Archive for December, 2007

2001: Lois Nadean Smith

10 comments December 4th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 2001, Lois Nadean Smith was executed by lethal injection in Oklahoma for the murder of her son’s ex-girlfriend.

By the standards of the 1,099 executions in the “modern” death penalty in America — those since the 1972 Furman v. Georgia Supreme Court decision — very little especially distinguished Smith‘s case.

Sentenced some 19 years before her death, she had committed a single horrifying and rather tawdry kidnapping and murder. Her guilt was in no question, although she stood trial along with her son — who received a life sentence — and would later argue on appeal that their lawyer had pursued a defense intentionally shifting blame onto her in order to save him.

As a woman, though, Smith was inherently an oddity. This date completed a remarkable year in which Oklahoma, having not put any woman to death since 1903, emptied its women’s death row with three such executions.

Including those three, only eleven women have been executed in the United States since Furman — or, indeed, since the Kennedy administration. There had been no calendar year in which three women were executed in the entire country since 1953 … and no single state had executed three women in one year since Virginia when the women in question were property.*

According to the Death Penalty Information Center:

Death sentences and actual executions for female offenders are also rare in comparison to such events for male offenders. In fact, women are more likely to be dropped out of the system the further the capital punishment system progresses. Following in summary outline form are the data indicating this screening out effect:

  • women account for about 1 in 10 (10%) murder arrests;
  • women account for only 1 in 50 (2.1%) death sentences imposed at the trial level;
  • women account for only 1 in 70 (1.4%) persons presently on death row; and
  • women account for only 1 in 90 (1.1%) persons actually executed in the modern era.**

At the end of a chain of improbabilities, Smith apparently met her death with composure. “To the families, I want to say I’m sorry for the pain and loss I’ve caused you,” she said from the gurney. “I ask that you forgive me. You must forgive to be forgiven.”

* See charts of female executions through 1962 and since 1900, both courtesy of the comprehensive Espy file of all executions in American history.

** This calculation appears to be slightly dated, with women currently accounting almost exactly 1 in 100 persons actually executed. The last 117 American prisoners executed have all been men.

(All stats are as of publication date in December 2007)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Common Criminals,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,Oklahoma,USA,Women

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1952: Rudolf Slansky and 10 “conspirators”

6 comments December 3rd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1952, eleven high-ranking Czechoslovakian politicians were hanged at Prague’s Pankrac Prison two weeks after a show trial purging unreliable elements from the Communist party.

One of the most infamous show trials in Czechoslovakia saw 14 high-ranking Communists — eleven of them Jews — railroaded for a “Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist activities in the service of American imperialism”. Three received life sentences. The other eleven went to the gallows.

While the roots of the persecution, especially the undertones of anti-Semitism, sink into the id of the Stalinist Eastern bloc, the most evident proximate cause was the USSR’s assertion of control over its satellite states at a time when Josip Tito was successfully charting a course of independent communism. Purges in Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary had taken place in the years before.

The Soviet agents rounding up suspects for Stalin did not trifle with small game. Rudolf Slansky was General Secretary of the Communist Party and therefore the second-most powerful man in the country; by the time he was tried, after a year in prison under torture, he was publicly denouncing himself.

Otto Sling, whose name became synonymous with forbidden heterodoxy, did likewise — “I was a treacherous enemy within the Communist Party … I am justly an object of contempt and deserve the maximum and the hardest punishment.”

And Vladimir Clementis, the Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs, was erased from a photo taken with the Czechoslovakian President, a circumstance Milan Kundera reflected upon in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square … Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him.

The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall.

The hanged were rehabilitated in 1963.

Artur London, who received a life sentence and was released after rehabilitation, wrote about his experiences in The Confession, subsequently a 1970 Costa-Gavras film. The wife and son of Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade (and Auschwitz survivor) Rudolf Margolius have also both written memoirs covering the trial.

The younger Margolius in particular, who has staunchly defended his father as an essentially apolitical man and not a Communist apparatchik, has been in the thick of present-day disputes in Czechoslovakia’s successor states over whom is due sympathy and recognition for bygone political crimes.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Russia,Torture,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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2005: Van Tuong Nguyen

3 comments December 2nd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Australian national Van Tuong Nguyen was hanged* in Singapore’s Changi Prison for smuggling heroin.

Three years before, in dire financial straits, Nguyen had agreed to act as a drug courier and been caught attempting to carry 396.2 grams — less than a pound — of heroin through the airport of the notoriously execution-happy city-state. He had no criminal history and cooperated with the authorities, but the quantity of contraband on his person incurred an automatic death sentence.

Nguyen became an international cause celebre and the Australian government appealed for clemency — though some detected tepid public notice for the young man of Vietnamese extraction in comparison with white Australians in similar situations.

His family’s two-year campaign mobilizing worldwide pressure to save him was the profile of a 2006 documentary that laid bare the continuing grief left to Nguyen’s family and friends … and their continuing work against the death penalty in his remembrance. This personal tribute of unidentified provenance captures both:

* By Darshan Singh, whose identity as Singapore’s hangman was exposed on the occasion.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,Ripped from the Headlines,Singapore

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1581: Edmund Campion, Ralph Sherwin and Alexander Briant

12 comments December 1st, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1581, three English Catholic martyrs were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, casualties of the bloody confrontation between religious and secular power of the English Reformation.

Edmund Campion — later sainted — was the towering figure among them and the great attraction for those that thronged the Tyburn scaffold on a rain-drenched Friday.

A brilliant Oxford scholar once tipped as a possible future Archibishop of Canterbury, Campion abjured his Anglican holy orders in favor of Rome — a mortal peril in Elizabethan England.

He slipped away to Ireland, then to the continent and safety. But at age 40, after nearly a decade abroad, the missionary zeal of the converted called him back to Albion as part of a secret Jesuit mission. Hunted from the day he set foot back in Britain, he survived a year on the run, an underground minister to an illicit faith.

Though priestly investiture alone technically made him capitally liable, a government with millions of Catholic citizens grappled for some firmer ground upon which to condemn the renowned intellectual. Since Campion succumbed neither to torture nor to blandishments, nor to the surreal interludes when he was hauled out of his dungeon and made to debate with the Crown’s theologians, he was finally convicted on the strength of made-to-order witness testimony to the effect that his mission had some vague upshot of undermining Queen Elizabeth’s hold on her subjects.

In effect, it was very much like convicting him for his faith: the Anglican-Catholic conflict had crystallized, and dozens of priests would follow the route of Campion in the years to come. Between a mutually implacable state and church, either flesh or soul must burn.

Not a few of those who trod the martyr’s path would take inspiration from the beatific Jesuit — as young Henry Walpole, whose own route to Calvary is said to have begun when he was spattered by Campion’s blood this day and come full circle to his own execution 15 years later. Walpole’s embrace of martyrdom fairly glows from his proscribed tribute to Campion:

Hys fare was hard, yet mylde & sweete his cheere,
his pryson close, yet free & loose his mynde,
his torture great, yet small or none his feare,
his offers lardge, yet nothing coulde him blynde.
O constant man, oh mynde, oh vyrtue straunge,
whome want, nor woe, nor feare, nor hope coulde chaunge.

Yee thought perhapps, when learned Campion dyes,
his pen must cease, his sugred townge be still.
But yow forget how lowd his deathe yt cryes,
how farre beyond the sownd of tounge or quill.
yow did not know how rare and great a good
yt was to write those precious guiftes in bloode.

That famous eloquence was Campion’s legacy, so overwhelmingly so that he presents in the lineup of men who might have written Shakespeare.

His best-know work was “Campion’s Brag”, the scornful nickname his foes gave to an apologia he produced while underground in England … and to whose steady words Edmund Campion proved true this day:

[B]e it known to you that we have made a league — all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practices of England — cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery [to Catholicism], while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the Faith was planted: so it must be restored.

But Protestant England did withstand the enterprise. The generation to come saw Catholic ideas and writing put to withering siege, Campion’s not least among them. For all the tribute of history to the man of Christlike fortitude, it is by no means apparent that the enjoyments of Tyburn and the kindred “practices of England” did not, after all, lay a cross heavier than English Catholics could bear.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Famous,God,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Tyburn

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