Despite 'Evolving' Views of Death Penalty, 'Fierce Ethos of Eye-for-an-Eye' Still Strong in Utah

Western-based reporter Kirk Johnson's special obsession is the state of conservatism in the state of Utah, which is either (preferably) dying out or (regrettably) hanging on even as the world "evolves."

In the past Johnson has found newsworthy stories in the Mormon Church's support for a Salt Lake City gay rights ordinance for landlords, as well as the repeal of the state's liquor law. Stop the presses!

News of Friday morning's scheduled execution, by firing squad, of a convicted murderer is the subject of Johnston's latest excuse to check the political blood pressure of red-state Utah.

Thursday's "In Utah, Execution Evokes Eras Past" glimpsed hopeful signs of the state overcoming the "fierce ethos of eye-for-an-eye," but also indications that "steadfast belief in the death penalty" has not eroded.

First, Johnson twisted the famous execution of Gary Gilmore from the '70s into a segue into the "law-and-order" Reagan '80s:

The death penalty re-emerged here, behind the gray stone walls of the Utah State Prison in early 1977, in violence and blood. A murderer named Gary Mark Gilmore, famous even before the books about him died before a five-man firing squad, ending a national moratorium on capital punishment. The law-and-order era of the 1980s and '90s - if not quite by calendar, then by symbol and deed - had begun.


To many people living in Utah in 1977, the days leading up to Mr. Gilmore's death were filled with foreboding and strange, morbid exhilaration. Candlelight vigils were offered up in the chilly January air outside the prison. The national and international news media descended in full swarm.

To return on the eve of another execution is to see how much, and in other ways, how little, has changed.

A place once righteously confident in its world view and harsh in its judgment of places that seemed to have gone off the tracks in the 1970s - like New York City and the Rust Belt - is now more diverse and tempered by an influx of newcomers, and perhaps from hard times as well during the recession.

The national debate over capital punishment has evolved, too, especially in the last few years as states from New Mexico to New Jersey to Illinois have repealed the death penalty or halted executions.


While steadfast belief in the death penalty may have eroded for some, the fierce ethos of eye-for-an-eye - whether based on religion or the code of the West - is alive and well.


But even as the Gardner case is reminding some people of how Utah has changed, there are plenty of reminders of how it has not. The ideas of free will and personal responsibility - bedrock principles of conservative ideology, not to mention law enforcement - seem unshaken.

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