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.
On this date in 2013, serial child molester turned murderer Elmer Carroll was executed by lethal injection in Florida.
Paroled to a halfway house in 1990 from his child molestation sentence, Carroll within months attacked a fifth-grader who lived in a nearby house — in Carroll’s description to another halfway house resident, the girl was “sweet, cute, and liked to watch him make boats.”
One night while Christine McGowen’s mother was working and her stepfather sleeping in the next room, Carroll crept into their Apopka home, stopped the little girl’s mouth with his hand as he raped her, then strangled her to death. Robert Rank found the girl the next morning when he went to wake her for school … and also found missing the truck that Carroll had stolen to escape. One could hardly commit a crime more suited to the studied melodrama of a state’s attorney:
By your vote, tell Elmer Carroll you do not deserve to live. There is nothing good about you. There is nothing but evil in you and you must die.
A small child sometimes will cry out in the night frightened by a shadow or a piece of wallpaper that looks like a monster and its parents will come in and say it’s okay, you don’t have to be afraid. There’s no monsters under the bed. There is no boogie man. There is no creature which stalks the night searching out children. It doesn’t exist. Well, ladies and gentlemen, those parents lie because, ladies and gentlemen, that is the boogie man right there. That is the creature that stalked the night and murdered a ten year old girl and he must die.
The other things in Carroll besides evil were organic brain damage and a gamut of mental illness symptoms that Carroll’s appellate team would unsuccessfully argue had not been sufficiently explored at his trial. Estranged from most of his family for many years before the murder, Carroll had no visits from relatives before his execution.
The People’s Court of Gansu executed former elementary school teacher Li Jishun for a spree of sexually assaulting 26 girls ages 4 to 12 in his care in 2011-2012.
“He took advantage of his status as teacher to repeatedly rape and molest the young girls, concealing his crimes and making it more difficult for his victims to resist and expose him,” China’s Supreme Court said in upholding the sentence.
China’s Xinhua news agency has reported that child sexual assault cases are on the rise by some 40%, but Li’s crimes carried an especially painful resonance: many of the victims had been given up to these school dormitories by parents who were compelled to leave impoverished Gansu to seek work in the cities.
Pakistan, which broke a years-long moratorium with a positive execution binge in 2015, hanged eight men on May 28 in various jails around the country.
The plane’s pilot fooled the hijackers into believing he had met their demand to fly to India — but instead touched down in Hyderabad where Pakistani troops stormed the plane and arrested the men without any casualties.
The nuclear tests went off as planned, on May 28, 1998: seventeen years to the day before the Baloch revolutionaries’ hangings.
Last May 28, Saudi Arabia carried out its 90th execution of 2015, a figure surpassing the sum for all of 2014, which was in its turn up from previous years — a trend that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, and Arbitrary Executions called “very disturbing.”
(Note, however, that Saudi executions have often tended to proceed with spurts and lulls.)
The man on the end of the sword was Ihsan Amin, a heroin smuggler and Pakistani national: around half of the humans Saudi Arabia beheaded during this execution surge were foreigners, including ten Pakistanis.
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.