John Steven Gardner, 64, was executed by lethal injection on 15 January 2020 in Huntsville, Texas for the murder of his estranged wife in her home.
At 11:58 p.m. on Sunday, 23 January 2005, the Collin County Sheriff's Department received a 9-1-1 call from a woman saying that she had been shot, her head hurt, and there was "blood everywhere." She told the dispatcher, Erin Whitfield, that the attacker left in a white pickup truck with Mississippi plates and identified him as Steven Gardner. Whitfield subsequently testified that the woman's speech was very slurred and it sounded like she was choking and vomiting, and that the line became disconnected.
A sheriff's deputy arrived at the address first, followed by paramedics. The victim, Tammy Gardner, 41, was flown by helicopter to Parkland Hospital in Dallas.
Investigators found no sign of forced entry, and nothing appeared to have been taken from the house. The deputy who arrived first testified that he noticed a white pickup sitting in a ditch about two or three miles from the victim's home, but he did not know at that time that they were looking for a white pickup.
John Gardner's credit card was used to buy gas and a pair of work gloves on the day of Tammy's shooting in Marshall, Texas, which is near the Texas-Louisiana state line. Detectives began trying to reach Gardner, then 49, and his family in Mississippi early on Monday.
At about 8:30 a.m., Gardner returned the white Ford F-150 pickup he had borrowed from his brother-in-law. His sister, Elaine Holifield, who had been informed that Tammy had been in "an accident," asked, "What happened?" Holifield testified that Gardner did not reply, but only cried. He then showered, changed clothes, shaved, and went to his parents' home. Holifield went to check for the .44 Magnum revolver that her husband kept under the mattress. She saw that the cylinder contained five live rounds and one spent cartridge.
Gardner then went to the sheriff's office in Mississippi. Officers there phoned Detective Cundiff in Collin County. Cundiff testified that he told Gardner there was not an arrest warrant out for him, but he knew Gardner had been in Texas and wanted to speak with him. Cundiff said that when he told Gardner that Tammy had been shot in the head, he replied, "Okay." He said he had no answers for what happened to her. When Cundiff said that Tammy was still alive and could tell what had happened, Gardner said, "If she wants, that'll be fine." Gardner then went home.
Tammy went into a coma while in the hospital. Her family took her off of life support two days later.
Gardner was arrested on Tuesday, 1 February, and brought back to Collin County for trial. His fingerprint and a tag from the gloves bought in Marshall were found in his brother-in-law's pickup.
John and Tammy Gardner married in 1999. According to Tammy's best friend, Jacquie West, Tammy was afraid of Gardner because he had physically abused her throughout their marriage and had repeatedly threatened to kill her if she left him. In December 2004, Tammy borrowed money from the company where she worked and filed for divorce.
West testified that on Christmas Day, Tammy told Gardner to move out, so his parents came and took him and his belongings back to Laurel, Mississippi, where he was from. West said that Tammy "perked up" after filing for divorce and marked the date it would become final, 7 February 2005, on her calendar at work. At the same time, however, Tammy expressed concern that she would never see that day, because Gardner would kill her first.
Tammy's daughter, Jessie, and boss, Candace Akins, gave similar testimony about Gardner's abusive relationship with Tammy and his threats to kill her if she left him.
On 20 January, West and Tammy had lunch together. West testified that Tammy's phone rang "constantly" and that she told her, "He's going to kill me" before the divorce was final.
On Sunday, 23 January, Tammy, 41, was driving Jessie home from church. Gardner repeatedly sent text messages asking if she intended to go through with the divorce and asking "YES OR NO?" As Jessie read the messages to her mother, she became frantic, but she did not reply to them.
That evening, Tammy called David Young, her company's vice-president, asking if she could come talk to him. She was at his home from about 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., seeking his help in "disappearing." Tammy called Young after she returned to her home near Anna, north of Dallas. According to phone records, they talked until 11:13 p.m.
In addition to the above testimony, Gardner's brother-in-law testified that he never left spent casings in his revolver, but always kept it loaded with a full cylinder of live rounds.
Evidence was also admitted that when Gardner turned over a set of keys to Tammy's house when he left at Christmas, he kept a second set for himself.
The cause of the victim's death was a gunshot to her head. The bullet entered her right front temple and exited below her left ear. Evidence presented at trial indicated that Tammy victim was shot while sitting up in bed, with her head against a pillow. The exiting bullet went through the pillow and out the bedroom window. The bullet was not recovered.
For a killing to qualify as capital murder, one or more aggravating factors must be present. In Gardner's case, prosecutors argued that he killed Tammy either in the course of burglary or for retaliation against her role as a witness in their upcoming divorce case. When multiple aggravating factors are offered, jurors do not have to agree on which one is present, as long as all of them believe that at least one is.
The defense argued that the evidence was insufficient to prove that Gardner killed the victim and also that there was insufficient evidence on both of the aggravating factors. The defense also tried to block the admission of the record of Tammy's 9-1-1 call as hearsay testimony, but the court determined that it met the "dying declaration" exception to the hearsay rule.
Gardner had a previous conviction in Mississippi for shooting his pregnant second wife, Rhoda Gardner, in a parking lot on 31 December 1982. He pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and received an 8-year prison sentence. Rhoda died during surgery about a month after he began serving his sentence.
Court records also state that while Gardner was in prison, he became romantically involved with Margaret Westmoreland. After he was released on parole, he moved in with her and her two children - Becky, 13, and Tim, 6. After they married, Gardner began threatening to kill Westmoreland and skin her children alive. He also sexually propositioned Becky. Westmoreland tried to leave Gardner after he beat and severely injured Becky, but then he kidnapped Westmoreland at knifepoint. He was apprehended after a high-speed chase with police, and his parole was revoked. He continued to contact Westmoreland from prison and threatened to "hunt her down" if she left him.
Gardner was released from prison in 1995. He then married a woman named Sandra. They had a son, Nicholas, and divorced in June 1999. Sandra received a protective order against Gardner in August 2001.
Court filings also state that Gardner sexually assaulted Tammy's daughter, Jessie, when she was nine.
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