On this date in 1992, Robyn Leroy Parks was executed by lethal injection for stabbing an Edmond, Okla. gas station minder to death 15 years before. Parks was afraid that Abdullah Ibrahim would call police to report the stolen credit card he was using to gas up, but he left behind at the murder scene a scratch pad on which Ibrahim had noted his license plate number.
Parks’s execution by lethal injection was very badly botched in a scene that anticipated the better-publicized tribulations this supposedly antiseptic execution process has inflicted in recent years.
Parks then endured what looked like a waking strangulation: “the muscles in his jaw, neck, and abdomen began to react spasmodically … [he] continued to grasp and violently gag until death came, some eleven minutes after the drugs were first administered,” in the words of Michael Radelet’s compendium of botched executions.
Tulsa World reporter Wayne Green, an official witness to the debacle, recounted events in the next day’s edition under the discomfiting headline “11-Minute Execution Seemingly Took Forever.”
It was overwhelming, stunning, disturbing — an intrusion into a moment so personal that reporters, taught for years that intrusion is their business, had trouble looking each other in the eyes after it was over.
Liu’s fall was widely perceived as a strike against his close ally, the powerful former security minister Zhou Yongkang. After months — years even — of rumors about his impending fate, Zhou was arrested for corruption in December 2014; he has since been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Jones was a prolific penpal correspondent who had won a worldwide following as he fought his death sentence over half a lifetime.
His accomplice Van Roosevelt Solomon was electrocuted all the way back in 1985 for the same convenience store robbery-murder;* as Liliana Segura recently noted in The Intercept, Jones’s case is heavy with the arbitrariness of capital cases — not only that Jones outlived Solomon by three decades, but also that in that span many other Georgians have committed homicides equal to his in tragic banality, served a term of years for it, and been released. It needs hardly even be said that Jones, like 54 of the other 60 people executed by Georgia since the 1970s, had a white victim: that’s a disparity that courts have washed their hands of even though it was one of the constitutional concerns that led a former incarnation of the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate death penalty statutes in 1972.
While Jones’s death is headline news, his case dates to the earliest years of what is dignified the “modern” death penalty period and as such might more closely resemble the preceding era than the one we inhabit today.
It’s almost a time capsule of the jurisprudence — and sociology — touching capital punishment, even including Jones’s unluckily-timed appeal victory that led to a new sentencing hearing during the gung-ho-to-execute 1990s. Even if the distance of time is extreme, more typical death penalty lags of 8, 10, 15 years mean that most present-day executions are ripples of receding public policy sensibilities — “zombie cases” in the words of Southern Center for Human Rights director Stephen Bright. People like Brandon Jones “almost certainly would not be sentenced to death today,” when prosecutors, judges, and juries all show growing reluctance to don the black cap. But it’s a very different story for those is already tangled in the coils of the system.
* A policeman happened to be arriving right to the same store on a coincidental errand when the crime went down, so the culprits were arrested before they made it off the parking lot.
Despite our occasional predilection for the odd “literally executed today” post, this macabre chronicle has never really aspired to focus on our subject matter’s breaking-news beat.
Nonetheless, the landscape of the death penalty has evolved noticeably in the years since we launched on Halloween 2007. Executions are down in China, but up in Saudi Arabia and Iran; India has ended a long death penalty hiatus; Pakistan began, sustained, and dramatically repudiated a death penalty moratorium.
And in the United States, the prevailing execution method, lethal injection, has fallen under a barrage of legal and political challenges.
Like the guillotine, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and weirder contraptions, the prick of the needle had once been sold as a Solomonic compromise between the executioner and his critics: you still get to kill a guy, but now he doesn’t feel a thing. This time we really mean it!
Lethal injection got some run in the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program but was first approved for regular judicial executions by Oklahoma in 1977, and first used by Texas in 1982. Where gas and electricity transferred industrial technology to the death chamber, with great metal chairs and huge switches like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, injection analogized medicine: silent and light, and so sterile that the technicians would hygienically swab the skin before they pushed in the death-dealing needle.
When capital punishment got its 1970s reboot, it only seemed natural to think about cleaning up the how along with the why. Nearly everyone now had the experience of anaesthetic; it was natural to think that you could just put a man down like the family dog and not have any mess to clean up afterwards.
“Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him,” future president Ronald Reagan had said in proposing the technology while he was still governor of California in 1973. “Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot and the horse goes to sleep. That’s it.”
As executions surged in the 1990s, lethal injection was thoroughly displacing America’s previous humane technologies to become the overwhelmingly predominant method.
And the state of Oklahoma, which had been first with a lethal injection law back in ’77, finally started rolling out gurneys — when it put murder Charles Troy Coleman to death with the needle on September 10, 1990. It was Oklahoma’s first execution in 24 years.*
It was Oklahoma’s medical examiner Jay Chapman who had formulated the three-drug cocktail that for a long time comprised the definitive lethal injection protocol: the short-acting barbiturate sodium thiopental, followed by the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, capped with potassium chloride to stop the heart. Why three drugs, Human Rights Watch later asked him? “Why not?” Chapman was not a pharmacologist and had little expertise with the drugs in question.
Nevertheless, his process “could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is merely the extreme of procedures done daily around the world for surgical procedures,” Chapman insisted when he proposed it. “It’s simply an extreme form of anesthesia.”
Extreme anaesthesia. Was it really?
Even at Coleman’s death, observers saw it differently.
“I saw him choke and gasp and struggle for air,” said Joe Ward, an investigator in the public defender’s office. “It looked like he was choking to death. He looked over … and mouthed the words, ‘I love you.’ Then he looked straight back up and started choking.” Reporter Art Cox, by contrast, viewed it as “a very easy death … a very cold death, very antiseptic.”
Oklahoma has executed well over 100 people since Charles Coleman but if anything the uncertainty about that “easy” and “antiseptic” death has only grown — in the Sooner state and elsewhere.
And the question has become quite urgent during the lifetime of this blog as political pressure on manufacturers has dried up the supply of sodium thiopental, forcing the many states using lethal injection to scramble for a variety of new drug sequences that are basically being invented on the fly and sussed out with live experimentation on the next death row prisoner in the queue.
Oklahoma’s version was to switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital; in January 2014, a man being executed with pentobarbital exclaimed, “I feel my whole body burning.”. Months later, the manufacturer of that drug also cut off the supply, unwilling to be party to the executions it facilitated.
So Oklahoma switched to a third anaesthetic, midazolam, a drug whose execution debut took place in Florida in 2013. The state has also tried to shield its suppliers from anti-death penalty campaigners with a secrecy law.
Proceeding on a mad catch-as-can basis, Oklahoma proceeded to horribly botch its midazolam executions, throwing its new procedure right back to the courts. Just this past June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court narrowly approved the continued use of its midazolam cocktail, which a dissenting justice savaged as “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.”
It’s a story still being written before our eyes — a long quarter-century after Charles Coleman premiered Oklahoma’s modern era of executions on this date in 1990.
* The last previous execution in Oklahoma was that of James French in 1966.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“To all of the racist white folks in America that hate black folks and to all of the black folks in America that hate themselves: in the infamous words of my famous legendary brother, Nat Turner, ‘Y’all kiss my black ass.’ Let’s do it.”
—Brian Roberson, convicted of murder, lethal injection, Texas.
Executed August 9, 2000
Roberson was convicted in the stabbing death of James Boots, seventy-nine, and his wife, Lillian, seventy-five, who lived across the street from him in Dallas. Roberson was African-American and his victims were Caucasian. Amnesty International issued a memo before the execution urging action and “expressing concern at the prosecutor’s systematic exclusion of African-Americans from the trial jury.” Roberson claimed he was “juiced up” on PCP and liquor during the crime. His last words were alternately recorded as “You ain’t got what you want.”
Later that same year, Roberson’s twin brother, Bruce, was arrested for allegedly threatening then President-elect George W. Bush. In a New York Times article, officers reported that Bruce wanted “to take him down.” The piece continued: “Mr. Roberson told them that Mr. Bush ‘stole the election and he’s not going to get away with it.'” Bush had been governor at the time of Brian’s execution.
On this date in 2008, Mexican national Jose Medellin was executed by Texas, pleasurably sticking its thumb in the eye of the International Court of Justice.
U.S. state and local officials have often displayed the ugly-American tendency to view binding treaty obligations as a Washington thing of no moment to the likes of a Harris County prosecutor. So when Medellin was arrested for the 1993 rape-murder of two teenage girls in a Houston park, the idea of putting him right in touch with Mexican diplomats to assist his defense was, we may safely suppose, the very farthest thing from anyone’s mind.
Yet under the Vienna Convention, that is exactly what ought to have occurred. The idea is that consular officials can help a fellow on foreign soil to understand his unfamiliar legal circumstances and assist with any measures for his defense — and by common reciprocity, every state is enabled to look after the interests of its nationals abroad.
A widespread failure to do this, in death cases and others, has involved the United States in a number of international spats over the years.
Jose Medellin was among more than 50 Mexican prisoners named in one of the most noteworthy of these: the Avena case, a suit by Mexico* against the United States in the International Court of Justice.
In its March 31, 2004 Avena decision, the ICJ found that U.S. authorities had “breached the obligations incumbent upon” them by failing in these instances to advise the Mexican nationals it arrested of their Vienna Convention rights, and of failing in almost all those cases likewise to advise Mexican representatives that a Mexican citizen had been taken into custody.
“The appropriate reparation in this case,” the 15-judge panel directed, “consists in the obligation of the United States of America to provide, by means of its own choosing, review and reconsideration of the convictions and sentences of the Mexican nationals.”
If you think the Lone Star State’s duly constituted authorities jumped right on that “obligation,” you must be new around here.
Several years before, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions visited the United States and filed a report complaining “that there is a generalized perception that human rights are a prerogative of international affairs, and not a domestic issue.”
“Domestic laws appear de facto to prevail over international law, even if they could contradict the international obligations of the United States,” the Special Rapporteur noted.
Texas, famed for not being messed with, took a dim view indeed to being bossed about from The Hague. Indeed, the very concept of foreign law and international courts is a gleefully-thrashed political pinata among that state’s predominant conservative electorate.
U.S. President George W. Bush — a former Texas governor who in his day had no time at all for appeals based on consular notification snafus — in this instance appealed to Texas to enact the ICJ’s proposed review.† In fact, he asserted the authority to order Texas to do so.
“The World Court has no standing in Texas and Texas is not bound by a ruling or edict from a foreign court,” a spokesman of Gov. Rick Perry retorted.
This notion that America’s federalist governance structure could insulate each of her constituent jurisdictions from treaty obligations undertaken by the nation as a whole naturally seems preposterous from the outside. But in the U.S., this dispute between Washington and Austin was resolved by the Supreme Court — and the vehicle for doing so was an appeal lodged by our man, Medellin v. Texas.
The question at stake in Medellin was whether the treaty obligation was binding domestic law on its own — or if, by contrast, such a treaty required American legislative bodies to enact corresponding domestic statutes before it could be enforced. The high court ruled for the latter interpretation, effectively striking down Avena since there was zero chance of either Texas or the U.S. Congress enacting such a statute.
Medellin, the decision, spelled the end for Medellin, the man — and, at least for now, the end of any prospect of effectual intervention in American death penalty cases by international tribunals.
“The execution of criminals involved in terrorist attacks and violent crimes answers the calls of all ethnic groups, deters criminal activities, and demonstrates the resolve of the Communist Party of China and the government in cracking down on terrorism,” a Chinese court spokesman said, speaking of three of this date’s condemned who were sentenced together for a series of attacks in Lukqun (Turpan prefecture) that slew 24 police officers.
The executions on this day were surely coordinated for their demonstrative effect, days after Chinese authorities announced a “one-year crackdown” in Xinjiang one day after two SUVs bombed a market in Ürümqi, killing 43 people and injuring over 90 others.
Notwithstanding China’s strenuous attempt to frame the “crackdown” as one targeting only terrorists, security measures have bled insensibly into a crackdown on Muslims, targeting conservative Islamic cultural markers like veiled faces. It’s a sure bet that we haven’t heard the last of this flashpoint.
At 10:29 a.m. on this date in 2013, 46-year-old Steven T. Smith was executed in Lucasville, Ohio for the 1998 murder of his girlfriend’s daughter, Autumn Breeze Carter.
Killer and victim.
The Ohio Parole Board called him “the worst of the worst” and concluded, “It is hard to fathom a crime more repulsive or reprehensible in character.”
No wonder: Smith had literally raped six-month-old Autumn to death.
Summing up the case in January 2002, the Ohio Supreme Court wrote,
We find nothing about the nature and circumstances of the offense to be mitigating. For ten to thirty minutes, Smith brutally raped and murdered Autumn Carter while her mother was asleep in the apartment. The violent nature of the attack was demonstrated by the fact that Autumn’s hair was ripped out, her vagina and anus were seriously damaged, she was suffocated by the weight of Smith on her small body, and she suffered subarachnoid and retinal hemorrhages. The crime is nothing less than a horrific, senseless murder committed against a small, defenseless baby.
Little Autumn died on the night of September 29, 1998. Her mother, nineteen-year-old Kesha Frye, woke up at 3:30 a.m. to discover a naked and extremely drunk Smith placing the baby’s naked body on the bed. Autumn’s tiny pink sleeper was found under the living room coffee table, clumps of her hair were on top of the coffee table, and shreds of her diaper were scattered around the room. The rest of the diaper was in a trash can outside.
According to court documents, paramedics summoned by Frye’s frantic 911 call
observed injuries on [Autumn’s] head and bruising around her eyes. They began CPR, and Autumn was transported to the hospital. The emergency room doctor testified that upon her arrival, Autumn had no pulse and had suffered a retinal hemorrhage. In addition to her visible bruising, the physician also stated that Autumn had bruising around her rectum and that the opening of her vagina was ten times the normal size for a baby her age…
They spent an hour trying to revive her, but it was too late.
Smith denied knowing anything about it: “I didn’t do anything. I’m not sick like that.”
He would keep up his denial for the next fourteen and a half years.
The cause of death was determined to be compression asphyxia and blunt force trauma to the head. Medical experts would testify that Smith could have suffocated the child by accident about three to five minutes into the assault, which may have lasted up to half an hour. The prosecution, however, contended he had deliberately beaten Autumn to death.
(During the trial, the coroner used a baby CPR doll to demonstrate how Autumn was injured. The doll’s head and one its legs actually came off in the process. One is reminded of the “Brides in the Bath” case where, when they were demonstrating how the defendant might have drowned his victim, they nearly killed their model.)
Five witnesses testified on Smith’s behalf during the sentencing phase of his trial. Relatives stated he’d started drinking at age nine or ten and struggled with an alcohol problem his whole life. His biological father was absent and his first stepfather was a violent substance abuser, but his second stepfather was a “decent guy” and his grandmother was also a positive influence early in his life.
A clinicial psychologist who tested him placed his IQ in the low-average range and could find nothing wrong with him mentally other than alcoholism and chronic, mild depression. A corrections officer testified Smith rarely broke the rules in jail and was always respectful of the guards. Prior to his arrest for Autumn’s murder, Smith’s only criminal convictions had been for DUI.
The month before his death, when he appealed to the parole board for clemency, Steve Smith finally admitted his crime. He said he hadn’t meant to kill Autumn and offered the lame excuse that he was too drunk to realize what he was doing. His attorneys called it “a horrible accident.”
That Steve Smith was very, very drunk that night was never in doubt. Eight hours after the attack his blood alcohol level tested at .123, well above the legal limit. The police found ten beer cans in the trash bin with Autumn’s diaper. An expert who testified for the defense believed Smith’s blood alcohol level was somewhere between .36 and .60 at the time of Autumn’s murder — enough to kill most people, but Smith had developed a tolerance.
Smith’s last meal consisted of fried fish, pizza, chocolate ice cream and soda. He declined to make a final statement. He only stared at his daughter behind the glass. She and her cousin wept after Smith was pronounced dead; Autumn’s family cheered.
Kesha Frye: “I’m glad he’s dead, and I hope he burns in hell.”
Patrick Hicks, Autumn’s grandfather: “Because of him, Autumn never had a chance to take her first step, she never had her first birthday or a first day at school. It’s just unfortunate that this man gets to die a peaceful death after the torture he put Autumn through.”
Brittney Smith, Steve’s 21-year-old daughter: “I know my dad’s innocent. I do not believe he did this, and you know, he raised all my cousins, my sister before I was even born, and he never did anything [sexual].”
Steve’s attorney: “He was well-behaved and sober while in prison, causing no problems in the institution and living each day with the guilt and grief caused by his alcohol-fueled crime. While some may trumpet his execution as appropriate revenge for his crime, Ohio is no safer having executed Steven Smith than had he lived the remained of his natural life in prison.”
On this date in 1996, Antonio James downed a last meal of fried oysters and crab gumbo, then went to the death chamber of Angola Prison to suffer lethal injection for the murder of Henry Silver.
Silver was a 70-year-old fellow whom James shot dead in a New Orleans robbery way back in 1979. (Net return: $35.) A few weeks later, he bungled another robbery and ended up shot with his own gun … and under arrest. It was his second murder conviction. Although James dodged 13 death dates and was the senior figure on the state’s death row when his time came, his was pretty unremarkable as death penalty cases go.
This did chance to be the first execution in Louisiana after the film Dead Man Walking (which is set in that state) was released, and it got a bit of additional media coverage as a consequence.
Well, he was laying there, and then he kind of grabbed my hand, so I held his hand, and then I told him, ‘He’s waiting for us. Get ready, we’re going for the ride.’ And I said, ‘The angels are here.’ He kind of smiled, and he said, ‘Bless you.’ That’s the last words he said. And then I nodded my head to go ahead. He was holding my hand real tight. And then after a couple of minutes, he took about three or four deep breaths, and then he relaxed my hand. I do believe right now his soul is in heaven, and he’s OK. And since I believe that, it makes it easier.
On this date in 1985, serial killer Carroll Edward “Eddie” Cole was executed in Nevada.
A smart and troubled Iowa boy, Cole‘s earliest memories were of his mother’s thrashings to scare him into keeping quiet about the affairs she had while dad was away fighting World War II.
One never knows how trauma will work its way with this or that child. In Cole’s case, it twisted him early on: he nursed a deepening hatred for women and a callousness to his fellows that would one day be diagnosed as psychopathy. Cole’s final body count is not known for sure, but while in prison he would claim that the first of them was a bullying schoolmate named Duane whom he drowned. Duane’s death had been ruled by examiners as an accident.
Carroll tested with a genius-level I.Q., but his criminal career was not one of devious brilliance. Alcoholism and petty crime — soon not so petty at all — consumed him in his adolescence and put him on his way to a rootless, lonely life alternating dead end jobs, catastrophic relationships, jail terms, and mental institutions.
The latter two did not acquit themselves well for their frequent contact with the budding butcher. Over and over, Cole was discharged without the benefit of either treatment or restraint even though Cole himself sought help on several occasions. In 1963, a psychiatrist at Stockton State Hospital in California observed that Cole “seems to be afraid of the female figure and cannot have intercourse with her first but must kill her before he can do it.” Then, that doctor approved Cole’s release. It happened again in 1970 when he checked into a Reno facility begging doctors to help him control his fantasies of misogynist violence. The doctors didn’t buy his act and sent him on his way.
Self-medicating from the bottle, Cole drifted to Texas; he married an alcoholic stripper* there, then ended it by torching in a jealous rage the hotel where she resided. Then on to Missouri and a five-year sentence for trying to strangle a little girl there — then Nevada — then back to California. In San Diego in 1971 he finally embarked on his career in homicide, Duane notwithstanding. He picked up a woman in a bar and strangled her to death. Later he would explain that Essie Buck had proven herself faithless to her real partner: vicarious revenge against his adulterous mother.
Again, an institutional failure: Cole was questioned in this murder, but released uncharged.
And thanks to that police misstep, Eddie Cole drifted through the 1970s in a drunken fog, detained several times for the minor crimes he had been committing since his teens, but murdering often without repercussion. Soon enough he experimented with necrophilia and cannibalism, too. “In the case of a woman he murdered in Oklahoma City,” according to Charlotte Greig, “he claims he came out of an alcoholic blackout to find slices of his victim’s buttocks cooking on a skillet.”
Crime Library has a detailed biography of Cole and his murders. “Spree”, with its undertones of passion and energy, doesn’t feel like quite the right word to use for this man’s self-loathing crimes. Few serial killers better exemplify the ease with which one preys on people on the fringe, the police lethargy in investigating a suspicious death that nobody cares about.
In San Diego in 1979, he strangled one woman at his own workplace, then murdered his latest alcoholic wife Diana a few weeks later. Cole was arrested digging his wife’s grave: they still ruled the death accidental. How much simpler just to close the file on the “drunken tramp”?
Cole left California after that and returned to Dallas (pausing long enough in Las Vegas for one of the two murders that would supply him his death sentence). There he slaughtered three women in the span of 11 days and was once again on the verge of being cleared as a suspect when he simply confessed to the police. His existential scream was lost in America’s trackless underbelly; in the end, he had to beg for someone, anyone, to catch and kill him. He would claim to have killed about 35 women but even then investigators, ever skeptical, would chalk more than half that tally up to bravado.
Despite what one might think about Texas’s suitability for culminating a career in self-destruction, Cole caught only a life sentence there. Fortunately for him, his wandering ways made possible a bit of venue-shopping for the death sentence he sought.
In 1984, after his own mother died, he waived extradition and voluntarily went to face two murder charges in Nevada. There he simply pleaded guilty to capital murder.
The careworn killer rocketed from conviction in October 1984 to execution in a today-unthinkable 14 months, steadfastly repelling the attempts of outside advocates to intervene on his behalf or convince him to pick up his appeals. “I just messed up my life so bad that I just don’t care to go on,” he said.
At 1:43 a.m. this date, Cole entered Nevada’s brand-new lethal injection theater. He was not the first executed in Nevada’s (post-Gary Gilmore) “modern” era: Jesse Bishop had earned that distinction in 1979. But he was the first to die in Nevada by that modernized killing technology, lethal injection. Nevada had cribbed the idea from Texas after the Silver State’s lastcutting-edge killing apparatus, the gas chamber, started leaking.
It took Cole about five minutes to finally achieve his death wish … 47 years, six months, 27 days, and those five minutes.
Emerging from the spectacle, Cole’s Nevada prosecutor enthused, “It is enjoyable to see the system work.”