What motivated Gary Mark Gilmore, 35, to insist that he be put to death in so dramatic a manner as the firing squad? Or unexpectedly try to cheat the state last week by swallowing an overdose of Seconals? The enigmatic killer’s case will be argued in psychiatric, as well as legal, circles for a long time as the U.S. considers reviving the death penalty, dormant for nine years.
Gilmore, who killed two men on successive nights in July, has asked for a method of execution that seems bizarre in 1976. The condemned man is strapped into a wooden chair. A black hood is lowered over his head and a target of black cloth is pinned directly on his heart. Twenty feet in front of him the barrels of five .30-caliber Winchester rifles protrude through a black mesh screen that hides the marksmen. Only four of the rifles contain real bullets. There is no provision for a coup de grace.
To the few people who know Gilmore well, the horror of that scene heightens the bravery—or lunacy, or exaggerated masculinity—of the man. His attempt to kill himself complicates the puzzle even further. (Gilmore’s girlfriend, Nicole Barrett, also overdosed the same day.) Cline Campbell, the Mormon chaplain of Utah State Prison, who visits Gilmore every day, says: “I am convinced that his desire to be executed is sincere and sane.” The chaplain told Salt Lake City’s Deseret News that Gilmore, who had been in reform schools and prisons from his 14th year until he was paroled last April, feels remorse. His two victims were strangers to him—Max Jensen, 24, an Orem, Utah gas station attendant, and Bennie Bushnell, 26, a motel night manager in Provo. “They probably didn’t deserve to die,” Gilmore has said.
The second oldest of four brothers, Gilmore was born Dec. 4, 1940 in McCamey, Texas. His father was Frank Gilmore, a publisher who drank heavily and died in 1962. He raised Gary as a Catholic, but the boy heard about Mormon beliefs from his mother. Though he since has studied a number of religious ideas, Gilmore belongs to no church. “He believes in a life after death,” says Chaplain Campbell, “at least that he is going someplace and report. And he believes that if he voluntarily gives his life, it will pay the price somewhat.”
Dennis Boaz, Gilmore’s court-approved counsel, agrees. (Gilmore dismissed two court-appointed lawyers when they appealed his death sentence.) “He believes that the soul evolves,” Boaz says, “and there is reincarnation, and that the manner in which he dies can be a learning experience for others.”
The only women Gilmore, a sometime poet and artist, seems to care about are his mother and Nicole. They agree he should die if he wants to. Nicole, a 19-year-old mother of two, walked out on Gilmore, setting off the drinking spree that culminated in the killings. Nonetheless, she went along with his notion that they should marry before his execution. Nicole said death “is his right; he believes in it, he wants it, and I just want what he wants.”
His widowed mother, who lives in a trailer park in Milwaukie, Oreg., remembers Gary as a Cub Scout whose hero was Gary Cooper: “He’s 35. He has walked around the brim of hell. He can make up his own mind. I love Gary very, very much, and I don’t want to see him die, but I won’t interfere.”