2005: Han Bok-nam, whose death was illicitly filmed Themed Set: The Written Word

1999: Walter LaGrand, a German gassed in America

March 3rd, 2008 Matthias Lehmphul

(Thanks to German political scientist Matthias Lehmphul for the guest post -ed.)

The last man — so far — to die in the gas chamber, Walter LaGrand, was executed by the state of Arizona on March 3rd, 1999. He was one of just 11 prisoners gassed among the 1,099 executions to date since the U.S. death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

The United States introduced the gas chamber as an execution method in the beginning of the last century. The first death row inmate ever executed with poisoned air was Chinese migrant Gee Jon, who died at the Nevada State Prison in 1924. Relative to the other methods in use at the time — the electric chair, hanging, and the firing squad — gas was believed the most humane way of taking a person’s life.

It took 70 years for a court to finally recognize it as cruel and unusual punishment. In 1994 a federal judge ruled that the gas chamber violated the eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Shortly before Walter LaGrand’s scheduled execution, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay whose logic would have banned lethal gas forever. This was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving it as it remains today -– a backup or secondary option for putting a delinquent to death in five states: Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri and Wyoming.

Death penalty for a murder in a bank


Walter LaGrand (top) and his brother Karl.

Walter LaGrand was following his brother Karl LaGrand, who Arizona had executed by lethal injection a week earlier. The brothers were sentenced to death on December 14th, 1984 for stabbing to death an employee of a bank in Marana, Arizona.

On January 7, 1982, 19-year-old Walter and 18-year-old Karl drove from Tucson to Marana to rob the Valley National Bank. Brandishing a toy gun, they ordered the bank manager, Ken Hartstock, to open the vault. Mr. Hartstock, however, did not have the complete combination. The brothers bound Mr. Hartstock’s hand together with electrical tape. When he attempted to shout at Karl, he was stabbed to death with a letter opener.

Another bank employee, Ms. Lopez, was in the room at the time of the murder. Her hands had also been bound, and she too suffered several stab wounds. She later became the state’s key witness.

When they were arrested, Karl LaGrand confessed to the killing and tried to shield his older brother from a capital murder charge by stating that Walter was not in the room when the stabbing occurred.

Ms. Lopez, however, testified that both brothers were surrounding Mr. Hartstock at the time of his death.

Between different worlds: A childhood without a home

At the time Walter and Karl LaGrand were born, their mother, Emma Maria Gebel, lived in Augsburg in what was then West Germany. The boys were cared for either by Emma’s mother or a babysitter. When Emma’s mom became ill and could no longer handle the children, the two kids were put into an orphanage.

During the two years they remained at this place they suffered an egregious lack of care. Deprivation of food and blankets were common punishments at this institution. When Emma took the boys back they already suffered insomnia and post-trauma disturbances. In 1966 Emma married Masie LaGrand, an American soldier stationed in Augsburg. He adopted the two boys and their older sister Patricia. Together they moved to the USA in 1967.

Soon their new dad was send to Vietnam. After returning from this war he never was the same; Emma and Masie divorced in 1973. The boys’ delinquent record can be tracked back to 1978 — when they first ran away from home and shoplifted.

Though Karl and Walter were adopted, they never were naturalized by the national immigration service. They remained German citizens — and that set the stage for another legal controversy in the days before their execution.

Power Politics: How the United States overrules international law

In a personal meeting with President Bill Clinton, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder expressed his concerns about the fate of both brothers. However, the main argument was not the execution method but the lack of consular assistance by the time of arrest.

The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR) is one of the bedrock documents of international law. Under Article 36 of the VCCR any arresting authority is obliged to promptly notify a detained foreign national of his or her right to contact and seek assistance from their consulate.

This article does not exempt foreign citizens from prosecution, nor does it give special rights under the law. It only insures that foreign nationals -– including Americans abroad –- have the means to defend themselves in a uniquely vulnerable situation. The United States and Germany are among the VCCR’s 169 signatories.

On January 22nd, 1998 the Special Rapporteur to the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Bacre W. Ndiaye criticized the United States for its arbitrary disregard for treaty obligations like consular notification:

There seems to be a serious gap in the relations between federal and state governments, particularly when it comes to international obligations undertaken by the United States Government. The fact that the rights proclaimed in international treaties are already said to be a part of domestic legislation does not exempt the Federal Government from disseminating their provisions. Domestic laws appear de facto to prevail over international law, even if they could contradict the international obligations of the United States. (Extrajudicial summary on arbitrary executions, E/CN.4/1998/68/Add.3:C.108 — full document (.pdf))

Much too late, Germany opened a legal case against the United States on Walter LaGrand’s behalf at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands.

Karl LaGrand has been already executed when Berlin filed suit against Washington. Justice Christopher Weeramantry urged the United States to spare the life of Walter LaGrand. The White House argued it was a matter of the State of Arizona, outside the purview of federal authority. Under extreme international pressure, the Arizona Board of Pardons and Paroles took an unprecedented step: for the first time ever, it recommended an 60-day reprieve to await the decision of Germany’s suit against the United States at the ICJ.

Governor Jane D. Hull ignored it.

Past … and Prologue?

Walter and Karl LaGrand always had a close relationship and that did not change during their trial or time on death row. Until the end of 1998 they were celled beside one another and enjoyed the ability to talk freely. They held mirrors through the bars of their cells, so that they could see the other while talking. The chance to go out together on a work crew (when they were allowed to work) always excited them due to the fact that they were then able to see each other. In fact, they were emotionally so close that, if they have to die, they had expressed a preference to be executed on the same day.

Given a choice in their method of execution, both brothers tactically opted for the gas chamber to give the legal challenges to lethal gas a chance to save them. With those challenges foundering, both were offered a late switch to lethal injection in exchange for dropping suit.

Karl took the deal. Walter, as the New York Times put it, “opted for the gas, with its resonance of the Holocaust for Germans.”

Before the executioner switched the lever to initiate a chemical reaction between cyanide pellets (KCN) and sulfuric acid (H2SO4) the inmate was given his last words. Walter LaGrand said:

To all my loved ones, I hope they find peace. To all of you here today, I forgive you and hope I can be forgiven in my next life.

This date’s gassing with hydrogen cyanide (HCN) took 18 minutes until the heart of Walter LaGrand stopped beating. While the execution took place witnesses left the room nauseated.

Will history repeat? There are some 125 foreign nationals on death row in the United States today. Another pair of German brothers, Michael and Rudi Apelt, are as of this writing waiting to be put to death in Arizona — perhaps, if they choose it, in the same gas chamber where Walter LaGrand perished.

Legal and diplomatic fallout

Still smarting from the LaGrands’ execution, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer said at the 55th Session of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva on March 23rd, 1999:

States whose justice system kill are not meeting their responsibility to set an example to society. Europeans believe that the death penalty cannot be justified either ethically or legally and has not proved to be an effective means of combating crime.

The ICJ ruled in favor of Germany‘s LaGrand suit on June 26th, 2001, more than two years after the brothers had been put to death. It was the first time that a country won a case against the United States on this matter.

In 2005, facing multiplying challenges from death-sentenced foreign nationals similarly denied their rights under the VCCR, the Bush administration formally withdrew the United States from the ICJ’s oversight for such cases.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arizona,Common Criminals,Gassed,Germany,Guest Writers,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

26 thoughts on “1999: Walter LaGrand, a German gassed in America”

  1. You talk about whatever you want to talk about. I talk about whatever I want to talk about. Grow Up!

    Friedrich Paul Berg
    Learn everything at http://www.nazigassings.com
    Nazi Gassings Never Happened! Niemand wurde vergast!

    1. LLBigwave says:

      You have demonstrated that you are not familiar with tu quoque. Your last post suggests that you are also not familiar with projection.

  2. Meaghan says:

    Far RIGHT minister. My bad. The T and R keys are right next to each other on the keyboard.

    You’re still trying to deflect everything by going on and on about the Allies when we’re talking about the Germans.

  3. I had no idea that Pat Buchanan was a “far tight minister.” If he were, so what?

    Of course, Hess was denounced in Germany after his flight to Britain as soon as Churchill refused to even listen to him or consider any peace with Germany, the war–the defense of Germany–still had to go on.

    What “the Allies s-u-p-p-o-s-e-d-l-y did?” Do you deny that the US and Britain deliberately murdered more than a million totally innocent civilians, women, children even babies–by r-o-a-s-t-i-n-g them to death? Are you really that ignorant as to what happened in WW2? Are you really that blind and pigheaded?

    Friedrich Paul Berg
    Learn everything at http://www.nazigassings.com
    Nazi Gassings Never Happened! Niemand wurde vergast!

  4. Meaghan says:

    Why are you calling him “Patrick” Buchanan? The far-right minister and Nazi sympathizer you’re referring to goes by PAT Buchanan. It’s like saying “Willard Romney” when you mean “Mitt Romney.”

    Are you aware that when Rudolf Hess went to the UK to try to end the war, the Germans instantly denounced him as mentally unstable and a traitor?

    Are you familiar with “tu quoque”? Translated from Latin, it means “you too” and is a logical fallacy where a person tries to deflect criticism of their argument by criticizing the other person. i.e. “Honey, you are an alcoholic and you need help. This is the third time this month you’ve passed out drunk on the lawn.” “Yeah, well YOU leave your dirty socks on the living room floor!” “So what? What’s that got to do with your drinking problem?”

    You’re employing the tu quoque fallacy here when attacking the Allies’ tactics during the war. I counted five paragraphs of your ranting about what the Allies supposedly did. It wouldn’t matter if the US dropped nuclear bombs on every German and Japanese city; what we are talking about here is what the GERMANS did.

  5. Well FIZ, at least try to be specific about any “twisted lies as facts” that I supposedly presented. Don’t give up so easily!

    Friedrich Paul Berg
    Learn everything at http://www.nazigassings.com
    Nazi Gassings Never Happened! Niemand wurde vergast!

  6. Fiz says:

    You present twisted lies as facts. I shall ignore every other fatuous remark you make.

  7. Churchill deliberately brought on the Blitz with his attacks on German civilians as early as May 11, 1940 and on Berlin in August 1940. For nearly four months, Hitler resisted making any military response with similar attacks.

    Hitler offered to end the air war many times (even during Britain’s Dunkirk fiasco) but Churchill refused to even consider it. Rudolf Hess bravely flew to England alone in May 1941 tp prove with his own physical presence that Germany was absolutely sincere with its peace offers. For that Christ-like act, Rudolf Hess was rewarded with life-imprisonment instead of a Nobel Peace Prize.

    Friedrich Paul Berg
    Learn everything at http://www.nazigassings.com
    Nazi Gassings Never Happened! Niemand wurde vergast!

  8. Fiz says:

    Ever heard of the Blitz or the Baedecker raids, cretin? Who started it? Oh, that is of no interest to a fascist like you.

  9. I look into any mirror without any shame because I have spoken the truth.

    Even if the holocaust hoax were true, the war crimes and mass atrocities committed by the US and Britain were far worse and far more cowardly than anything the Nazis are even accused of committing. The US and Britain murdered as many people as they possibly could—women, children, babies included—by deliberately r-o-a-s-t-i-n-g them to death with massive incendiary air attacks and firestorms (“strategic bombing” and “area bombing”), with incendiary bombs including napalm, and even with nuclear bombs. If the numbers murdered by the US and Britain did not exceed the mythical “six million” number, it was not for any lack of trying. The Americans and Brits turned entire cities into crematory ovens—for victims who were still alive. The magnitude of those horrors grew to biblical proportions just as the end of the war grew near and the dangers to the US and Britain diminished to nothing at all. Shame on the cowardly victors! Shame on America! Shame on Britain!

    And, lest anyone is still totally decieved, it was the British—with encouragement from the US—who began the deliberate mass murder of civilians with their attacks on Germany in 1940 as Patrick Buchanan has explained. It was the British who bombed Berlin five times in August and September of 1940 before Hitler responded, reluctantly as he explained on radio, with the first German air attack on any British city, London, on September 7, 1940. If the Nazis had murdered people with poison gas, that would have been humane by comparison to Anglo-American firebombing..

    When the cowardly victors were no longer able to simply murder Germans or “Japs” because the war had ended—they were still able to spread the most outrageous lies about the Germans, and that continues to this day. Who is left to stop them? Who dares to even try? At least I try by speaking the truth.

    Friedrich Paul Berg
    Learn everything at http://www.nazigassings.com
    Nazi Gassings Never Happened! Niemand wurde vergast!

  10. Meaghan says:

    It’s interesting, Mr. Berg, how you deem an entire nation’s inhabitants “pure evil.” The Nazis did that. They weren’t the first or the last dictatorship to use that tactic.

    There’s also the inconvenient truth that, if you are who you say you are, you yourself are an American. Born and educated in New York, am I right?

    So go look in a mirror.

  11. If Americans ever want to see what “evil” looks like, even “pure evil.” it is actually quite easy for them to see it for themselves. They need only look into any mirror.

    Friedrich Paul Berg
    Learn everything at http://www.nazigassings.com
    Nazi Gassings Never Happened! Niemand wurde vergast!

  12. Meaghan says:

    I have read your website, Mr. Berg. It is a most amusing satire. I laughed out loud many times. You ought to write for the Onion or something.

  13. Fiz says:

    Oh, go away, moron!

  14. If Hank would dare to look at my website, he would soon see that I have ignored nothing.

    Although more than 1,000 autopsies were made on corpses found at German concentration camps, not even one showed any evidence of poisoning of any kind. The great killer was disease, especially typhus–all made unimaginably worse by Allied bombing of civilians and civilian targets. The real mass murderers were the Allies themselves–and not the Germans at all.

    Friedrich Paul Berg
    Learn everything at http://www.nazigassings.com
    Nazi Gassings Never Happened!

  15. Hank says:

    Friedrich dutifully ignores the actual evidence, photos, and corpses of the victims in his cowardly effort to rewrite history with a holocaust denial. And calling LeGrand ‘heroic’ further indicates his absense of morality.

  16. LaGrand had deliberately prolonged the agony of his own death to protest the inhumanity of the death penalty and especially gas executions. LaGrand had refused to assist his executioners by taking a deep, final breath on a signal from the warden in order to quickly ingest a lethal dose of cyanide. In his agony filled process of heroic resistance, however, LaGrand also undermined the holocaust hoax in which as many as 2,000 people at a time, 6,000 per day, had supposedly been gassed to death, also with cyanide, in just three minutes per gassing. That claim had been made by self-proclaimed “eyewitnesses” Vrba and Wetzler and widely publicized in the infamous War Refugee Board Report of mid-1944—even in the NY Times. That claim was simply a LIE and technically impossible. A simple phone call in 1944 to any number of prison wardens in the US would have told anyone that the claim was absolute rubbish. But, not to worry about minor details, after the war suitably prepped and tortured witnesses were found to support the BIG Lie! And, it goes on and on still today.

  17. Michael O says:

    In the United States, if you kill someone, the State will kill you. Simple, don’t kill people unless you want to be killed as well.

    Lethal injection is so much better than being stabed to death with a letter opener. It is not fair to the victim that is dead, but at least the murderer was no longer alive.

  18. John Smith says:

    Gassing, as with all other forms of lethal punishment, should be illegal..

  19. Hi suche Kontakt für ausgefallene Spiele zu zweit wer Interesse hat darf sich gerne via email bei mir melden bitte nur ernstgemeinte Zuschriften danke.

  20. Robie VanDercraft says:

    Gas ‘em all on death row. They are all innocent, are they not????

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