1917: Dr. Arthur Waite, the Playboy Poisoner 1923: Albert Leo Schlageter, Nazi martyr

1979: John Spenkelink, the harbinger

May 25th, 2008 Headsman

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.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Famous Last Words,Florida,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,USA

21 Responses to “1979: John Spenkelink, the harbinger”

  1. 1
    mike shoemaker Says:

    did he fry real good

  2. 2
    ExecutedToday.com » 1999: Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis, the end of the road for Old Sparky Says:

    [...] conducted the first “modern” involuntary execution in 1979. It had carried out three executions before anyone else had more than one. And when the the [...]

  3. 3
    k. j. Says:

    I remember right after he was executed, the greaseman on WAPE in Jacksonville introduced a new breakfast treat. With the sound of grease frying in a pan in the background, the greaseman introduced, “Spenkelinks”

  4. 4
    Rijo1964 Says:

    It’s a shame that a so-called modern country still has the death penalty. Land of the free but not the land of the people with no money

  5. 5
    Timothy M. Says:

    Now many, many years later I remember John from Junior High School in Buena Park, Ca. where I was a classmate. He was a quiet kid, forsaken and abused by his mother and her lovers. He and I were friends and remember his discussing the hopelessness in his life. Too bad our country still uses this barbaric form of punishment to deal with it’s dispossessed, forgotten, and forlorn.

  6. 6
    Daniel T. Says:

    Spenkelink should not have been executed. There was enough question to comute this sentence to life. The guy he killed was a violent criminal in his own right. Spenkelink claimed the guy held a gun to his head and forced him to suck his —-.

    Spenkelink was offered a plea bargin of 2nd degree murder and a life sentence. He turned it down. It ended up costing him his life.

    Even worse, he was targeted by Florida officials to be first. It had to be a white man. His appeals were moved through the courts faster than the others.

    There are guys doing time that did worse than Spenkelink did to get the chair.

  7. 7
    ExecutedToday.com » 1967: Aaron Mitchell, Ronald Reagan’s first and only execution Says:

    [...] penalty’s long hiatus; as U.S. president from 1981 to 1989, the death penalty was only just coming back online from that period, and that at the state level. Beyond platitudinous approval of the trend, Reagan [...]

  8. 8
    Ragan Jackson Says:

    sad memories of a really good man. I know i was there. My mother was his girlfriend of 4yrs. at the time of his death. nothing but great memories of him in such bad bad times for him. he held his head high till the end and always kept hope. miss him alot

  9. 9
    Tom Colson Says:

    Did John have any children?

  10. 10
    Carrie Myers Sutter Says:

    No he did not have any children of his own. He was a good uncle! ” Ragan Jackson ” I would love to hear about your memories. I have very few cause I was only 5 years old at the time of his death.
    “Timothy from school” His mom had no lovers and did not abused him. She was a school teacher , what started his mental abused if you want to call it that is when he came home form school and found this dad had committed suicide !

  11. 11
    SN Says:

    I know this may not be a very intelligent or thought-provoking comment, but I was always intrigued by Spenkelink’s bizarre surname, which is perhaps more unusual than the crime itself.

  12. 12
    Meaghan Says:

    @SN: I think the surname is Dutch. I just Googled it and found Facebook profiles for several people with that name, almost all of whom live in the Netherlands.

  13. 13
    Jane Says:

    It happened on my 16th birthday. I remember waking up and reading the horrible details in the morning paper and thinking what a horrible way to start my 16th year. I understand the need for the death penalty and I’m not oppose to it if the situation calls for it; I just wish there was a more humane way to carry it out.

  14. 14
    Bradley Says:

    I was a senior in H.S.,at the time of John’s execution, to which I was vehemently opposed. I remember Florida’s Attorney General, Jim Smith, vigilantly and venegefully vowing to kill John. He flew from court to court getting them to remove John’s stays. I moved to Florida in 1989 and never voted for that man, because of this. The tragedy was that John had a horrible trial where no mitigating circumstances were presented to the jury.

  15. 15
    KYGB Says:

    “Spink” was a classic Murder two. he should have gottn life with the possibility of parole. John wanted Self Defense murder three with a 5 15 sentence. He was dreaming and he dreamed himself into the chair.

    FL desparatley wanted a white offender to restart their death machine.

    Spink’s number came up, he got a lousy defense, and wound up in the chair. There were literally 100 better capital murder one cases in FL, but John’s skin and the time was right for him.

    I’m not against the death penalty, but i am opposed to the widely disparate application of that sentence, espec in FL, Tex, and VA.

  16. 16
    Bradley Says:

    KYGB: As John said: “Them without the Capital get the punishment”.

    To wit about race: Willie Darden, a black inmate, was scheduled to die with Spenkelink, by Florida officials (Gov. Bob Graham & Jim Smith). He hadn’t even pursued Federal appeals and a warrant was still signed for his death. Whether this was political cover by Graham, I don’t know. But, without sponsored legal help, Darden would have died w/o his U.S. Constitutional right to a fair trial being examined by the Federal courts. Florida dogged Darden into the chair several years later despite considerable question about his guilt.

    Jim Smith was warned by Federal courts in the early ’80′s about Florida (Graham) copiously signing death warrants for political expediency and Smith’s tireless pursuit to have the executions occur without Federal review.

  17. 17
    Stan Says:

    Happy 64th birthday John. People still care.

  18. 18
    Steve Says:

    It is often reported that the state of Florida exhumed John’s corpse and conducted the autopsy. California exhumed the corpse and the autopsy was conducted by an LA coroner. The autopsy report concluded that John’s death was “consistent with a judicial execution” and found no evidence of abuse prior to his execution.

    This act made Florida officials very uncomfortable and they immediately determined that all of its executed inmates would be autopsied by Florida officials before releasing the bodies of executed inmates to family. Johns body was actually released hours after his execution and was driven back to California by his family in a station wagon.

  19. 19
    Bo Says:

    Why was John gagged when they killed him? That was unusual.

    Steve, I read somewhere he was still gagged when they pulled him up to autopsy him.

  20. 20
    Stan Says:

    I still think about John alot. Almost every day I read in the paper about someone who did something worse than John. And they usually get 15 years to life in prison.

    Just recently I read about a step mother who had repeatedly abused her stepdaughter who was suffering from cancer. She ended up killing her and dismembering the body. She got 17 years on a plea because they only found parts of the girls body. Today I read about a man getting 17 years in prison for killing a bright high school kid who had ‘disrespected’ him. Not too long ago a college girl was raped and killed while taking photographs of nature in a secluded area. The guy got life and will probably be out of jail before he is 50.

    Read the papers and everyday you will see a story about someone who did something worse than John. But they killed John. They gave him the time of his death, gave him reprieved, rescheduled and finally one morning walked him to a death chamber and tied him down to a chair in front of over 30 witnesses and then ran 2000 volts of electricity thru his body until his blood was boiling. John most likely died from asphyxiation as the electricity paralyzed him.

    Johns crime: John was forced at gunpoint to blow another mans dick. John got a gun and killed the man. The guy John killed had a long criminal record which included sexual assaults which gives credence to Johns story.

    A south Florida DA is on record saying had John committed the crime in south Florida he would have gotten 10 to 15 years. Where I live Johns crime today would get 7 to 15 years. But John committed the crime in redneck north Florida and because he was from California and had a funny sounding last name it was easy to get a conviction. Then Bob Graham needed a white man to kill so it wouldn’t look like they were being racist in Florida. So John, with no financial resources was the perfect person to kill.

    In my opinion that was not an execution, it was a murder. Oh yeah and read some of the stays that were overturned….they alluded to Johns convictions in California and the fact that he walked away from a minimum security prison as reasons he should be executed more so than that because of the crime he committed.

  21. 21
    Bradley Holt Says:

    I too often think about John, I guess because I read about him at a young age (18), and remember his invalid, aging mother, pleading in vain for mercy which never came. I have resented Jim Smith ever since. This was a sad case.

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