay of execution remained. They asked the high court to overturn the Thursday's 10th Circuit decision; a 2007 ruling by Campbell denying a request for a new sentencing; and two recent decisions by the Utah Supreme Court.
Those decisions upheld the issuance of the execution warrant and rejected the argument that Gardner should get a new sentencing hearing because his lawyers allegedly failed to present adequate mitigating evidence that could have gotten him a life sentence.