Crime History, Jan. 17, 1977: Gary Gilmore executed, marking return of capital punishment

On this day, Jan. 17, in 1977, convicted spree murderer Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in Utah, marking the return of capital punishment to the American justice system.

Gary Gilmore

Gary Gilmore

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty qualified as “cruel and unusual punishment,” mainly because states used it capriciously. The court ended the ban in 1976 as long as states created specific guidelines for imposing death sentences.

Gilmore had been in and out of prison most of his adult life for serious crimes. On the night of July 19, 1976, Gilmore shot and killed a Utah service station clerk, and the next night he murdered a hotel manager. He killed both victims even though they complied with his demands.

Gilmore was sentenced to death. He became an instant celebrity when he demanded that his sentence be carried out. He fought to have his execution, telling civil rights and religious leaders, “Butt out. This is my life and this is my death.”

His last words “Let’s do it!” later inspired the famous Nike “Just Do It” marketing campaign.

— Scott McCabe



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