Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

2002: Napoleon Beazley, who threw it all away

1 comment May 28th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 2002, Napoleon Beazley was executed by lethal injection in Texas.

A high school class president and football hero, Beazley was 3 ½ months shy of his 18th birthday when he made the first entry on his criminal record.

It was a doozy:

Beazley (with two accomplices who later testified against him) shot a Tyler, Texas, couple in their garage to steal their Mercedes Benz.

The wife survived the attack by playing dead.

The husband was not so lucky. He was businessman John Luttig, the father of archconservative federal judge J. Michael Luttig. When Beazley’s appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court, a third of its justices recused themselves for their own connections to Luttig.

(J. Michael Luttig testified at Beazley’s trial. “Individuals must be held accountable at some point for actions such as this,” he told the media afterward. “I thought this was an appropriate case for the death penalty.”)

Both in the legal arena and in public opinion, Beazley’s case turned in an unusually uncluttered fashion on the principle of executing juvenile offenders.

Beazley was not mentally impaired, nor warped by childhood trauma, nor even generally underprivileged. His had been the black family accepted by the white community in his native Grapeland.

There was no question of Beazley’s guilt in the crime. None of the typical extenuating circumstances applied, save Beazley’s own eventual remorse.

“I don’t blame anybody else for being here but me,” Beazley would say later.

And since he pulled the trigger just weeks shy of his legal adulthood, even his youth was barely in play.

So, the question of whether Napoleon Beazley deserved to die was a pretty close proxy for the question of how bright a line the age of 18 ought to be where the death penalty was concerned.

Beazley lost crucial votes by the closest of margins: one Supreme Court appeal denied him on a 3-3 tie, and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles turned him down 10-7.

If these votes reflected uncertainty over the juvenile death penalty as a policy, the matter would soon pass the tipping point to a resolution: Napoleon Beazley was the 19th person put to death in the modern American death penalty regime for a crime committed as a juvenile. Only three more followed before the Supreme Court (consisting of the same nine justices who had rejected Beazley’s appeal a few years before) ruled the death penalty for minors unconstitutional in the 2005 Roper v. Simmons decision.

There’s cinematic treatment of Beazley’s shocking crime in the recent documentary Two Hours to Tyler. There’s also a play about him.

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1797: Gracchus Babeuf, for the Conspiracy of Equals

Add comment May 27th, 2010 Headsman

If the “revolutionary extremist” exists at all as an identifiable type, he exists in purest incarnation in Gracchus Babeuf. No revolutionary better fits the description “narrowminded to the point of genius”; few have defined their heaven more clearly or crusaded so fanatically, ascetically, so religiously to bring it to earth.

-Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist

On this date in 1797, Francois-Noel Babeuf lost his head for the Conspiracy of Equals — the last Jacobin upheaval of the French Revolution, or the first Communist upheaval of post-Revolution modernity.

Francois-Noel — he styled himself “Gracchus” after the populist Roman tribunes — was a young man of Desmoulins‘ generation but from a considerably more hardscrabble background. Like the starry-eyed Dantonist scribbler, Babeuf discovered himself a brilliant journalist and pamphleteer with the onset of the Revolution; he did several prison stints during various revolutionary phases of the early 1790s for his too-radical-for-school opinions.

He did another in 1795 under the French Directory for his firebreathing rag Le Tribun du Peuple, which was particularly unfashionable stuff during the post-Robespierre Thermidorian regime.

Nothing daunted, Babeuf emerged from prison the leading apostle of the Parisian proletariat which had by then been decisively separated from power.

The order of the day was class consolidation with the spoils of the aristocracy apportioned among a new oligarchy of wealth. As France rushed headlong towards Bonaparte and Bourbon restoration, Babeuf was the man left to rally “the party which desires the reign of pure equality.”

The French Revolution was nothing but a precursor of another revolution, one that will be bigger, more solemn, and which will be the last.

The people marched over the bodies of kings and priests who were in league against it: it will do the same to the new tyrants, the new political Tartuffes seated in the place of the old.

-Manifesto of the Equals, 1796

One can see why later revolutionaries — Marx included; Babeuf makes a cameo in the Communist Manifesto — would adopt this sort of thing as a harbinger of the next century’s revolutions.

And if the Directory had known who Nicholas II would be, it would have had no intention of going the way of his family.

Instead, it shut him down in February, 1796: Napoleon Bonaparte personally carried out the operation, just days before he wed Josephine.


The Babeuf Conspiracy. Anonymous French print.

Babeuf’s party comes down to us as a “conspiracy,” under which word the state would charge him and which his follower Philippe Buonarroti would later rebrand the “Conspiracy of Equals”. It was not so much a grassy-knoll type of conspiracy as it was an underground organization.

When its adherents placarded Paris with the seditious “Analysis of the Doctrine of Babeuf” as the city endured a potentially dangerous economic crisis in April 1796, the government was put to a test of its strength.

It passed.

Having infiltrated Babeuf’s network, it arrested the principals on the eve of the Conspiracy’s intended insurrection. They were hailed out of Paris (a safeguard against sympathetic risings) to the commune of Vendome and there put on trial.* Babeuf and his associate Augustin Alexandre Darthe were condemned to death on May 26th and guillotined the very next day.

The last gasp of the French Revolution dropped with their heads into the basket.

Revolutionary Babeuvism, however, had scarcely just begun.

I don’t know what will become of the republicans, their families, and even the babies still at their mothers’ breasts, in the midst of the royalist fury that the counter-revolution will bring. O my friends! How heart-rending these thoughts are in my final moments! … To die for the fatherland, to leave a family, children, a beloved wife, all would be bearable if at the end of this I didn’t see liberty lost and all that belongs to sincere republicans wrapped in a horrible proscription.

-Babeuf’s last letter to his family

* The trial of Babeuf was itself a jurisprudential milestone: it was the first French trial to be transcribed verbatim.

What might look today like a nifty little advance for efficient judicature was bitterly controversial in 1797. The French Revolution had overturned an ancien regime practice of professional magistrates accepting legal testimony by written deposition and deciding matters behind closed doors. The liberte, egalite, fraternite way would instead demand that testimony be given live in the courtroom where citizen jurors could weigh its credibility.

Babeuf’s lawyer, Pierre-Francois Real, protested against the court stenographers, arguing that “The law insists that the system of written depositions not be restored in any way. That system will undoubtedly return if any means are used to save testimony given orally.”

There’s a fascinating disquisition on the curious and contradictory development of this issue and the way it “violates … common assumptions about the advance of textuality in the West” during the French Revolution in Laura Mason, “The ‘Bosom of Proof': Criminal Justice and the Renewal of Oral Culture during the French Revolution” The Journal of Modern History, March 2004.

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1946: Marcel Petiot, Vichy serial killer

Add comment May 25th, 2010 Headsman

Paris, 1942.

On the run from the Gestapo — as a Jew or a Gypsy, a common criminal or a Resistance fighter whose cover is blown — you get wind of a man who can help.

“Dr. Eugène” will (for a fee) spirit you over the Pyrenees and thence to South America. In his house at rue le Sueur, you make the arrangements. One small matter: the tropics requires an inoculation, which le bon docteur will readily provide. One small prick of the needle and then …

The needle contained cyanide and the destination turned out to be a lime pit, and so “Dr. Eugène” — Marcel Petiot — was guillotined this date in 1946.

His opportunistic exploitation of the dangerous Vichy years is what he’s famous for, but Petiot had decades of crime behind him by the time he got his phony “underground railroad” up and running.

From youthful compulsive thieving, Petiot graduated into a shady medical practice in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne where he was the resident black market abortionist.

He’s thought to have killed a mistress there, and maybe a couple of others, but was able to segue into a political career by winning the mayoralty of Villaneuve when he sabotaged his opponent’s campaign appearances. The sticky-fingered Petiot naturally plundered the town treasury and was forced out of office in 1931.

By the time the war years had rolled around, Petiot had judiciously relocated to Paris where he retained his capacity for professional advancement in the face of profoundly disturbed behavior: he was institutionalized for kleptomania the same year he was appointed an official médecin d’état-civil.

So he had the requisite two-faced background for his whackadoodle wartime “escape route”, which he creepily code-named “Fly-Tox.”

Twists and turns elided — trutv.com and crimemagazine.com both have detailed biographies/case histories — Petiot’s enterprise was quasi-exposed early in 1944 when the stink of incinerating bodies prompted neighbors to summon the police and uncover his charnel house.

Amazingly, Petiot was able to beg off with the claim that he was a Resistance activist — these were French police — and that the victims were Nazis or collaborators who had been eliminated by his network on orders. The Gestapo had sniffed him out too late in the war to do anything about him, but its judgment that Petiot was a “dangerous lunatic” actually turned out to bolster the deranged doctor’s case that he was an anti-fascist.

The alibis fell apart as the war wrapped up, and Petiot was finally recognized in a Paris manhunt and brought to trial for 27 homicides. Police thought 60-plus was more like it — maybe even into the hundreds — but secured 26 of the 27 counts. That’s more than enough to do a man to death, especially since they were the for-fun-and-profit murders of desperate people already on the run from the late and hated occupying army. Bit of a touchy subject in France in ’46.

But there was good news.

This London Times (May 27, 1946) observed that Petiot’s beheading marked

the first time that the guillotine has been used since the war. Until now executions have been by firing squads. Although gruesome, it is one more indication of the return of this country to normal civil ways of life.

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1725: Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker General and Receiver of Stolen Goods

8 comments May 24th, 2010 Anthony Vaver

(Thanks to Anthony Vaver, author and publisher of EarlyAmericanCrime.com for the guest post. Vaver is the author of Bound With An Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America. -ed.)

A buzz filled the air as people stood on their toes and filled every window in an attempt to get a glimpse of the great Jonathan Wild as he was paraded through the London streets on Monday, May 24, 1725. Despite the festive atmosphere surrounding the procession, Wild appeared to be unmoved by the shouts of the crowd, his attention focused instead on the Bible held open in his hands. After traveling about a third of the way to his destination, the procession stopped at the Griffin Tavern, so that Wild could drink a glass of wine.

Not long after leaving the Griffin Tavern, a rock thrown from a window hit Wild in the head, and blood began to pour down his face. The crowd roared with approval and people started to hurl insults at him, along with more stones and dirt. The cart stopped twice more before reaching its final destination: first at the White Lion, where Wild drank another glass of wine, and once again at the Oxford Arms, home of the bare-knuckle boxing champion James Figg, where Wild drank a tankard of beer and even more wine. His next and final stop was Tyburn Hill, where he was scheduled to be executed.

Convicts often stopped for drinks at various taverns during their march from Newgate Prison to Tyburn to be executed, so the fact that Wild stopped at three along the way to his execution was not unusual. What was unusual, however, was the fact that he was able to hold down his liquor, given that the previous night at two in the morning he had tried to kill himself in his jail cell by drinking a large dose of laudanum, a concoction of opium dissolved in alcohol. Wild was already in a half-stupefied state before his slow journey to the gallows and his wine drinking had even begun.

Wild’s dramatic execution marked a precipitous fall for a man who was perhaps the most influential person in England’s criminal justice system, even though he never held an official government position. As the self proclaimed “Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland,” Wild was instrumental in capturing and bringing to justice scores of petty thieves that plagued the London streets. He consulted the government on the passage of laws intended to encourage the capture of criminals. He also oversaw a vast criminal empire, the likes of which has never been duplicated.

Wild ran an Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property where people could apply to him for help in recovering their possessions for a fee that fell below what it would cost them to replace the objects. Wild would then use his connections in the criminal underworld to recover the goods and return them to the owner. His business proved to be extremely popular.

In addition to recovering lost and stolen property, Wild was particularly adept at catching and prosecuting criminals, a public service that enhanced his general reputation and gained the approval of the authorities. In the absence of a true police force, the government relied on rewards to encourage people to police the streets themselves. Anyone who could capture a thief and convict him or her with evidence received a reward of £40, far more than what most people in England could earn in a year. Wild benefited from this policy by collecting a fee every time he was able to prosecute a criminal. His office, then, essentially served as the de facto “Scotland Yard” of the day.

Wild’s knack for catching criminals brought him great renown. He often appeared at trials to give evidence against the criminals he helped to capture. He got to know the bailiffs of the prisons and could be seen socializing in the local taverns with Justices of the Peace. He entertained government officials in his house.

The public remained blissfully unaware that there was another, more sinister, side to Wild.

In point of fact, the man supposedly responsible for clearing the streets of criminals was also the head of a vast criminal empire and a well-oiled criminal machine. Wild’s Lost Property Office turned out to be a clearinghouse for stolen goods that members of his own organized gang had themselves acquired. The thieves he apprehended, supposedly for the good of the community, were fall guys; they either belonged to rival gangs, or were members of his own gang who tried to double-cross him, quit his business, or had ceased to be more valuable than the £40 reward given by the government for capturing and convicting a criminal. Wild sent many of these criminals to the gallows by appearing in court to give evidence — real or otherwise — against them. The unofficial head of crime prevention was in actuality the foremost perpetrator of crime and organizer of criminals in London and throughout Great Britain.

Wild’s downfall began when he helped prosecute the thief and burglar Jack Sheppard, whose daring and dramatic escapes from the notorious Newgate Prison turned him into a folk hero. Public opinion soured on the “Thief-Taker General” and his involvement with Sheppard’s execution … and when details of Wild’s criminal operation emerged after his arrest for receiving stolen goods, the public was furious.

When Wild finally reached the gallows at Tyburn, the noise from the crowd was so loud that the Ordinary of Newgate found it almost impossible to say his prayers with Wild and the three other criminals scheduled to die. The hangman, Richard Arnet, who years before had been a guest at Wild’s wedding, tried to give Wild as much time as he needed before preparing him for execution. The crowd, however, grew restless and threatened to tear Arnet to pieces if he did not proceed in carrying out his duties immediately. Reluctantly, Arnet placed a noose around Wild’s neck.

A great shout went up from the crowd as the cart drove away leaving the convicts dangling from the ropes tied around their necks. After the drop, Wild desperately grabbed onto Robert Harpham, who was being executed for coining, in an attempt to lift himself up and slacken the rope connected to his neck. Arnet intervened and separated the two, and after a few minutes, the life of Jonathan Wild came to an end at the age of about 42.

Almost as soon as Wild’s body was cut down, a rumor began to circulate that it was being carried off to the Surgeon’s Hall for dissection. The bodies of executed criminals were often used for such a medical purpose, but the practice usually led to a struggle between the surgeons, who were trying to take the body of the criminal away, and the disapproving crowd. In this case, Jonathan’s wife, Mary Wild, had arranged to circulate the rumor that he had been turned over to the surgeons as a ruse, so that his body could be properly buried without interference. Her plan didn’t work. Three or four days after it was buried Wild’s body was dug up from the St. Pancras churchyard by the surgeons.

Today, Jonathan Wild’s skeleton can be seen on display at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.


The skeleton of Jonathan Wild at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

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1906: Ivan Kalyayev, moralistic assassin

Add comment May 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1906, Ivan Kalyayev (also transliterated Kaliayev, or Kaliaev) was hanged by his own assent for assassinating Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in Moscow.

The Warsaw-born Kalyayev tread the usual path of student radicals — expulsion, arrest, internal exile — into the camp of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and the trendy propaganda-of-the-deed philosophy.

He was the very epitome there of what Chaliand and Blin call “the moralistic approach to terrorism”; he would slay, of course, from a profound sense of moral outrage, but contextualized that terrible act with a no less dramatic sense of personal moral responsibility.

Revolutionary fellow-traveler Boris Savinkov remembered** of our day’s principal that he

loved the revolution with the tender, profound love felt for it only by those who have made it an offering of the whole of their lives.

Kalyayev voluntarily aborted his first attempt to murder the Grand Duke when he beheld his target’s wife and child riding along in the carriage where he meant to toss his bomb. Upon successfully carrying out the hit two days later, he made no attempt to flee, and at trial requested the death sentence for himself.†

In this behavior, Kalyayev presents the fascinating specter of a terrorist whose certainty of the justice of his crime does not excuse himself from moral responsibility for the crime.

For Kalyayev, the murder itself and its mortal expiation completed its own redemptive cycle. As the murderer wrote to his mother,

I am happy to know I acted in obedience to the call of my duty … It would be ridiculous to think of saving my life now, when my end makes me so happy. I refused to sign the petition for pardon, and you know why. It was not because I have spent all my physical and mental powers; on the contrary, I have preserved all that life gave me for my last triumph in death … I could not accept pardon because it is against my convictions.

This striking attitude recommended him to Camus, who featured it in Les Justes (The Just Assassins), a 1949 play exploring the morality of terrorism.

The second act of the play features Kalyayev’s revolutionary cell disputing his decision not to follow through on his first opportunity to kill the Grand Duke. Ignacio Gotz describes our killer’s posture as, “kill only when absolutely necessary and then accept your own death as proof that murder is not permitted.”

That’s what love is — giving everything, sacrificing everything, without any hope of it being returned.

-The character Ivan Kalyayev, in Les Justes

This was not the only ethos competing for purchase on the story and the soul of Ivan Kalyayev.

The widowed Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna visited her husband’s assassin in prison and unavailingly attempted to convert him to Orthodox Christianity. (The Grand Duchess would take her own solace in a religious life, ultimately being martyred by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War; she has since been canonized.)

The Russian paper Novaya Gazeta published a fairly lengthy Russian-language biography of Kalyayev on the centennial of his entry into the executioner’s annals.

* May 23 was the Gregorian date of the execution; it was May 10 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time.

** Cited in The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda.

† With the requisite grandstanding, of course — a moral indictment given added depth by Kalyayev’s personal conduct.

We are separated by mountains of corpses, by hundreds of thousands of broken lives, by an ocean of tears and blood that is flooding the entire country in a torrent of outrage and horror. You have declared war on the people. We have taken up the challenge … You are prepared to say that there are two moralities, one for mere mortals, stating, “Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal,” and another, political, morality for the rulers, for whom it permits everything.

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1997: Bruce Edwin Callins, in the machinery of death

3 comments May 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Bruce Edwin Callins was executed in Texas — part of the torrid pace of executions unleashed in Texas in the late 1990s.

This small-timer would hardly rate a notice, but for the fact that Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun had chosen this otherwise forgettable murderer’s appeal to announce, in 1994, his belief that the death penalty was irreperably unconstitutional — probably the most famous comment on the death penalty to issue from the bench since capital punishment was reinstated with Blackmun’s concurrence in Gregg v. Georgia.

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.

You’ll see the quote on anti-death penalty placards and apparel from now ’til kingdom come.

But there’s a bit more to it than what fits on a bumper sticker, and Blackmun’s reasoning is worth excerpting at greater length:

Within days, or perhaps hours, the memory of Callins will begin to fade. The wheels of justice will churn again, and somewhere another jury or another judge will have the unenviable task of determining whether some human being is to live or die. We hope, of course, that the defendant whose life is at risk will be represented by competent counsel — someone who is inspired by the awareness that a less-than-vigorous defense truly could have fatal consequences for the defendant. We hope that the attorney will investigate all aspects of the case, follow all evidentiary and procedural rules, and appear before a judge who is still committed to the protection of defendants’ rights — even now, as the prospect of meaningful judicial oversight has diminished. In the same vein, we hope that the prosecution, in urging the penalty of death, will have exercised its discretion wisely, free from bias, prejudice, or political motive, and will be humbled, rather than emboldened, by the awesome authority conferred by the State.

But even if we can feel confident that these actors will fulfill their roles to the best of their human ability, our collective conscience will remain uneasy. Twenty years have passed since this Court declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly, and with reasonable consistency, or not at all, see Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), and, despite the effort of the States and courts to devise legal formulas and procedural rules to meet this daunting challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake. This is not to say that the problems with the death penalty today are identical to those that were present 20 years ago. Rather, the problems that were pursued down one hole with procedural rules and verbal formulas have come to the surface somewhere else, just as virulent and pernicious as they were in their original form. Experience has taught us that the constitutional goal of eliminating arbitrariness and discrimination from the administration of death, see Furman v. Georgia, supra, can never be achieved without compromising an equally essential component of fundamental fairness – individualized sentencing. See Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978).

It is tempting, when faced with conflicting constitutional commands, to sacrifice one for the other or to assume that an acceptable balance between them already has been struck. In the context of the death penalty, however, such jurisprudential maneuvers are wholly inappropriate. The death penalty must be imposed “fairly, and with reasonable consistency, or not at all.” Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 112 (1982).

To be fair, a capital sentencing scheme must treat each person convicted of a capital offense with that “degree of respect due the uniqueness of the individual.” Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. at 605 (plurality opinion). That means affording the sentencer the power and discretion to grant mercy in a particular case, and providing avenues for the consideration of any and all relevant mitigating evidence that would justify a sentence less than death. Reasonable consistency, on the other hand, requires that the death penalty be inflicted evenhandedly, in accordance with reason and objective standards, rather than by whim, caprice, or prejudice. Finally, because human error is inevitable, and because our criminal justice system is less than perfect, searching appellate review of death sentences and their underlying convictions is a prerequisite to a constitutional death penalty scheme.

On their face, these goals of individual fairness, reasonable consistency, and absence of error appear to be attainable: courts are in the very business of erecting procedural devices from which fair, equitable, and reliable outcomes are presumed to flow. Yet, in the death penalty area, this Court, in my view, has engaged in a futile effort to balance these constitutional demands, and now is retreating not only from the Furman promise of consistency and rationality, but from the requirement of individualized sentencing as well. Having virtually conceded that both fairness and rationality cannot be achieved in the administration of the death penalty, see McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279, 313 , n. 37 (1987), the Court has chosen to deregulate the entire enterprise, replacing, it would seem, substantive constitutional requirements with mere aesthetics, and abdicating its statutorily and constitutionally imposed duty to provide meaningful judicial oversight to the administration of death by the States.

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years, I have endeavored — indeed, I have struggled — along with a majority of this Court, to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor. Rather than continue to coddle the Court’s delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies. The basic question — does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants “deserve” to die? — cannot be answered in the affirmative.

Antonin Scalia, never one to let pass an opinion he could just as easily scorn, issued his retort in a concurrence with the 8-1 opinion to execute Callins:

Convictions in opposition to the death penalty are often passionate and deeply held. That would be no excuse for reading them into a Constitution that does not contain them, even if they represented the convictions of a majority of Americans. Much less is there any excuse for using that course to thrust a minority’s views upon the people.

Justice Blackmun begins his statement by describing with poignancy the death of a convicted murderer by lethal injection. He chooses, as the case in which to make that statement, one of the less brutal of the murders that regularly come before us, the murder of a man ripped by a bullet suddenly and unexpectedly, with no opportunity to prepare himself and his affairs, and left to bleed to death on the floor of a tavern.* The death-by-injection which Justice Blackmun describes looks pretty desirable next to that. It looks even better next to some of the other cases currently before us, which Justice Blackmun did not select as the vehicle for his announcement that the death penalty is always unconstitutional, for example, the case of the 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat. How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!

Scalia’s mention of the “case of the 11-year-old girl” isn’t about Callins at all. The monster Scalia refers to here as obviously execution-worthy for his incendiary crime is Henry Lee McCollum … who in 2014 would be exonerated by DNA evidence after some 30 years on death row.

* Specifically, Callins wasted the patron of a strip bar who was insufficiently prompt at giving up his wallet. The $3 he took from the dying man’s pockets wouldn’t even have been enough to make it rain.

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1987: Edward Earl Johnson, “I guess nobody is going to call”

9 comments May 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1987, murmuring “I guess nobody is going to call,”* Edward Earl Johnson was gassed for capital murder in Mississippi’s Parchman Farm prison.

Don Cabana, the prison warden who oversaw Johnson’s gassing, eventually resigned over his misgivings about carrying out executions and wrote this book about it.

Johnson was convicted of raping a white woman and killing the policeman who answered her distress call. These are no-nos for a young person of color in the South.

Johnson fought his execution for eight years on death row, insisting on his innocence even on his last walk to the gas chamber.

And the case against him looks pretty thin — supported, as these things so often are, mostly by a highly suspect confession Johnson miraculously coughed up when he was out on a drive with John Law. (This led the victim, who knew Johnson and had excluded him as the attacker, to decide he did it after all.)

Needless to say, Johnson’s state-appointed public defender was unable to make the most of these gaping lacunae in the state’s case.

Years later, the prison warden Don Cabana — who was on this date overseeing his very first execution, and was deeply shaken by it — recalled his charge’s fearful situation in testimony to the Minnesota legislature:

He insisted to the very end, somewhat oddly, that he did not commit the crime … my experience with condemned prisoners was always that once strapped to the chair, they came around somehow with something, if only something simple as “Tell the victim’s family I’m sorry,” “Tell my mother I’m sorry,” something that indicated something bad had happened, I was there and I was part of it.

But not so with this young man. When I performed my ritualistic function of asking if he had a final public statement, this young man looked me in the eye with tears streaming down his cheeks, and he said: “Warden, you’re about to become a murderer. I did not kill that policeman, and dear God, I can’t make anyone believe me.”

This is a musty old case by now, but with the growing awareness of false confessions as a contributing factor in wrongful convictions, it may soon come in for a long-overdue re-examination.

Johnson, unfortunately, does not have any prospect of an a-ha forensic science win. However, as with Cameron Todd Willingham‘s case, there’s simply no balance of evidence that should point a fair-minded present-day observer to a conviction beyond reasonable doubt, and a good deal that points to an affirmative conclusion of innocence.

As the (admittedly partisan) Wrongful Conviction: International Perspectives on Miscarriages of Justice sums up,

[t]he murder weapon was never connected to Johnson; indeed, no physical evidence linked Johnson to the crime. The case against Johnson is weakened by his claim of inadequate counsel, his immediate recantation of his confession, and his claim that his confession was produced under threat of death. Also, after Johnson’s execution, a young woman came forward claiming to have been with Johnson on the night of the murder, and claiming also that she had come forward during the investigation but was rebuffed by police.

Edward Earl Johnson is the subject of the riveting BBC documentary Fourteen Days in May.

* Quoted in the New York Times, May 21, 1987.

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2005: Richard Cartwright, uncensored

3 comments May 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Richard Cartwright was executed in Texas for robbing and murdering a gay man in Corpus Christi.

Cartwright attained some recognition (if not exactly a plausible purchase on clemency) as the writer of Uncensored from Texas Death Row, a sort of death row blog.

(As befits a blogger in the early 2000s, Cartwright also had a MySpace page, which remains active. “Chi-town” grew up in Chicago. He played youth hockey there, for this club. This is the sort of thing one learns about bloggers.)

Cartwright was admittedly involved in the robbery-murder, though he insisted he wasn’t the one who did the murdering.

Whatever one makes of that, his fairly prolific “Uncensored” series over the last six months of his life furnish a sometimes bracingly personal chronicle of a man among the lowest of the dead … and drawing nearer and nearer to a fate he realizes he cannot avert.

People are looking at me differently, like they are trying to instill into memory or something. They don’t mean to, but they do, and it is spooky. Like I am already dead.

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1990: Dalton Prejean, cop-killing child

1 comment May 18th, 2010 Headsman

Just after midnight this date in 1990, Dalton Prejean was electrocuted in Louisiana for murdering state trooper Donald Cleveland.

A 17-year-old (at the time of the crime) black youth who tested just this side of mentally disabled, Prejean shot Cleveland during a traffic stop. (He was, at the time, just seven months out of a reform school stint he had served for murdering a taxi driver at the tender age of 14.)

It was a three-day trial with an all-white jury, and not much question as to Prejean’s culpability.

But as he neared the execution of that sentence, his youth and his limited candlepower loomed ever larger. They would generate worldwide attention with some heated rhetoric like this one from Amnesty International’s southern regional director:

“I doubt that in documented recent world history there is an execution” with “such a pile of reasons not to do it.”

The Louisiana board of pardons agreed — it recommended commutation — but Gov. Buddy Roemer did not.

Dalton Prejean’s was the first execution of a juvenile offender in the United States since the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that practice in the 1989 decision Stanford v. Kentucky. That decision was reversed in 2005, and minors are no longer eligible for death-sentencing in the U.S.

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1995: Girvies Davis, framed?

6 comments May 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1995, Illinois executed Girvies Davis for murdering 89-year-old Charles Biebel in Belleville, Ill.

A small-time African-American hood reared in an alcoholic home, Davis was not linked to the murder by any physical evidence, or even any eyewitnesses. There was only one piece of evidence against him: his signed confession.

Unfortunately, the source lacked all credibility.

Davis copped to some 20 crimes under police interrogation. Officially, he did this when he voluntarily wrote out a list of evildoings and spontaneously passed it to a guard, which would be hard to believe even if the guy weren’t nearly illiterate. (Even the official story later became that Davis must have dictated the confession to someone else, like a cellmate.)

According to Davis’s later account, he signed statements the police had prepared for him … at gunpoint. The police logs say that he was taken out for a drive that night (“for evidence”), and conveniently confessed in the small hours of the morning.

Even though our man’s involvement in most of these “admitted” crimes (anything outstanding in the area that was still unsolved, it seems) was disproven, he couldn’t get traction in the courts once his conviction by an all-white jury was secured. Paradoxically, because there was no other evidence in the case to discredit, that “a-ha!” exoneration moment became all but impossible to secure despite the other holes in the case.

More action was had in the court of public opinion, where the usual suspects enlisted any number of pro-death penalty prosecutors and Republicans with serious misgivings about the case.

Time magazine lodged a naive early entrant in the “wait, wrongful confessions happen?” genre. The New York Times also covered the Davis clemency campaign:*

“The public sees the Bundys and the Gacys executed and they cheer,” said Gary V. Johnson, a former Kane County, Ill., prosecutor, who sought the death penalty in the past but opposes the execution of Mr. Davis. “The public doesn’t see the Girvies Davises.”

What savvy pols like Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar could see was that in the 1990s, all the political upside was in denying clemencies. So that’s what he did.

Years later, Davis’s last appellate attorney still believes “that the State of Illinois executed Girvies Davis for a crime I am sure he didn’t commit.”

Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess was also convinced of Girvies Davis’s innocence, and led a team of students researching the case back before he was famous for doing exactly that sort of thing. His work did not yield success on this occasion, but to judge by his account (pdf) of a last conversation he and his students had hours before Davis was put to death, it helped lead to the school’s later headline-grabbing wrongful conviction exposes.

Protess put [Davis] on the speakerphone, and the group gathered around. “Try not to mourn for me,” Davis said. “Move on with your lives. Just try to help people like me who get caught up in the system.” …

Davis had a final request: He wanted Protess and the students to promise that this wouldn’t be their last crusade in a capital case.

The room fell silent. “Of all the guys you know on the Row, who do you think most deserves help?” Protess asked.

Buck Williams,” Davis answered without hesitation. “I’m certain he’s innocent.”

Protess … vowed that he and his next group of students would leave no stone unturned for Williams.

Protess was as good as his word.

In less than a year, Williams along with Verneal Jimerson, Willie Rainge and Kenneth Adams were free men after a generation in prison.** These men, known as the “Ford Heights Four”, would win the largest civil rights lawsuit payment in U.S. history for their wrongful imprisonment.

* Davis may also have been the first death-row prisoner in the U.S. with his own Internet site and online clemency petition, although these interesting artifcats have long since vanished into the digital oubliette. Gov. Edgar reportedly received 1,200 emails asking him to spare his prisoner’s life … testament even then to elected officials’ disregard for online advocacy.

** Williams and Jimerson were on death row; Rainge and Adams were serving life sentences.

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