1979: John Spenkelink, the harbinger

On this date in 1979, John Spenkelink was electrocuted in Florida — the first man executed involuntarily in the U.S. since 1967.

A series of court decisions in the 1970’s had scrapped the country’s old death penalty institutions and obliged legislators to restructure the process. Now, the new architecture was in place and the decade-long hiatus in actual executions was drawing to a close.

Gary Gilmore had earned trivia-question notoriety as the first put to death under the new regime two years before, but Gilmore was always an outlier, a bizarrely active exponent of his own death who greased the skids for himself.

Spenkelink was the true harbinger. For six years, a span which seemed long then but would today rate on the speedy side, Spenkelink resisted death with every tool at his disposal. Florida officials fought just as stubbornly to kill him.

An itinerant parolee, he had in 1973 shot a fellow drifter named Joseph J. Szymankiewicz.

Spenkelink claimed that Szymankiewicz had stolen his money, forced him to play Russian roulette, and sexually assaulted him, all of which seemed within the vicious character attested of the victim. But the killing itself was clearly not a moment of passion or immediate self-defense: Spenkelink had left their shared hotel room, returned with a gun, and shot his man in the back.

In the new Court-mandated balancing act between “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors whose intent was to harmonize unfair application of the death penalty, this evident premeditation is what doomed Spenkelink. (The fact that Spenkelink committed the crime for pecuniary gain — that is, to get back his own money — also militated against him. The Clark County (Ind.) Prosecutor’s site has some legal briefs in addition to media reports on the case.)

In the larger reality not circumscribed by legal briefs, the defendant wasn’t exactly Charles Manson. More considerable than the act itself was where it occurred (North Florida) and the rootless, friendless character of its author — a “white nigger”. As Florida Supreme Court Justice Richard Ervin put it:

As usual under “discretion,’ it is left to sentencing judges to determine in particular cases who will get death. We know intuitively who will: the poor, the underprivileged, the public defender clients, the blacks and other minority people, the mentally incompetent or those holding unpopular or unorthodox ideologies. The affluent usually escape the death penalty.

The result here is an old story, often repeated in this jurisdiction where the subconscious prejudices and local mores outweigh humane, civilized understanding when certain segments of the population are up for sentencing for murder.

Or in Spenkelink’s epigram, which he often signed to prison correspondence, “capital punishment means those without capital get the punishment.”

The last of his 22 appeals* was rejected by the Supreme Court this very day. Ten minutes later, trussed hand and foot with each of his orifices stopped up and two shots of whiskey for the ride, Spenkelink was presented in Old Sparky to the event’s official witnesses.** It had been 15 years since the chair’s last use; prison officials didn’t remember how to operate it — but they managed to pull it off with no more than the electric chair’s average ration of gruesomeness.

Five minutes later, Spenkelink was declared dead — and the death penalty was back in America.†

* Filed by David Kendall, later to gain a measure of fame as Bill Clinton’s personal attorney during his impeachment.

** Spenkelink was gagged when the blinds were opened to the witnesses, and denied a final statement (his famous bon mot about those without the capital is sometimes mistakenly reported as his last words). Since the witnesses had not seen the prisoner brought in, rumors spread that he had fought the guards, even that his neck had been broken in the altercation and that he was dead or dying by the time the first 2,250-volt jolt hit him. This rumor in turn caused the state not only to exhume and autopsy Spenkelink, but to institute a policy of autopsying all executed prisoners … and the documentary trail created by this policy contributed to the Sunshine State’s later legal and public relations headaches with its execution protocols.

† Executions would remain freak events — one or two a year — until the mid-1980’s when they finally resumed taking place with regularity sufficient to return them to the everyday fabric of American life.

On this day..