On this day in 2011, multi-filicide Reginald Brooks was executed in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.* He was the fifth man executed that year and, at 66, the oldest since 1999.
Brooks (top) and the children he murdered.
Although his guilt was never in question, he had spent close to thirty years on death row while his appeals wound their way through the system.
On March 6, 1982, just days after his wife filed for divorce, Brooks shot their three sleeping sons: Reginald Jr., 17, Vaughn, 15, and Niarchos, 11. He then bought a bus ticket to Las Vegas, taking the gun with him in his suitcase, as well as his birth certificate and high school diploma. The police caught up with him in Utah.
Brooks had some history of domestic violence, but his only prior arrest had been for grand theft. His aunt, when asking the appeals board for clemency, said he had a normal, loving relationship with his children. Before shooting them all in their sleep, that is.
His attorneys argued that his crimes were motivated by mental illness, namely paranoid schizophrenia. Brooks had a normal childhood and young adulthood, but started to fall apart in the years prior to the murders. He quit his job in the 1970s because he thought his coworkers were trying to poison him. (He never worked again and his wife had to support their family.)
Beginning around 1980, he began isolating himself from friends and family, and accused his wife of committing incest with Reginald Jr. The family tried to get psychiatric help for him, to no avail.
In spite of overwhelming evidence, Brooks never admitted to his crime and suggested various bizarre theories as to what had really happened. A psychiatrist who evaluated him in 2010 and 2011 believed Brooks genuinely could not remember shooting his sons.
There was, however, clear evidence of premeditation: Brooks had purchased the murder weapon nine days before the murders, lying on his application form where it asked if he’d ever been convicted of a felony. He also turned on the stereo in his apartment and left the music blaring loudly, presumably to drown out the sound of the gunshots. Then, after the murders, Brooks immediately left town, taking documents he would need to start a new life — clearly suggesting cognizance of guilt.
The prosecution conceded Brooks did have schizophrenia, but argued that his illness was not so severe as to make him incompetent or legally insane, and that he was lying when he said he couldn’t remember committing the murders. Attorneys for the state suggested he murdered his children to spite his wife, “through a twisted sense of jealousy, hatred, or despair.”
Brooks’s ex-wife, Beverly, witnessed his execution. He had no last words, but he did give a message: glaring at the glass behind which the witnesses were standing, he stuck out the middle fingers of both hands. And as he slowly lost consciousness and breathed his last, his middle fingers still stood erect.
He shot a guard to get into the plant. The guard survived, but four others were not so fortunate as Wise stalked through his former employer’s halls screaming and firing. Police later recovered four empty eight-round magazines.
The human resources director who had fired him was the first Wise killed.
Two men in the tool and die area who had jobs that Wise had once sought unsuccessfully were the next.
A young woman in a job Wise had sought promotion to was wounded with shots to the back and leg, then finished off execution-style.
Wise took to firing almost indiscriminately and wounded a few others, but the body count still might have been higher. Some others Wise saw and could have murdered, but did not — some possibly saved by happenstance, others whom Wise said in court that he declined to shoot because he used to get along with them as coworkers. The whole rampage was calculated to such an extent that Wise took a 9,000-mile road trip to California and Texas to tick a few items off his bucket list first.
Wise always intended to check out at the end of his spree; the SWAT team found him on the floor suffering from a swallow of insecticide that turned out to be non-fatal. The judicial process was the slow train, but the destination remained the same.
“I don’t have much to say except that I did not wish to take advantage of the court as far as asking mercy,” Wise said to the court at his sentencing. “It’s a fair trial. I committed the crimes.”
As good as his word, Wise voluntarily dropped his appeals and went quickly from his 2001 conviction to execution, declining to make any final statement.
The first execution of a woman* in the U.S. “modern” death penalty era took place at Raleigh, North Carolina’s Central Prison on this date in 1984 when 52-year-old Velma Barfield received a lethal injection for poisoning her fiance.**
Barfield was already twice a widow in 1977 when her prospective third spouse Stuart Taylor began suffering agonizing stomach pain at church. He died shortly after.
A thorough coroner and a tip call to police by Barfield’s sister each independently flagged arsenic as the cause. Exploration of her past uncovered a disturbing pattern of people near to Velma Barfield who died in spells of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
She would confess when confronted to poisoning off not only her late fiance, but also her mother and two elderly people for whom she was a paid caregiver, all during the 1970s — a period when she was afflicted by addictions to numerous prescription drugs. There are at least two other probable murders she may have authored during this time.† “It’s the saddest thing but it seems like everybody my mother ever gets close to dies,” one of her sons remarked innocently at Taylor’s service, before the criminal suspicions surfaced.
Like the second American woman executed — Karla Faye Tucker more than 13 years later — Barfield was mediagenic, devoutly Christian, and white. Like Tucker, Barfield made national news as she approached her execution date. Time magazine, 60 Minutes, even international press descended on Raleigh.
The bespectacled, crocheting grandmother ended up declining to appeal to the Supreme Court or file other delaying actions that were available to her so that she could meet her execution with greater dignity, but she still sought mercy from the governor. Her sterling prison record was her strongest card; staff routinely broke a “no contact with other inmates” rule (the entire death row women’s section consisted of Barfield alone) in order to put the matronly “Mama Margie”‡ around inmates whom her ministrations could help.
Unfortunately for Velma Barfield, her clemency pitch was addressed to Gov. Jim Hunt at the peak of his ferocious 1984 U.S. Senate run against Jesse Helms, the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history up to that point. Hunt wasn’t about to go soft on arsenic killers four days before the polls opened. (He still lost by 86,280 votes.)
In the small morning hours this date in 1984, dressed in pink cotton pajamas and an adult diaper, Velma Barfield gave a last statement apologizing for “all the hurt that I have caused,” laid down on a gurney to receive the IV lines, and was put to sleep.
* The last execution of any woman in the U.S. prior to Velma Barfield’s was all the way back in 1962.
† Her first husband, and the father of her children, died in a suspicious fire in 1970; shortly before her execution, Velma admitted to her family that she had started it. Singer Jonathan Byrd is the grandson of the apparent first poisoning victim, whose death Barfield only confessed very late in the game to the minister who helped her write her book: Jennings Barfield was already afflicted with emphysema and diabetes when the two wed in 1971, so his death a few months later failed to raise any eyebrows. Byrd eventually composed a song about his grandfather and his deadly bride, titled “Velma”.
‡ Full name: Margie Velma Barfield. She was born Margie Velma Bullard.
This case has been in the public eye for several years, and the predominant sentiment has been sympathetic towards the condemned man.
Xia and his wife Zhang Jing were part of China’s vast population of working urban poor, Xia having found his way into job insecurity by virtue of a layoff from the state electricity company. In the entrepreneurial spirit of the age, Xia started up an unlicensed business selling sausages and the like.
These denizens of the gray economy are, as a class, afflicted by the attentions of the City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, better known as the chengguan. Their benign job description entails administering municipal regulations, but this much-loathed force’s relationship to everyday citizens is perhaps best illustrated by the word chengguan‘s status as a shorthand neologism for bullying and abuse. Too many people know this goon squad firsthand, and too many stories of their worst excesses have circulated. Just this past July, the chengguan made headlines by killing a watermelon vendor.
“Chengguan abuses are an open scandal in China,” said Human Rights Watch’s China director. “The chengguan’s ability to flout China’s laws and inflict harm on members of the public is a recipe for greater public resentment and more violent confrontations.”
In the violent confrontation at issue in today’s execution, the chengguan chengguanned Xia Junfeng in May 2009. Xia fought back with his meat-carving knife, and slew two of his tormenters.
Death penalty cases redolent of the social stratification and institutional corruption that ordinary Chinese people experience have proven to be lightning rods in recent years.
Xia Junfeng’s turned, legally, on his claim that he killed protecting himself from the chengguan‘s beating.*
“Extralegal violence, thus employed to compensate for inadequate regulation and an absence of authority and legal deterrence, is no longer individual behavior. Such violence exists everywhere with the permission of the authorities. It is needed because of an overriding concern for “city image” and “urban management.” Finally, when extralegal violence is not monitored by the people and the media, and not punished by the law, it is only natural for Chengguan members to feel justified. Using violence with impunity enables the Chengguans to see violence psychologically as their “privilege,” a sign of status and pride. Since the legal and political status of Chengguan is unclear, it is only natural for its members to seek personal gain, vent their anger, and prey on the citizens they were intended to protect.”
This allegation didn’t fly in court, where brother chengguan denied that they’d been abusing the shishkebaber, but it’s won in a rout when it comes to the court of public opinion. “His life and death are more than just a legal matter, but a bellwether of the era, with the tsunami-like public opinion firmly on the side of Xia Junfeng,” wrote author Yi Chen today.
Particularly galling for many is the disparity in treatment between Xia Junfeng and the likes of Gu Kailai, the latter a powerful business and political figure who was able to avoid execution despite being convicted of a scandalous contract murder. And Chengguan themselves never seem to be at risk of harsh punishment for any misbehavior; had Xia Junfeng been the one to leave that confrontation in a body bag, there certainly wouldn’t have been a death penalty case.
Anonymous cartoon circulated on Weibo criticizing Xia Junfeng’s condemnation. (Via) The drawing of the boy in the background was done by Xia’s son, whose art school fees were earned by his father’s roadside business.
On this date in 2007, John Joe “Ash” Amador died of lethal injection in Texas.
Amador, age 18, and a 16-year-old cousin, hailed a taxi in San Antonio in the dark predawn hours of January 4, 1994, directed it on a long drive to a dark street in Poteet, Texas, and abruptly shot the cabbie in the head with a .25 caliber handgun. Amador’s cousin shot the cab driver’s ride-along companion.
It’s possible to get unusually up close and personal with Amador — both the man himself, and the gears of the death penalty process at the anticlimax of 13 long years.
To begin with, journalist Dave Maass interviewed Ash Amador a month before the latter’s execution, and posted 52 minutes of audio on Archive.org.
And in a more outre vein, a team of British filmmakers crafted a surreal and digressive but frequently touching documentary of Amador’s end, most especially through the eyes of the condemned man’s wife and family. As Maass put it, they’ve “given the man one wicked afterlife.”
If that teaser intrigues, the entire documentary is freely available online here — complete with an amazing scene of a death mask being cast from the freshly-executed, just-body-bagged Ash.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Butler’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“For almost nine years I have thought about the death penalty, whether it is right or wrong and I don’t have any answers. But I don’t think the world will be a better or safer place without me. If you had wanted to punish me you would have killed me the day after, instead of killing me now. You are not hurting me now. I have had time to get ready, to tell my family goodbye, to get my life where it needed to be. It started with a needle and it is ending with a needle.”
— Jeffrey Doughtie, convicted of robbery and murder, lethal injection, Texas.
Executed August 16, 2001
Doughtie had a $400-a-day drug habit, which he financed by selling stolen property. He had once worked for the antique store in Corpus Christi where he sold much of his loot. One day, after shooting a mix of heroin and cocaine, Doughtie beat the store’s proprietors to death with a piece of metal tubing. He confessed to the murders.
On this date in 1993, Joseph Paul Jernigan died by lethal injection in Texas. Yet he lives on still.
A career burglar, Jernigan was surprised mid-robbery in 1981 by 75-year-old Edward Hale: the thief promptly shot the homeowner dead, then finished his looting. His life as a free man would be over within days.
As a criminal you wouldn’t much notice Joseph Paul Jernigan — unless it was your house he was burgling, of course — and you wouldn’t exactly call his smash-and-grab act state-of-the-art. But little over a year after his death, Jernigan was making headlines for a groundbreaking scientific project.
Jernigan donated his body to science, joining an ancient tradition of condemned men and women whose bodies are “cadaverized” for whatever medical material is required of their own day and age.
But instead of serving as a med school’s pincushion, “science” in Jernigan’s case turned out to be — Jernigan had no idea of it while he lived — the Visible Human Project.
So, after his execution, Jernigan’s entire body was “sliced” from head to foot into 1,871 one-millimeter slides. (The “slicing” process ground away the body completely; it did not literally slice it like salami.)
Joseph Jernigan’s thorax, including the heart. (From here.)
The project is still online, and has never yet been replicated/surpassed with the the advancing technologies of the intervening decades. It’s a weirdly beautiful, unsettling, and ethically questionable artifact — a Smugglerius of the digital age — but it’s also inescapably awe-striking.
So here: take a tour down Joseph Jernigan at the, er, cutting edge of anatomization.
On this date in 2005, Glen James Ocha took a lethal injection on account of his tiny penis.
It’s true. Ocha on Ocober 5, 1999 picked up a Kissimmee, Fla., barmaid named Carol Skjerva and got her (consensually) into bed.
But Skjerva sent his manhood meter to half mast by busting on Ocha’s unimpressive junk and threatening to tell her boyfriend, who was probably the kind of guy who wouldn’t stand for another man rogering his girl with a mere gherkin.
It’s sad but true that we can’t all wear magnums, and probably most on the hung-like-a-mouse side of the spectrum would prefer not to broadcast the fact to the wide world. But here’s a tip it might have done Glen Ocha well to reflect upon: one good way of keeping strangers in the dark about the paltry dimensions of your John Thomas is not to get yourself arrested for strangling and beheading a woman who makes fun of the paltry dimensions of your John Thomas.
Adolescent chortling aside, this was obviously quite a horrible tragedy for Carol Skjerva, as well as the boyfriend (actually her fiance). Nor was genitalia the only compromised characteristic of the murderer, who was high on ecstasy at the time this all happened and had a history of psychiatric problems and suicidal ideation, all circumstances that comport well with Ocha’s decision to sit his victim’s decapitated head in his lap for a little post-mortem conversation.
This gentleman went right onto suicide watch in the prison, but they needn’t have worried: Ocha was more than ready to work within the system. He confessed to the murder, pled guilty at trial, and dropped all appeals past the minimum required by law, hastening his trip to Florida’s gurney. (Along the way he legally changed his name to Raven Raven.)
I would like to say I apologize to Carol Skjerva, the girl that I murdered, her family and her friends. This is the punishment that I deserve. I’m taking responsibility for my actions. I want everybody to know I’m not a volunteer but this is my responsibility I have to take.
(Meanwhile, he released a last written statement, reading “I unjustly took the life of Carol Skjerva. I have made my peace with my God and go now to face His judgment.”)
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Catholic just as Ocha was, said he was actually prepared to delay the execution out of respect to the April 2 passing of Pope John Paul II. Ocha, the determined volunteer, had no interest in any delay.
Naw Kham (or Nor Kham), a Burmese Shan, ran a sizable gang of drug traffickers/paramilitaries/pirates, the Hawngleuk Militia, in the Golden Triangle.
In addition to heroin smuggling, this gang also shook down for protection money the many Chinese commercial shippers coming down the Mekong River, and wantonly raided shippers that held out on them. He was untouchable in his lawless zone (with the possible protection of Burmese military to boot) for more than a decade.
Times may have started passing Naw Kham by in the 2000s.*
He had hit Chinese shippers before to the annoyance of Beijing, but matters came to a head when the kingpin allegedly retaliated against the flouting of his “taxes” by massacring 13 Chinese sailors in 2011 on board two tightfisted merchantmen. (“Allegedly” because Naw Kham blamed the Thai military for this slaughter, and some people believe him.)
At any rate, China put the screws to the drug lord, not only pressuring Southeast Asian governments for his capture but directly hunting him with special forces. Early in 2012, Naw Kham was arrested and his gang broken up after a multinational manhunt; the leader was extradited from Laos to face Chinese justice with five of his associates.** The accused had little recourse but to throw themselves on the mercy of the court.
Executed with Naw Kham — and underscoring the multinational complexion of his outfit — were Hsang Kham (a Thai), Zha Xika (a Lao), and Yi Lai (stateless). The other two defendants received a suspended (reprieved) death sentence, and an eight-year prison term.
The case isn’t entirely closed with his date’s executions, however. China is still pressuring Thailand to bring to book Thai troops whom China says colluded (at the very least) in the Mekong murders. The future direction of that investigation is quite unclear.
* China, Burma, Thailand, and Laos, inked a 2001 pact to regularize shipping on the Mekong. It contained no provision allowing for stateless narco-buccaneers.
** It’s noteworthy that this is a non-Chinese citizen being extradited to China for a crime not on Chinese soil.
On this date in 1997, 39-year-old Michael Carl George was executed by lethal injection at Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia. He’d been condemned for the murder of fifteen-year-old Alexander Eugene Sztanko in 1990.
Michael Carl George (top) and his victim, Alexander Sztanko.
The teenager’s death had been horrific by anyone standard: he was abducted while out riding his dirt bike, handcuffed to a tree and sexually abused. Before shooting him in the head, the killer applied a stun gun to his genitals. His body, fully clothed but shoeless, was found the following afternoon.
The boy had been killed so close to home that his unsuspecting father actually heard the gunshots. A few hours after Alex Sztanko’s body was found, George was seen loitering near the murder site by a police officer and stopped for questioning. He matched the description of a camouflage-clad man seen near the Sztanko residence the day before, and the suspicious officer asked him directly if he’d been there the previous day.
George admitted that he had, claiming he’d been turkey hunting in the woods. As he was being questioned he was standing directly in front of a “No Trespassing” sign, which gave the policeman an excuse to pick him up.
At the time of his arrest he was carrying, among other things, a knife, a handcuff key and a map, which had an “X” marking the site where Alex’s body turned up in the woods and an “O” where the boy’s dirt bike and helmet were ultimately located.
Inside George’s truck was a machete, a hacksaw, bolt cutters, a tear gas canister, leather gloves and a stun gun. A search of his parents’ home, where he lived, turned up more incriminating items: a pair of handcuffs that matched the key he carried, and a loaded 9mm pistol which turned out to be the murder weapon.
Blood, DNA and fiber evidence also pointed to George as the culprit. The case was pretty open-and-shut.
George had a reputation as a pedophile and Alexander Sztanko wasn’t the only person he killed. The first, as far as anyone knows, was Larry Wayne Perry, a mentally disabled nine-year-old who lived with his grandparents in Dumfries, Virginia.
Larry vanished without a trace on May 22, 1979 and was never found. George admitted to burying the child’s body but said his death was an accident. As the authorities lacked the evidence to prove intentional homicide, he was allowed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and abduction.
A model prisoner, he served just two and a half years of a five-year sentence.
Four years later, he killed Alex Sztanko.
George would later claim he had murdered a third person, but he never named the alleged victim and his statements could not be verified. His appeals raced through the court system at top speed; his time on death row was less than five years, one of the shortest in the state since Virginia resumed executions in the early eighties.
Given the circumstances of the murder and his prior record, he had very few sympathizers and not much he could say for himself on appeal. His case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they voted 7 to 2 to deny a stay of execution, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Paul Stevens dissenting.
Alex Sztanko’s parents were quoted as saying they were opposed to the death penalty generally, but as far as they saw it, George’s death was society’s gain.
George’s lethal injection took place without incident and he was pronounced dead at 9:18 p.m. He had no last statements for the press, but he did leave a letter for Mr. and Mrs. Sztanko, both of whom declined to witness his execution.