Gary Mark Gilmore was born in a rural Texas town on December 4, 1940, the second of four sons. His parents drifted around the country while he and his brothers grew up, his father earning a living selling advertising space in magazines. Relations between Gary and his father Frank were poor, his father being cold and indifferent to him as a child. Gary's brother Mikal later wrote that their father was "an often violent and unreasonable man." Frank's mother claimed that Frank was the illegitimate son of magician Harry Houdini, who rejected his paternity. Mikal has said he does not believe the story is true, but suspects that his father believed it.
The Gilmore family settled in Portland, Oregon, in the early 1950s, where Gary Gilmore began getting into trouble with the law, with offenses ranging from shoplifting to assault and battery charges. Although Gilmore had high scores on scholastic tests and clear artistic skills, he dropped out of high school at age fourteen. He went with a friend to Texas to see his place of birth, returning to Portland after a few months. He then started a small car-theft ring with other friends, resulting in his arrest. He was released to his father with a warning.
Two weeks later he was back in court on another car theft charge. The court ordered him, at age 14, to Oregon's MacLaren Reform School for Boys, where he was released the following year. He was sent to Oregon State Correctional Institution on another car theft charge in 1960, and was released in 1961.
At twenty-one he was sent to Oregon State Penitentiary for robbery and assault. He faced assault and robbery charges again in 1964, and was given a fifteen-year prison sentence as a repeat offender. He was granted conditional release in 1972 to live in a halfway house in Eugene, Oregon, on weekdays, and study art at a community college. Gilmore never registered, and within a month he had committed armed robbery, and was arrested and convicted. Due to his violent behavior in prison, he was transferred from Oregon to a maximum security federal prison in Marion, Illinois in 1975. He was conditionally paroled in April 1976 and went to Provo, Utah to live with a cousin of his who tried to help him find work and make a living for himself. Gilmore worked briefly at his uncle's shoe store, but he soon returned to his previous lifestyle, stealing items from stores, drinking, and getting into fights.
Gilmore robbed and murdered Max Jensen, a Sinclair gas station employee in Orem, Utah, on July 19, 1976. The next day, he robbed and murdered Bennie Bushnell, a motel manager, in Provo. As he disposed of the gun, a .22 caliber pistol, he accidentally shot himself in the hand, leaving a trail of blood when he retrieved his truck at a service garage. The garage owner, seeing the blood and hearing on a police scanner of the shooting at the nearby motel, wrote down Gilmore's license number and called the police. Gilmore gave up without a fight. He was charged with the murders of Bushnell and Jensen, although the latter case never went to trial apparently because there were no witnesses.
Gilmore's trial began at the Provo courthouse on October 5. Peter Arroyo, a motel guest, testified that he saw Gilmore in the motel registration office that night and that Gilmore robbed Bushnell by opening the cash register. After taking all the money, Gilmore was said to have ordered Bushnell to lie down on the floor and then to have shot him in cold blood. The next witness was Gerald F. Wilkes, a local FBI ballistics expert, who testified that he found the shell casing at the crime scene which he compared to Gilmore's pistol that was left there. Gilmore's two court-appointed lawyers, Michael Espin and Craig Snyder, surprised both the prosecutor Noall T. Wootton and Judge J. Robert Bullock by not cross-examining the witnesses and offering no defense. Gilmore wanted to testify on his behalf, but suddenly withdrew the request the following day. Both sides made closing arguments.
On October 7, at 10:13 AM, the jury retired to consider the verdict. By mid-day, they returned with a guilty verdict. Later that day, the jury also unanimously recommended the death penalty because of special circumstances to the crime. At the time, Utah had two methods of execution, firing squad or death by hanging, so Judge Bullock allowed Gilmore to choose between the two. Gilmore's reply was, "I'd prefer to be shot."
Gilmore felt his execution would be retribution. In November 1976 he said, "They always want to get in on the act. I don't think they have ever really done anything effective in their lives. I would like them all — including that group of reverends and rabbis from Salt Lake City — to butt out. This is my life and this is my death. It's been sanctioned by the courts that I die and I accept that." The execution was set for sunrise on December 6, 1976, but three days earlier, Gilmore received a stay of execution. During the time Gilmore was on death row awaiting his execution, he attempted suicide twice, the first time on November 16 and the second exactly a month later. While incarcerated, Gilmore developed a deep dislike for two of his fellow inmates, convicted murderers and rapists Pierre Dale Selby and William Andrews, the "Hi-Fi Murderers." Gilmore had to pass the men's cells on his way to the firing squad and called out, "I'll see you in Hell, Andrews and Pierre!"
Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad on January 17, 1977, at 8:07 a.m., after angrily telling his lawyers to drop the appeals they had filed in defiance of his wishes. The night before, Gilmore had requested an all-night gathering of friends and family at the prison mess hall. On the morning of his execution, he enjoyed a last meal consisting of a hamburger, hard-boiled eggs, a baked potato, a few cups of coffee, and three shots of contraband whiskey. He was then taken to an abandoned cannery behind the prison which served as the prison's death house. He was strapped to a chair, with a wall of sandbags placed behind him to absorb the bullets. Five prison guards stood concealed behind a curtain with five small holes cut for them to place their rifles through which were aimed at him. After being asked for any last words, Gilmore simply replied, "Let's do it." Gilmore had requested that, following his execution, his eyes be used for transplant purposes. Within hours of the execution, two people received his corneas, inspiring the British punk rock band The Adverts to write and release "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" later that year as well as The Police's recording of "Bring on the Night". His body was sent for an autopsy and cremated later that day. The following day, his ashes were scattered from an airplane in Utah.
According to his brother Mikal Gilmore's memoir Shot in the Heart, Utah's tradition dictated that a firing squad comprise five men — four of them with live rounds, and one with a blank round, so that each of the shooters could cast doubt to having fired a fatal shot. However, upon inspecting the clothes worn by Gary Gilmore at his execution, Mikal noticed five holes in the shirt — indicating, he wrote, that "the state of Utah, apparently, had taken no chances on the morning that it put my brother to death" (p. 390).
Gilmore's story is documented in Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Executioner's Song (1979), which was adapted by Mailer for the 1982 television movie of the same name starring Tommy Lee Jones as Gilmore. Jones won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Gilmore. Gilmore's brother's memoir Shot in the Heart was made into an HBO movie starring Giovanni Ribisi, Elias Koteas, and Sam Shepard.