April 13th, 2009 Headsman
As of this date, it’s been 48 years since the United States military last carried out an execution — the Fort Leavenworth hanging of John Arthur Bennett for rape.
An epileptic black soldier with a family history of mental illness, Bennett had enlisted to find a way up out of sharecropping. Instead, on Christmas Eve 1954, he drunkenly raped a 12-year-old girl near his base in Austria.
He spent six years awaiting execution — “six years,” observed the Los Angeles Times, “in which six other black soldiers were hanged while all four of the white men — many of them multiple murderers — were saved.”
Bennett dodged two execution dates, once receiving his stay during his last meal, but a seemingly compelling plea for clemency — the victim herself, and her parents, asked for mercy — availed Bennett nothing. His last frantic plea to the new president, John F. Kennedy, was dispatched with only hours yet to live.
I beg in the name of God … Will you please in the name of God and mercy spare my life?”
No dice. Kennedy was preoccupied.
Coincidentally, but poignantly for this case, the Kirk Douglas vehicle A Town Without Pity opened a month before Bennett’s execution. In that film (trailer here), four American servicemen face capital trial for the rape of a German girl — and Douglas, as their lawyer, struggles to talk pity into someone so he won’t be obliged to humiliate the victim in court in order to save his clients from the noose.
The victim’s father in that movie is so blinded by his lust for vengeance that he forces Douglas to destroy his own daughter: striking contrast with the real-life father of Bennett’s flesh-and-blood victim, who wrote in support of clemency for his daughter’s assailant, “I know how hard it is for the parents when their own child is so close to the verge of death.”
Bennett’s milestone, however, is hardly assured of lasting much beyond this 49th year.
In 2008, President George W. Bush affirmed the death sentence of condemned Army cook Ronald Gray, the first such action by any U.S. president since Bennett’s day. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Death Row USA most current as of this writing,* Gray is one of nine prisoners currently on the U.S. military’s death row.
* Death Row USA, Summer 2008 (direct pdf link)
Also on this date
- 1942: Four Jews from Bedzin and Sosnowiec
- 1961: Marie Fikacková, Beast of Sušice
- 1942: Anton Schmid
- 1816: John Allen and John Penny, poachers
- 1794: Lucile Duplessis and Marie Hebert, friends at the end
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Kansas,Milestones,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA
Tags: 1960s, 1961, a town without pity, april 13, bay of pigs, cinema, death row usa, george w. bush, john bennett, john f. kennedy, kirk douglas, leavenworth, leavenworth federal penitentiary, naacp legal defense fund, ronald gray