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A service station in Utah County

On the morning of 17th January 1977, Gary Gilmore was strapped to a chair in Utah State Prison, a black hood placed over his head, before being executed by firing squad. Such was the notoriety surrounding the event, and Gilmore’s troubled personality, that singer Johnny Cash reportedly sang to him over the phone the night before. The crimes – the killing of a petrol station attendant and the manager of a motel, might well have faded into judicial obscurity had it not been for the intense media interest surrounding the case. At the time of Gilmore’s arrest and trial, there had not been an execution on U.S. soil in over ten years.

Granted an initial stay of execution by the Supreme Court, Gilmore shocked the authorities by firing his defence team and demanding the sentence be carried out. Media speculation increased, enabling him to sell his story for $50,000, thus earning the case worldwide attention and according him folk hero status, a role he was little prepared for.

The fascination didn’t end there.  Shortly after Gilmore’s death, author Norman Mailer came across a raft of papers relating to the case. Intrigued by the material – interviews between family members and law enforcement officials present during the trial – Mailer wrote a 1,000 page account of the crime.  The story framed Gilmore’s tragic tale and secured Mailer the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1980.

The Executioner’s Song faithfully records the events surrounding the crime in painstaking detail. What lingers is a sense of ordinariness. Mundane, working class lives doing their best to survive in hard times. Gilmore, born to an alcoholic father and a repressed, emotionally distant mother, soon began a life of petty crime. By the age of fifteen, he’d spent a year in Reform School and, like so many troubled young men before him, looked set for the State Penitentiary.

Criminal psychologists might argue that the dye was cast early on. The classic case of dispossessed youth, hardened by the system and denied the care of a loving family. And yet, Gilmore had talents in other areas. His artistic skills, developed in prison, won prizes and helped secure his early release in 1972. But, rather than pursue this aptitude, perhaps intimidated by the high expectations of others, he soon re-offended and was sent back to prison.

The criminal world has been a continuing source of fascination to the general public for centuries. The more violent and prolific the criminal, the greater the interest in his life and background. The names of serial killers, mobsters and outlaws have long passed into folklore, earning them equal billing with Statesmen and Senators. Gary Gilmore’s crimes were unplanned and opportunistic, two senseless murders that earned him little more than a few dollars, grabbed from a cash box during the height of the act. Had his stay of execution been upheld, he would most likely have faded into obscurity, dying in prison some years later of illness or old age. Instead, he became a celebrity, feted by the media, even becoming the subject of a UK punk rock song.

The criminal underworld requires a sudden and dramatic finale for inclusion in its Hall of Fame. Bonnie and Clyde, riddled with bullets in a police ambush. John Dillinger shot dead in an alley outside a cinema. Gary Gilmore’s end was no less memorable, and yet his career as a criminal had been largely unsuccessful. The victims, young men murdered in their prime, earned little more than a footnote in the ensuing drama. Bit-part players, unfortunate enough to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Where does this leave the casual observer? Perhaps, in a strange way, we seek to understand ourselves through the crimes and excesses of the men and women who commit them? In these people, we see the extremes we are all capable of, while comforting ourselves that we would never go that far, that such actions are beyond our capabilities. But the dark side is always there. What would it take for us to cross that line?

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