Archive for March 15th, 2009

1957: Burton Abbott, reprieved too late

3 comments March 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1957, the phone outside San Quentin’s gas chamber rang with a governor’s reprieve for Burton Abbott … but the execution was already underway.

Abbott was convicted of abducting and murdering 12-year-old Stephanie Bryan — a notorious crime that poet Sharon Olds, then a San Francisco teenager about the same age as the victim, memorialized in verse.

Then dirt scared me, because of the dirt
he had put on her face. And her training bra
scared me—the newspapers, morning and evening,
kept saying it, training bra,
as if the cups of it had been calling
the breasts up—he buried her in it,
perhaps he had never bothered to take it
off. They found her underpants
in a garbage can. And I feared the word
eczema, like my acne and like
the X in the paper which marked her body,
as if he had killed her for not being flawless.

Strong though ultimately circumstantial evidence connected Abbott to the crime, and the accused coolly maintained his own innocence at trial and thereafter. (The Oakland Museum has an extensive collection of photographic negatives from the trial.)

Abbott convinced his mom, but not many others — see this comment thread, for instance.

His last hours on March 15 were a rush of activity for a defense team that had fought for any possible angle to avert his death. A flurry of communications to Gov. Goodwin Knight delayed the execution once, and then secured a second stay just as the Abbott was being prepared for his fate.

By the time the phone rang, Abbott was already shrouded in cyanide fumes.

Goodwin’s Secretary Joseph Babich: Has the execution started?
Warden Harley O. Teets: Yes, sir, it has.
Babich: Can you stop it?
Teets: No, sir, it’s too late.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Kidnapping,Murder,Reprieved Too Late,USA

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