1959: Leonard Shockley, the last juvenile executed?

On this date in 1959, Leonard Shockley was gassed in Maryland.

The appeals court that considered his case found it “perfectly clear that Leonard killed the victim in an attempt to perpetrate a robbery or a rape,” during a heist committed jointly with Leonard’s older brother.

On that basis, young Shockley achieved the distinction of being the second-last person ever put to death for a crime committed as a 16-year-old. For a very long while, it really looked like he might be the last, but Oklahoma’s 1999 execution of Sean Sellers usurped the claim.

While it makes little ethical difference, from the standpoint of attributing criminal culpability, whether a 16-year-old offender is executed promptly at age 16 or held for a lifetime in prison and executed in his eighties, Shockley may also be the last human put to death on American soil before he had attained his own majority. Shockley’s birthdate invariably reports as “1941 or 1942”,* and in the absence of the sort of primary research a blogger is naturally loath to conduct, we’re left with conflicting sources on the subject.

The Washington Post‘s headline the following day annonced, “Slayer, 18, Dies In Gas Chamber”. (Surmounting the text of the perfunctory Associated Press story it ran.)

Whereas the Baltimore Sun reported, “Youth, 17 Dies in Gas Chamber: Shockley Executed for Slaying of Shore Mother”. (Alas, no screenshot: it’s cited by Victor Streib, an anti-death penalty academic.)

So it’s not completely clear whether Shockley enjoys this particular claim to fame. Well, not enjoy it exactly. Of course not that. And poor Sarah Hearne didn’t enjoy being slashed to death; this is also understood. Let’s just say, a sad affair and a minor milestone, and leave it at that.

* The crime was in January 1958, 15 months before the execution. It’s simple enough to work out when Shockley’s birthday would have to fall for the various scenarios.

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