On this date in 2014, Ohio very clumsily executed Dennis McGuire for raping and stabbing to death an eight-months pregnant woman in 1989.
For no reason better than chance, McGuire‘s was the execution scheduled to arrive when Ohio bowed to the growing scarcity of lethal injection drugs by innovating a new kill-cocktail comprising midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller.
McGuire’s attorneys fought this procedure on the plausible (quite plausible, as we will see) grounds that using an execution as a vehicle for nonconsensual human medical experimentation was liable to end badly.
It did. A Dayton Daily News staff reporter who attended the execution gave the disturbint account
Prison officials say the drugs — a combination never before used in an execution — were delivered at 10:28 a.m.
His daughter cried uncontrollably.
McGuire waved with his wrist, his body strapped down to the table. Then he suddenly yelled out “I love you. I love you,” before his head lay back, his eyes rolled back in his head and he appeared to fall asleep at 10:29 a.m.
Minutes went by without McGuire moving, his family cried as the priest patted them on the back and attempted to console them.
“Oh my god,” his daughter [Amber McGuire] said.
“Don’t watch,” [wife] Missie McGuire said.
At 10:35 a.m. I first noticed McGuire convulse, then gasp. He snorted for air — a sound like a violent snore, a guttural inhale — and then sat still. Then gasped again. Sometimes his mouth just opened soundlessly. At 10:39 a.m. he snorted so loud his daughter covered her ears.
His family cried. “How could this go on for so long?” one of them asked. There was some discussion with the priest that accompanied them saying they thought it would only take five minutes.
(Here’s another (more heavily editorializing) eyewitness account of the event, by McGuire’s priest.)
Predictably, more lawsuits followed, cases that are still working their way through the courts. Just two weeks ago as of this writing, a federal suit filed on behalf of Ohio’s other death row inmates brought a member of Dennis McGuire’s execution team to the stand. Behind an anonymizing cardboard screen, “Team Member No. 10″ characterized the McGuire execution as unlike any of the others he had worked, and said that he “was wondering what was going on” as the prisoner heaved and choked his way to death.
Texas today conducted the first U.S. execution of 2017 with the lethal injection of droll drug murderer Christopher Wilkins.
Wilkins wouldn’t quite qualify for our “volunteers” tag and he fired away at his available appeals all the way to the end. But he also went out of his way not to throw up any barriers, legal or psychological, against putting him into the death penalty system. It has been well said that wretches hang that jurymen may dine, but in Wilkins’s case he mouthed friendly reassurances to teary-eyed jurors who had just condemned him to die.
“You’ve got a job to do. You tell the judge ‘get a rope’ or not,” he had said to them during his sentencing hearing, when a few well-chosen syllables might have made his life worth keeping in their eyes. “Look, it is no big deal. It is no big deal.”
There is — was — a disarming want of pretense in the man, “candid to a degree you don’t see” in the rueful words of his defense attorney. He chatted in that hearing openly about his white supremacist tattoos — just prison swag from his recent stint in the federal pen, he said — and his short temper — explicitly discouraging jurors from cutting him state-of-mind slack for his drug habit — and his dim future course in life. Would he ever change?, prosecutors asked him. “I believe it’s a little late,” the 39-year-old answered, justly.
Wilkins had shot Willie Freeman and Mike Silva dead after Freeman tricked him into buying “crack cocaine” that turned out just to be gravel. He’d continued using with Freeman for some weeks after this offense, but Freeman pissed him off by laughing to his face about the con. (Silva just happened to be with them at the time.) As he warned: a short fuse. It transpired that he had also murdered someone in a dispute over a pay phone.
“I know they are bad decisions,” the too-incisive Mr. Wilkins said, again to his jury. “I make them anyway.”
Out on probation for an armed robbery conviction, this avatar of the classic middle name robbed a convenience store at gunpoint, then shot and killed a deputy who pursued him.
Georgia somehow didn’t have a state public defender system until 2003, a system presenting to the counties who were supposed to appoint indigent defense counsel on a local and ad hoc basis a fine opportunity for callous graft dovetailing the interests of the prosecutor’s office in winning its cases with court’s interest in pinching its pennies.
Accordingly, Baldwin County stuck Holsey with a man to test appellate courts’ standards for minimal representation, an alcoholic attorney named Andy Prince* who was rock-bottoming during the trial to the gobsmacking reported tune of a quart of vodka every night. Prince was disbarred shortly after Holsey’s conviction for robbing another client of $100,000.
According to a tragic Mother Jones profile, Prince, who was white, also happened to get in a dispute around this same time with a black neighbor and hurled some racist invective, which doesn’t seem ideal when your day job consists of trying to keep a black defendant off death row.
The late Prince — he died in 2011 — told an appeals court in 2006 that he “shouldn’t have been representing anyone,” but appeals courts, which must generally find that such “shoulds” clearly “would” have changed the trial outcome, have much less scope to act on the determination.
It’s a massive systemic cheat still in widespread use, albeit not always in such egregious fashion: use some underhanded means to get a death sentence on the books, then argue to every higher court that the deficiency can’t be proven certainly decisive vis-a-vis what might have happened in a fair fight. Do you know Holsey wouldn’t have received a death sentence? He did shoot a cop in the course of committing a violent felony, after all.
There are many general reasons why a robust defense might mitigate a sentence, but the specific reason of interest in Holsey’s case — a reason not litigated by Prince, an omission that likewise foreclosed appeals avenues — was that Holsey was severely mentally disabled.
With a testing IQ around 70, just at the border of the conventional definition for so-called “mental retardation,” Holsey had at the minimum a very strong card for the mitigation phase of the trial — if not an outright bar to execution.** Prince failed to play that card … and as of this date in 2014, American jurisprudence and the state of Georgia determined themselves content to leave it permanently face-down.
* The Guardian article cited in this post calls him Andy Price. As all other media citations I find call him Prince, I’m going with that — but as it’s likely that everyone is copying from the last story instead of doing original reportage, I’m not completely confident that it isn’t Price after all.
** Georgia was actually among the first states to bar the execution of mentally disabled prisoners — although paradoxically its early standard thereafter became one of the nation’s weakest as other states implemented their own over the years. The Supreme Court theoretically bars executing the mentally disabled, but as it has enforced no coherent standard the executing states themselves generally get to decide who qualifies.
Four years ago today, Chinese lawyer Han Bing revealed a shocking execution further to China’s shadowy trade in harvested organs, with a post on the microblogging service Weibo.
The Epoch Times translates this post — which was widely shared, but deleted within days — thus:
This morning witnessed a horrifying practice of execution. The Supreme Court this week contacted the Provincial High Court to re-examine a determined death penalty case. However, the Intermediate People’s Court had the prisoner promptly executed without notifying the relatives for a last farewell visit. The reason for the prompt execution was that the death penalty prisoner had ‘willingly’ signed an organ donation release. To ensure the quality of the organs, the execution was carried out at the hospital. These judges and doctors without conscience turn a hospital into a place of execution and a market for organ trading!
If there has been any subsequent public explication of the details about this event — the identity of the prisoner, the particulars of the transplant — I have not been able to locate it.
China today carried out the controversial execution of Jia Jinglong, a peasant who found a nail gun was his only avenue of redress.
Jia’s village home in the northern Hebei province was demolished three years ago at the order of a local Communist chief who subsequently balked the family of compensation. (They got a small apartment in a high-rise.)
Rapacious developers backed by the power of the state expropriating dwelling-places in an environment of weak legal protections make for one of the most deeply felt abuses in boomtime China, and it goes without saying that it’s a racket where the wealthy and powerful dip their beaks and the other 99% shift as they can and nurse futile grudges. According to the Associated Press, Jia’s village near the city of Shijiazhuang “is overwhelmed by a cacophony of drilling, pounding and jack-hammering coming from construction sites. More than a dozen cranes could be seen in the distance, adjacent to high-rise apartment towers still being built.” As if to add a literary flourish to the injury, Jia also lost the girl in the end as his fiancee, now deprived the prospective roof over her head, promptly called off the wedding.
“What he has experienced is what many are going through or will be going through,” Jia’s sister Jia Jingyuan told reporters. “Because my brother is part of this society’s underclass, he represents the lives of many ordinary people.”
That’s because Jia Jinglong didn’t allow his grudge to remain futile: he used a nail gun to murder the local party chief who wrecked his house and life. It is hardly the only time that a desperate common person has lashed back at the cruelties of state capitalism with the pleasurable self-destruction of personal violence.
While premeditated homicide with a power tool is surely your basic capital case in any jurisdiction keen on the death penalty, the story behind it brought most of China to Jia’s defense; even some state media editorialized for abating the sentence. That wasn’t only in a spirit of vicariously joining the man’s revenge: the severity of the law towards an ordinary citizen charged with slaying an official raised an obvious equal-treatment grievance when contrasted with the likes of the wife of disgraced party boss Bo Xilai, who had a British businessman assassinated but still dodged execution.
(In fairness to the People’s Republic, China has executed powerfulofficials and plutocrats in various other recent high-profile cases.)
Thanks to Twitter friends including @jewssf and @luimnea for tipping me this story.
Jeffrey Landrigan was executed in Arizona for murder on this date in 2010 — via an imprt drug that made his case a recent landmark in the ongoing U.S. tussle over lethal injection.
Landrigan broke out of jail in 1989 where he was serving a second-degree murder sentence and did a first-degree murder in the course of an armed robbery.
By the time this mundanely terrifying killer was ready to face his punishment, U.S. states were beginning to feel the pinch from anti-death penalty activists’ campaign to shut off the supply of a key drug in the lethal injection protocol — sodium thiopental.
Since the very first lethal injections, sodium thiopental has stood as the first of the standard three-drug cocktail: sodium thiopental to induce unconsciousness, pancurnium bromide to inflict muscle paralysis, and potassium chloride to stop the “patient’s” heart.
Sodium thiopental owed this juridical responsibility to its place as the Brand X medical anaesthetic thirty or forty years ago. But in the time since, that medical role has been overtaken by propofol, leaving sodium thiopental ever less frequently manufactured — and exposing a potential vulnerability in the executioner’s supply chain. Death penalty abolitionists targeted that weak point with effect, especially once the last U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, pharma giant Hospira, got out of the game.
Sodium thiopental expires, so states that intend to conduct lethal injection executions couldn’t really stockpile. Instead, they have two options:
Find a new source for sodium thiopental; or,
Find a new lethal injection procedure
In the past few years, those laboratories of democracy known as state legislatures have experimented promiscuously with re-jiggering the lethal injection to account for the inhospitable thiopental climate with the upshot that there no longer remains one standard lethal injection protocol, but multiple mutations innovated and cribbed state by state — and each mutation is liable to change again without warning in response to the next setback.
This ongoing drama has played out throughout the 2010s, but it so happened that Landrigan’s long road to death reached its end about where the scarce thiopental story began.
In Arizona’s case at the comparatively early date of 2010 — back when Hospira had already suspended domestic thiopental manufacture — the gap was filled by requisitioning the drug from an overseas supplier.
Easy enough, one might suppose: C11H17N2NaO2S is C11H17N2NaO2S no matter its brand label.
But it turns out that the production and the import of medical drugs are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and neither Arizona nor the fly-by-night British pharmaceutical maker it contracted had bothered satisfying the paperwork requirements. Landrigan’s appellate lawyers fastened on this failure, arguing that the state’s calculated ignorance of its drug’s purity was inviting a painful botch.
Landrigan’s story and the larger lethal injection crisis into which it fits was the subject of the very first episode of the popular podcast More Perfect — whose beat is the U.S. Supreme Court.
That institution had a low moment in this drama interceding at the 11th hour to okay Landrigan’s execution after a Kafkaesque legal shell game in which Arizona repeatedly ignored lower courts’ orders to supply documentation about its proposed execution drug, then argued — and won the argument! — that the prisoner’s lawyers were only speculating that the drug might be impure or harmful and couldn’t prove any problem. Try that one out on your customs officer the next time you get pinched carrying contraband at the border. A Ninth Circuit Court judge punished bad faith with a stay of execution, but the high court reversed that stay on a 5-4 vote this very October 26, allowing Landrigan’s execution hours later.
“The state flatly stonewalled the lower courts by defying orders to produce information, and then was rewarded at the Supreme Court by winning its case on the basis that the defendant had not put forward enough evidence,” Hofstra law professor Eric Freedman lamented to the New York Times. “That is an outcome which turns simple justice upside-down and a victory that the state should be ashamed to have obtained.” It’s a line that mirrors the critique exasperated death penalty advocates have leveled against their foes for suing to block “cruel and unusual” executions on the back of drug supply kinks that they themselves engineered.
The messy resolution of Landrigan’s own case was very far from a solution to the underlying dilemma. In the years since, European manufacturers have themselves been squeezed out of the lethal injection supply chain by anti-death penalty pressure, while the states’ various adaptations have worked themselves out in a mess of litigation and human experimentation. It’s a story still being written — into the very flesh, sometimes, of men like Jeffrey Landrigan.
Vietnam on this date in 2013 made its first-ever use of lethal injection for the execution of Nguyen Anh Tuan. Anh Tuan robbed and murdered a woman in 2009.
The new execution method was scheduled to take effect July 1, 2011, fully replacing the firing squad, but had a delayed rollout.
As in its country of birth, America, the needle-and-gurney contraption was afflicted by by shortages of the killing drugs. The European Union’s unwillingness to permit import for use in capital punishment eventually led Vietnam to arrange for local production instead.
We have in these pages actually already encountered one of Ertman and Pena’s slayers in these pages: Jose Medellin, who was executed in 2008. That case was notable for the litigation resulting from Texas’s failure to comply with the Vienna Convention by notifying the Mexican consulate of Medellin’s arrest — and the Medellin post focuses on that issue. This post turns instead to the crime itself.
On June 24, 1993, Ertman and Pena — 14- and 16-year-old Waltrip High School students desperate to beat curfew — took a late-night shortcut along a railroad skirting the White Oak Bayou.
At a railroad trestle in T.C. Jester Park, just moments from home, they encountered our man Derrick O’Brien, Jose Medellin, and four other young men toasting a gang initiation. The six fell on the vulnerable girls and raped both, then strangled them with shoelaces.
Even for a city as large as Houston, it was a shattering crime that still haunts the lost girls’ friends and neighbors.
Memorial to Ertman and Pena in T.C. Jester Park. (cc) image by Pepper Hastings.
Politically, it thrust gangs to the front of the agenda for Houston pols. The girls’ kin* also fought successfully to adjust Texas Department of Criminal Justice procedure in order to permit victims’ family members to witness executions, an innovation that is now widely used throughout the U.S.
O’Brien, barely 18 when he took part in the murder, turned up in the crowd gawking at the crime scene when it was first discovered, and some video footage chances to catch him smiling and laughing. He would eventually be the first person put to death for the Ertman-Pena murder.
On this date in 2010, Chongqing politician Wen Qiang was executed for corruption — but the rival who felled him was on the brink of his own destruction.
Wen, the longtime Public Security Bureau chief in the southwestern city of Chongking, was a big dog to most. To Bo Xilai, Wen looked more like trophy game.
Son of an “immortal” Communist pol Bo Yibo, the aggressive and charismatic Politburo member Bo was then an ascending star on the national stage.
In 2007, Bo won the Communist Party’s appointment as party chief of Chongqing — effectively giving him control of the city. From this platform, Bo launched a high-profile crackdown on graft and organized crime rife in the 30 million-strong megacity.
During a campaign from roughly 2009 to Bo’s own fall in 2012, some 9,000 people were investigated for corruption, and nearly half of them jailed … or in Wen’s case, worse.
“Dare to fight against the devil, never compromise with the gangs”: Bo’s act resonated powerfully in a country fractured by economic development and widely afflicted by beak-wetting. But Bo’s political angle was not merely playing to the peanut gallery: it was also a factional power play, implicitly critical of his similarly powerful predecessor Wang Yang for having tolerated the mobsters’ rise.
And Wen Qiang, a holdover from even before the Wang years, was Bo’s highest-ranking prey.
Xinhua reported that he was found guilty of soliciting USD $1.7 million worth of bribes, of protecting criminals like his sister-in-law who happened to be the “godmother” of crime in Chongqing, and even of raping a university student. Media circulated salacious stories of buried sacks of cash, mistresses collected and discarded, and secret luxury villas.
In these years, Bo went from victory to vctory and destroying Wen was just another stepping-stone towards the top leadership circles in the People’s Republic.
But merely 16 months after Wen faced his executioner, Bo’s own star also dramatically fell to earth.
In November 2011, British businessman and Bo associate Neil Haywood was found suspiciously poisoned in his Chongqing hotel. Practically overnight, Bo Xilai found himself the target instead of the author of the investigation — politically stricken as all his own chickens came home to roost.
An incredible sequence of events ensued: Bo’s chief of police (and Wen’s own Javert) Wang Lijun bizarrely fled to the (temporary) sanctuary of an American consulate the following February, days after Bo demoted him — apparently citing fear that Bo might have him, too, murdered.
Within weeks, Bo had been sacked as Chongqing party boss and dismissed from the Politburo while his wife Gu Kailai arrested for Neil Heywood’s murder. Wang was arrested when he left the American consulate. Politically impotent now, Bo had months to wait before his own divisive case finally came to a courtroom resolution in 2013. As of this writing, Wang and Bo and Gu are all serving long prison sentences. (Gu’s was a suspended death sentence recently commuted to life imprisonment.)
Through Bo’s precipitous fall, Bo’s own patron Zhou Yongkang was also ruined, forced out of national leadership, and eventually sent to prison on corruption charges of his own.
Bo’s disgrace has brought a re-examination of his rough rule in Chongqing — though many targets of his bygone anti-corruption drive still languish in prison, vainly protesting their innocence.
Though he is no longer around to protest on his own behalf, and there appears to be little sentiment that he was clear of corruption in an absolute sense, Wen has also been re-evaluated in light of those events — including indications that the most incendiary allegations against him might have been ginned up for show:
police buried the bundles of cash, carefully wrapped in waterproof paper, in the morning and then dug them up in front of the cameras that afternoon.
Another key piece of evidence used to convict Wen — two luxury villas worth more than 30 million yuan that Wen allegedly owned — has also been questioned.
A former senior police officer in Chongqing who was close to Wen insisted he was the real owner of the villas, where Wen allegedly kept mistresses and which were later turned into destinations for “anti-graft education” tours.
The (possibly apocryphal) story has it than in a prison meeting, the doomed Wen prophesied Danton-like to his persecutor Wang, “You’ll meet the same fate as me.”
There are affecting interviews with Wen’s wife and son, and even a reporter’s conversation with Wen during the very last hours of his life, all here.
On this date in 1996, 29-year-old Daren Lee Bolton was executed in Arizona for the 1986 kidnapping, rape and murder of a Tucson toddler. Bolton had taken two-year-old Zosha Lee Pickett from her bedroom at night, stabbed her to death and left her body in an abandoned taxi in a storage lot two blocks from her home. It was found a couple of days later.
The medical examiner would testify that the toddler may have suffered “excruciating” pain for up to half an hour before she bled out.
After little Zosha’s death, the police lifted some fingerprints but couldn’t match them to any suspect, so in 1987 they sent them out to other states for them to have a try. Bolton had some convictions in Illinois, and so his prints were in the computerized system there. (Arizona didn’t have such a system in place at the time.) In 1990, during a training exercise, Illinois police officers found a match between Bolton’s fingerprints and a print on Zosha’s window screen. At the time, he was already serving time in Arizona for unrelated charges.
At his trial, Bolton admitted he’d been to Zosha’s home and to the cab where her body was found, but denied any part in her murder. Instead, he said he’d planned to break into the Pickett residence with an accomplice named “Phil” but was scared away. Phil, he said, had come back later and taken and killed the little girl. Bolton had then murdered the man and buried his body in the desert.
The jury saw through this wild story and convicted him of burglary, kidnapping and first-degree murder in 1991.
Bolton had the kind of childhood you might expect: shuttled back and forth between his divorced parents and his grandmother, the victim of physical abuse and possibly also sexual abuse, he was designated “severely emotionally handicapped” and had a long string of assaults to his name by the time he dropped out of school.
He was also charged in the 1982 murder of seven-year-old Cathy Barbara Fritz, also of Tucson, but he was executed before he could be tried in that case. The child had been abducted walking home from a friend’s home, sexually assaulted and then beaten and stabbed to death, all while a “Take Back The Night” demonstration was going on nearby. Bolton was sixteen years old at the time, and he knew the Cathy’s brother. DNA evidence later tied to him to the crime.
He maintained his innocence in both murders, but fired his lawyers and dropped his appeals after less than four years; he said he’d rather die than spend the rest of his life in prison.
His last meal consisted of lasagna, cheesecake and Pepsi.
Zosha Pickett’s parents and Cathy Fritz’s father and brothers were among the thirty witnesses who got to watch him die. He had no last words and, while he glanced at the Picketts once, he refused to acknowledge the Fritz family before he breathed his last, a few minutes past midnight.