Posts filed under 'Milestones'

1936: Arthur Gooch, the only execution under the Lindbergh Law

Add comment June 19th, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1936 marks the first and only occasion that the federal government hanged a (non-murdering) kidnapper under the Lindbergh Law.

Even before the notorious Lindbergh baby kidnapping case, the “snatch racket” of kidnappings for ransom had claimed a firm foothold among Depression-era America’s moral panics. The bill that would become known as the Lindbergh Law was actually introduced in Congress three months before little Charles Lindbergh, Jr. disappeared out the window of his New Jersey nursery. Its sponsors were Missouri lawmakers concerned that gang-ridden St. Louis was becoming a kidnapping hub, like the high-profile 1931 abduction of Dr. Isaac Kelley.*

The theory behind the bill — and this was particularly relevant to St. Louis, a border port right across from Illinois and accessible via the Mississippi River to the whole Midwest — was that kidnappers could more easily ply their nefarious trade by carrying their hostages over a convenient border and exploiting the respective states’ inability to coordinate with one another. By elevating interstate kidnapping to a federal felony, the idea was to put manhunts into the hands of the FBI, whose jurisdiction was the entire United States.

The Lindbergh case provided just the right impetus for Congress to advance into law a bill that might otherwise have died quietly in committee. There’s just something to be said for being the one with a plan at the right time … even though the Lindbergh baby was found dead four miles away from the house he was plucked out of, and probably never crossed a state line himself.

At any rate, the Lindbergh Law also made kidnapping alone a capital crime, even if the abductee was not harmed. And it is for this that Arthur Gooch ascended into barstool trivia.

Gooch’s life and case are the focus of this 125-page Master’s thesis (pdf), but the long and short of it is that Gooch and a buddy named Ambrose Nix were on the lam after busting out of the Holdenville, Okla., jail, and ended up heading south to Texas.

They committed a robbery in Tyler, Texas on November 25, 1934. The next day, while stopped with a flat at a service station in Paris, Texas — close by the Texas-Oklahoma border — two policemen approached the suspicious vehicle. In the ensuing struggle, Nix managed to pull a gun on everyone and force the subdued cops into the back of their own patrol car, which the fugitives then requisitioned to high-tail it over the Oklahoma border. There they released their captives unharmed. There had never been a ransom attempt.

A month later, Gooch was arrested in Oklahoma — while Nix died in the shootout, leaving his partner alone to face the music.

Arthur Gooch was a career criminal, and the fact that he violated the Lindbergh Law was easy to see, but his crime also wasn’t exactly the scenario that legislation’s drafters had foremost in mind. In fact, Gooch also underscores one of the oft-unseen dimensions of the death penalty in practice: the discretionary power of prosecutors and judges at the intake end of the whole process.

Gooch attempted to plead guilty to his charge sheet, but his judge, former Oklahoma governor Robert Lee Williams, refused to accept it. Williams was explicit that his reason was that the Lindbergh Law’s language required a jury verdict to impose a death sentence.

By contrast, in October of 1934 — a month before the legally fateful confrontation at the Paris service station — a black farmhand named Claude Neal suspected of the rape-murder of a white girl was dragged out of protective custody in Alabama and taken across the adjacent Florida state line, where an angry mob lynched him. Despite the urging of the NAACP, FDR’s Attorney General Homer Stille Cummings completely refused to interpret Neal’s abduction as a Lindbergh Law kidnapping. The two cases even turned on the same phrase of the Lindbergh statute: interstate kidnapping “for ransom or otherwise.” While Cummings decided pre-emptively that “or otherwise” didn’t cover lynch law, one of his U.S. attorneys would go to the Supreme Court in January 1936 to argue for a broad interpretation of that phrase in the context of Gooch’s appeal.

But even without a comparison to Claude Neal’s murder, the justice of executing Arthur Gooch was hotly disputed by a vigorous clemency campaign. The chance intercession of a state line had elevated a small-time crime committed further to avoiding arrest into a capital offense, basically on a technicality. “It would be a rotten shame to hang that boy when a short jail term is his desert,” one Oklahoma City society woman argued to the Jeffersonian Club. “Gooch was given an application of the poor man’s law.” It seems clear that for Judge Williams as for President Roosevelt (who denied Gooch’s clemency appeal) the result was heavily influenced by the political exigencies of pushing a tough-on-crime standard, and by Gooch’s previous history as a crook. (He’d broken out of jail in the first place because he was a member of a group of local hoods in Okmulgee that committed several armed robberies.)

Gooch was philosophical at the end. “It’s kind of funny — dying,” he mused. “I think I know what it will be like. I’ll be standing there, and all of a sudden everything will be black, then there’ll be a light again. There’s got to be a light again — there’s got to be.” We can’t speak to what Gooch saw after everything went black, but it definitely wasn’t “all of a sudden”: Oklahoma’s executioner, Richard Earnest Owen, was an old hand with his state’s electric chair, but the federal execution method was hanging, which Owen had never before performed (and never would again). Gooch took 15 minutes to strangle at the end of the rope.


Arthur Gooch on the gallows

* The Kelley kidnapping, unsolved for several years, eventually traced to the strange character Nellie Muench. Readers (at least stateside ones) who follow that trailhead should be sure to keep an eye out for the cameo appearance of Missouri judge Rush Limbaugh, Sr. — grandfather of the present-day talk radio blowhard.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kidnapping,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Oklahoma,U.S. Federal,USA

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1989: Stefan Svitek, the last in Czechoslovakia

Add comment June 8th, 2014 Headsman

The last execution in the history of the former state of Czechoslovakia occurred on this date in 1989.

Staggering home extremely drunk late one autumn night, Štefan Svitek (English Wikipedia entry | Czech) found the door locked and the pregnant Roma wife he regularly battered disinclined to open it.

So Svitek opened it himself by grabbing an obliging ax and splintering it to pieces.

Then he turned the ax on poor Marie and the family’s two daughters.*

Even the most aggressive executioners — and Czechoslovakia was not that — don’t hang every homicide. Svitek might have doomed himself in the final analysis with his disturbing sexual proclivities, especially since they surfaced during his rampage. He reportedly carved up the bodies, sliced off his late wife’s breasts and even cut the still-stirring embryo of his next child out of her womb, and pleasured himself over all the fresh gore. He would later describe it as the most intense sexual experience of his life.

It emerged at trial that Svitek’s youth in an alcoholic home had warped his animal urges so severely that he pursued urges for animals, taking special gratification in castrating them.

This last operation Svitek perpetrated on his own self as he fled in panic from his domestic charnel house, then attempted to commit suicide by hanging.**

He broke that rope. On the 8th of June in 1989, he did the same to Czechoslovakia’s.

Svitek’s hanging June 8, 1989, was not only the last ever in the soon-to-be-defunct Czechoslovakia, but the last associated with either of Czechoslovakia’s successor states, neither of which have the death penalty on the books. (Svitek was hanged in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital; the last execution in the Czech half was that of Vladimir Lulek earlier in 1989.)

Update: Documentary, in Slovak (via the Twitter machine).

* One was Svitek’s own child, the other was his wife’s by her previous marriage. They were four and six years old.

** Another possible kink?

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1850: Five Cayuse, for the Whitman Massacre

Add comment June 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1850, five Cayuse were publicly executed in Oregon City for the Whitman Massacre.

Beginning in earnest in the 1830s, Anglo settlement in the Oregon Country presented for the native inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest the same Hobson’s choice that had confronted tribes further east long before: resist or accommodate.

The New York-born couple Marcus and Narcissa Whitman* were two of the most notable figures among the hundreds, and then thousands, of settlers pouring into the territory every year. In 1836, they founded on the banks of the Walla Walla River a Christian mission to the nomadic Cayuse who roamed the territory. It’s in present-day Washington State, which was then part (with the current U.S. states of Oregon and Idaho) of a single frontier territory collectively known as Oregon.

The Whitmans’ early settlement, offering medicine, education, and (of course) proselytizing, proved a success at first; it would become for several years a waypoint on the developing Oregon Trail.

White diseases came with the settlers.

The Cayuse people had already dwindled (pdf) to just a thousand or two after the decimations of smallpox and other plagues swept the region in the decades preceding. Now, outbreaks of measles were ravaging those remaining.

Marcus Whitman, a doctor as well as a spiritualist, proved unable to check the new epidemic. Rumors went abroad that the missionaries were bewitching or poisoning the Cayuse, as the vanguard of a coming territorial conquest; the Whitmans themselves were very keen to the hostile feeling the situation had engendered and had even heard whispers that they were the targets of assassination plots. Bravely, they stayed.

“Perhaps God thought it for the best that your little child should be called away,” Narcissa Whitman said in strange consolation to the grieving mother of an Anglo child who also succumbed to measles in 1847. “It may calm the Indians to see a white child taken as well as so many natives, for otherwise we may all be compelled to leave within two weeks.” (pdf source, op. cit.; this document also reconstructs a detailed narrative of the unfolding tragedy)

But that remark was only days before the terrible November 29, 1847. On that cold autumn Monday, a small party of Cayuse led by a chief named Tiloukaikt fell on the mission and slaughtered both Whitmans plus another 11** inhabitants of the little compound.

Some 54 surviving women and children were taken hostage, and several of these died in custody as well. A Canadian official of the Hudson’s Bay Company hurried to ransom the captives at the price of 62 blankets, 63 cotton shirts, 12 muskets, 600 loads of ammunition, 37 pounds of tobacco, and a dozen flints.†

This quick response might have forestalled a worse tragedy for the missionaries — but as far as the Cayuse went, the die was already cast. A volunteer militia of Oregonians under Cornelius Gilliam soon mobilized to retaliate, driving many Cayuse into the Blue Mountains.

By mid-1848, spurred in part by the Whitman bloodbath, Congress officially incorporated the region as the Oregon Territory; arriving early in 1849, the new territorial governor Joseph Lane immediately opened negotiations with the Cayuse to hand over the perpetrators of the massacre. With federal troops arriving later in 1849, the Cayuse at last capitulated and gave up five warriors: Tiloukaikt, the leader; Tomahas; Kiamasumpkin; Iaiachalakis; and Klokomas. (There are numerous alternative transliterations of these names.)

They were tried in Oregon City, the territorial capital at the time — a town of 500 or so on the Willamette River Falls — in a landmark case: the first proper death penalty trial in the young territory.‡ This would fall a little short of modern standards, and not just because it was held in a tavern for want of a regular courthouse. The prosecution was not especially rigorous linking all the defendants to specific violent acts, but the defense’s recourse to Cayuse cultural practices that held shamans liable for the failure of their medicine conceded the point by implication. The judge‘s final instructions simply directed his jury to “infer” the defendants’ culpability by virtue of “the surrender of the Defendants by the Cayuse nation as the murderers, the nation knowing best who those murderers were.” So why even have the trial? Kiamasumpkin, against whom no evidence was ever individually presented, went to the gallows insisting that he didn’t even arrive to the Whitman Mission until the day after the massacre.

All five were condemned in the end, and executed by prominent early pioneer and lawman Joe Meek.§ “On the 3d of June an election and a hanging match took place at Oregon City,” ran the Aug. 22, 1850 story in the New York Tribune — for the Whitman massacre had been a matter of national interest. “The town was full of men and women, the former coming to see how the election resulted, and the latter to see how the Indians were hung.”

“Their tribe, the Cayuses, gave them up to keep peace with the whites. Much doubt was felt as to the policy of hanging them, but the popularity of doing so was undeniable.”

Fears that the quintuple hanging would stoke a running conflict with the Cayuse were not altogether misplaced, but over the subsequent years the dwindling tribe was simply dwarfed by over 30,000 newly arriving settlers lured by a congressional grant of free land. By 1855, the defeated Cayuse were forced onto the small Umatilla Reservation, ceding (along with the Umatillas and the Walla Wallas) 6.4 million acres to whites. The Cayuse tongue was extinct by the end of the century.


Present-day memorial obelisk at the site of the Whitman Massacre, now a national historic site. (cc) image from Jasperdo.

* Present-day Whitman College (Walla Walla, Wash.) is named for them.

** Figures of both 13 and 14 (inclusive of the Whitmans) are cited in various places for the Whitman Massacre’s body count; the discrepancy turns on whether one’s tally includes as a casualty Peter Hall, who escaped from the mission, fled to Fort Walla Walla, and then made a panicky attempt to reach The Dalles. Hall disappeared into the wilderness, and was never heard from again.

† Ransom covered gratis by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The Espy file‘s index of U.S. executions lists only a couple of undated executions many years before under informal frontier justice.

§ Cousin to the recent First Lady Sarah Childress Polk.

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1923: Florence Lassandro, unwilling feminist

Add comment May 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1923, the only woman ever executed in Alberta’s history was hanged at Fort Saskatchewan.

Alberta had introduced alcohol prohibition in 1916. Florence Lassandro and her husband Carlo, Italian immigrants, were in the profitable contraband business that resulted, employed by the “Emperor Pic” — a rum-running godfather named Emilio Picariello.

Emperor Pic and Florence were together in a vehicle crossing from the British Columbia border in September, 1922, when an attempt to serve a warrant resulted in a chase in which Picariello’s son (fleeing in another vehicle) was shot through the hand. Shortly thereafter, Picariello and Lassandro sought out the shooter, police constable Steve Lawson, and in the resulting confrontation Lawson himself was shot dead.

The circumstances of this fatal encounter are murky and disputed; Lassandro initially claimed to have pulled the trigger, and this helped to get she along with Picariello condemned to death for the crime. As her execution neared — under circumstances we’ll get into momentarily — she amended that statement.

“We agreed that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it, as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off,” she said in a telegram to the Justice Minister (according to Jana Pruden‘s Edmonton Journal story of Oct. 9, 2011). “I never shot a gun in my life — was always afraid of them.”

But in the public debate over her prospective hanging, the question wasn’t so much about Lassandro not being a triggerman but about her not being a man.

The discomfiture still usual in our own day over putting a woman to death was certainly present in early 20th century Canada. No woman had hanged anywhere in Canada since Hilda Blake 24 years years prior.

But Florence Lassandro found an unexpected hand cutting away this lifeline: the women’s movement.

Canadian women had won suffrage in most provinces during the war years, and only in 1921 had the first woman been seated in Parliament. The next movement milestone on the horizon (it would be achieved in 1929) was winning juridical recognition of women as legal “persons”.

So the women’s movement in 1920s Canada was deeply sensitive to any appearance of special pleading which appeared to place adult women on any footing lesser to adult men. A Prohibition gangster who shot a cop would surely be hanged if a man; indeed, Emilio Picariello, slated to die on the same morning as Florence Lassandro, had no real hope of clemency. So wasn’t Florence Lassandro’s claim on mercy nothing but the old sentimental paternalism that women were trying to escape?*

“I also desire to protest against the pernicious doctrine that because a person who commits a murder is a woman that person should escape from capital punishment,” wrote Emily Murphy, Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first female magistrate. “As women we claim the privileges of citizenship for our sex, and we accordingly are prepared to take upon ourselves the weight of the penalties as well.”

An Alberta provincial barrister agreed, if a bit condescendingly: if “women will occupy themselves with all those things (law, Bench, franchise, etc.), taking the places side by side with men as their equal in all things, including even part in the framing and administration of our own laws, surely women should be equally subject to those laws in the event of their offending against them.” (Both quotes from Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society.)

So Florence Lassandro was subject to those laws indeed.**

Early on the morning of May 2, Emilio Picariello (about whom, just go prove the point, we’ve barely spoken) went first to the gallows, scornfully refusing the hood. Minutes after he swung, Lassandro — visibly stricken with fright — followed.

“Why do you hang me when I didn’t do anything?” she implored of the official witnesses. “Is there not anyone who has any pity?”

No one answered.

“I forgive everyone.”

And then she hanged.

Twelve months later, Prohibition was repealed in Alberta.

* This is by no means a latter-day insight. Olympe de Gouges‘s French Revolution-era Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen turned the equation around and argued, “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”

As a somewhat digressive aside, Paul Friedland has made the case that men experiencing a very gender-specific shock at seeing women attending executions was instrumental in the gradual removal of once-public executions behind prison walls.

** Lassandro’s fellow-Italians had her back where her fellow-women did not, and they argued — not unreasonably — that Canada already had a de facto practice of never executing women and it was awfully convenient that everyone was now so high-minded about scrapping taboo once there was a poor Italian immigrant in the dock.

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1862: Mary Timney, the last woman publicly hanged in Scotland

Add comment April 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1862, Mary Timney was hanged at Buccleuch Street in Dumfries, Scotland.

The penniless 27-year-old occupied the stone cottage adjacent to her victim’s way out in the countryside at Carsphad — near the fringe of present-day Galloway Forest Park. Timney was Ann Hannah’s tenant, but the two were known to have a fractious relationship and often cross words. Timney had borrowed so often that Hannah grew deaf to her importunities; Hannah suspected Timney of stealing firewood, and Timney suspected Hannah of stealing her husband’s caresses.

On January 13, 1862, Hannah was discovered breathing her last on that cottage floor in a puddle of her own blood, splatters of which also decorated the little home like a slasher movie. The obvious suspect had some incriminating bloodstains on her person. Timney claimed that Hannah started the fight by kicking the younger woman, and in the ensuing fracas Timney grabbed the weapons ready to hand (a knife, a poker, and a wooden mallet: seems like more than you’d need) and mauled her neighbor to death.

“Oh, my Lord, dinna do that,” Timney cried out in court when the judge donned the black cap to impose her death sentence. “Give me anything but that, let the Lord send for me!”

Mary Timney was initially regarded by her former neighbors in Carsphad as a monster. But as her execution approached, sentiment underwent a surprising reversal. The pathos of leaving the young woman’s four children motherless, or else the simple discomfiture of publicly swinging a woman from the gallows-tree, soon led to a strong local push for mercy. “The great majority of the public of Dumfries were horrified and indignant that this butchery should be permitted in their streets,” one paper reported.

The Crown saw no grounds to extend it, and swore in an extra 200 constables to manage the crowd.

In a stateof near collapse, Mary Timney went to the gallows this date before 3,000 solemn spectators. She was still pleading. “Oh no, no, no! My four weans, my four weans.” (See this book)

The scene appalled everyone so entirely that it was never repeated: Mary Timney was the last woman publicly executed in Scottish history.

Coincidentally, Dumfries would also have the distinction — on May 12, 1868 — of hosting the last legal public hanging of a male offender, shortly before Parliament moved all UK executions behind prison walls.

There’s a recent book about Mary Timney’s case which appears easier to find stocked in Britain than stateside.

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1876: The slave Francisco, Brazil’s last execution

Add comment April 28th, 2014 Headsman

Brazil carried out the last civil execution in its history on April 28, 1876.

The beloved and long-serving Emperor Pedro II — Brazil’s last emperor, for he was deposed in 1889 in favor of a Republic — had developed a strong aversion to the death penalty.

“I am not a supporter of capital punishment,” Pedro II mused in his diary on New Year’s Day, 1862,

but conditions in our society still make it necessary, and it exists in law. However, employing of the prerogatives of the regulating power, I commute death sentences, whenever the circumstances of the case justify so doing it.

Just two months before writing that entry, Pedro had failed to stop the execution of Jose Pereira de Sousa.

But as the years went on, Pedro would find his sought-for justification to intercede ever more frequently … and in time, universally. There were still death sentences handed down in the last decade-plus of the Brazilian Empire, but the sovereign’s pen sustained a standing moratorium.

Jose Pereira de Sousa’s 1861 hanging proved to be the last civil execution of a free man in Brazil’s history — the qualifier courtesy of Brazil’s status as the Western world’s last slave state. (Slavery wasn’t abolished in Brazil until 1888.)

The black slave Francisco was the very last condemned man whose execution the Emperor Pedro II failed to block. Francisco was one of a trio of slaves who had two years prior bludgeoned to death their former masters, João Evangelista de Lima and his wife. One of Francisco’s confederates was killed on the run; the second died in prison. (Source, in Portuguese like most of the little to be found about Francisco.)

Its distinguishing characteristic from the standpoint of posterity is simply that it was the last; and, that its milestone characteristic underscores Brazil’s painful slaving history.

These circumstances have recommended Francisco’s last passion to annual re-enactments (more Portuguese) on the anniversary of his execution, in the city of Pilar, Alagoas where it all took place.

After Francisco, Pedro’s already-dogged obstruction of the death penalty became absolute, persisting over the last 13 years of his reign. By the time he yielded the executive power to the Republic of Brazil, his persistence had put capital punishment permanently beyond the pale for Brazil’s subsequent authorities.

Even Brazil’s 20th century dictatorships, while implicated in extrajudicial killings, never made bold to break the taboo on a formal judicial execution.

Theoretically, the death penalty is still to this day available in Brazil though only for a major wartime crime. (It would be carried out by firing squad.) In reality, as Emperor Pedro observed with satisfaction after his involuntary retirement from politics, it’s as dead as a letter can be.

This reminds of what I have done for the abolition of the death penalty by law, rather than in practice, since I achieved that some 30 years ago through always commuting the penalty.

-Pedro II, June 15, 1890 (Source for both Pedro’s diary pull-quotes)

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1963: Julian Grimau, the last casualty of the Spanish Civil War

Add comment April 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1963, Francisco Franco’s government shot Communist agitator Julian Grimau.

Grimau (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), a member of the Communist Party of Spain‘s Central Committee since 1959, had fled to exile after escaping the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.

But he in 1959 he took over the Communists’ activities within Spain itself, and began living underground in his old homeland. The Franco regime dearly wanted to take him.

In November 1962, secret police arrested Grimau on a bus and hustled him to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, where within hours Grimau met with that classic 20th century dissident’s fate, the “unexplained” fall from a police headquarters window. No fuss, no –

Wait. Er … it seems he survived the fall.

That awkward circumstance — officially, Grimau hurled himself out the window for no discernible reason — tracked him into what passed for a regular judicial process. In practice, that meant a military tribunal which gave him, two days before his execution, a five-hour trial for his part in the Spanish Civil War. Specifically, Grimau was charged as a “Chekist” for torturing and executing prisoners while part of the civil administration of Republican Barcelona; the evidence submitted on this point was mere hearsay.

This charge put the fascists in the rather insincere position of avenging the Communist Party’s repression of its own civil war allies, the anarchists and the anti-Stalinist POUM party — an episode memorably recounted in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

“I have never tortured anyone,” Grimau insisted to the court of the military dictatorship. “It is not my nature to do such things. I carried out the duties assigned to me by a legal government. I have been a communist for 25 years and I will die a communist.” (London Times, April 19, 1963)

Grimau’s prosecutor was a man who had made his legal bones in the immediate aftermath of the civil war as Franco’s Fouquier-Tinville, shuttling defeated Republicans into the hands of their executioners so lightly that he would joke, “bring in the accused’s widow!” with a laughing court.* This 1963 trip down nostalgia lane would prove to be the last ever occasion a Spaniard was prosecuted for the civil war; indeed, the Grimau backlash would help provide the impetus for Spain to finally scrap the military tribunals which dated to the aftermath of the civil war.

Those laws, and that war, had passed a quarter-century before. Their nakedly political requisition here triggered international outrage. Eight hundred thousand people and a litany of world leaders implored Gen. Franco to exercise his prerogative to block the execution; when Franco refused, protests livened the Spanish embassies of many a city across the globe. In Buenos Aires, someone chucked a bomb at the the embassy.

None of it availed Julian Grimau. Grimau’s lawyer, who witnessed the dawn execution illuminated by the headlights of military trucks, reported that the soldiers detailed to form the firing squad were very nervous and badly botched the shooting.

There’s more about Julian Grimau in Spanish than in English; see in particular JulianGrimau.org, a site commemorating the 50th anniversary of his execution.

* The prosecutor, Manuel Martin Fernandez, didn’t even have a law degree: he had entered the profession by falsely claiming that his credentials were destroyed during the civil war. In 1964 this became publicly exposed and Fernandez himself went to prison for his decades-long imposture.

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1791: Emanuel the runaway slave

1 comment April 19th, 2014 Headsman

A Negro man named Emanuel, who has been for some time past, advertised runaway from Samuel Kemp, was taken up at sea near Hyburn Key, in a failing boat, belonging to the brig Eliza, Stuart, in the beginning of last week, and brought to town. He has since been tried for stealing the boat, condemned, and sentenced to be hanged on Tuesday next.

-Bahama Gazette, April 12-15, 1791


A negro man found guilty of murder, was executed last Tuesday. He and the negro who was executed on Tuesday last week, are hung in chains on Hog Island, at the entrance of the harbour.

-Bahama Gazette, April 26-29, 1791

According to William Lofquist’s “Identifying the condemned: Reconstructing and analyzing the history of executions in The Bahamas,” The International Journal of Bahamian Studies, these appear to be the first documented judicial executions on the Bahamas since Great Britain re-established control of the archipelago in 1784. (The Bahamas were part of the territory contested in that war: Nassau was briefly occupied by American troops, and was in the hands of Spain when the fighting stopped. Spain transferred the island back to Britain in the postwar settling-up.)

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2003: Scott Hain, the last juvenile offender executed in the United States

7 comments April 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 2003, the state of Oklahoma executed Scott Hain for a Tulsa carjacking that netted $565 and two dead bodies.

The Hain that was strapped down on the gurney that evening was a 32-year-old with a nebbishy middle manager look, high forehead pursuing his hairline to the scalp’s horizon where it had drawn up a wilting rearguard picket fringing an egg-bald pate.

But back in 1987 when he stuffed Laura Lee Sanders and Michael Houghton into the boot of their own car and set it ablaze, Scott Hain was 17 years, 4 months, and 4 days of age.

American jurisprudence through the ages has regularly compassed the execution of minors, sometimes astonishingly young ones. But come the late 20th century the still-ongoing execution of a few men (they were all men) for crimes they had committed when still only boys was a deeply contentious subplot of the death penalty drama.

Because of the protracted judicial processes, there was no longer any question at this point of boosting wispy teenagers into electric chairs as South Carolina had done in 1944. The Scott Hains of the world were grown men by the time they died: grown up on death row.

They were, to be sure, nearly men when they killed as well.

The prevailing jurisprudence at this point was the 1989 Supreme Court decision Stanford v. Kentucky, which set the minimum age for death penalty eligibility at 16.*

And so 17- and even sometimes 16-year-old offenders not considered equal to adult responsibility** in most other spheres of life continued to face the executioner through the 1990s and into the 21st century, a period when the death penalty itself picked up steam.

This became an increasingly awkward situation. For one thing, it placed the United States internationally among a very small handful of countries with unsavory human rights records. Maybe it was a matter of the raw numbers; on the day Stanford came down, the United States had executed only 114 people in its “modern” era, and just three of them were juvenile offenders. For the 1990s, there would be an average of 48 executions every single year, and (again on average) one of those would be a juvenile offender.

But even as the numbers grew, only 20 of the 38 death penalty states permitted such executions, and only three states — Virginia, Texas, and Hain’s Oklahoma — actually conducted any such executions at all after 1993.

Foes argued over those years that the diminishing scope of the juvenile death penalty reflected an emerging national consensus against it — which could in turn be held to create a constitutional prohibition under the 8th Amendment’s proscription of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Most of the death-sentenced juveniles made similar arguments in the course of their appeals, hoping to be the case that would catch the conscience of the court. Hain’s appellate team made this argument, too. It didn’t take, like it didn’t for any of the others who tried it.

Except, it was taking. Those evolving standards of decency were about to evolve right past a tipping point: in 2004, the justices accepted a new case from Missouri that placed the juvenile death penalty question before it once more.

The nine-member high court’s inconstant swing vote Anthony Kennedy — who had once upon a time (call it a youthful indiscretion) voted with the majority in Stanford to permit juvenile executions — wrote the resulting 2005 decision Roper v. Simmons, barring the execution of juvenile offenders in the United States.†

Scott Hain remains the last person executed in the United States for a crime committed in his childhood.

* The bright-line court ruling was necessary because states had indeed death-sentenced even younger teenagers. For example, Paula Cooper was condemned to death by an Indiana jury for a murder committed at age 15; her sentence was commuted to a prison term, and she was eventually released in 2013. The victim’s grandson, Bill Pelke, notably supported Cooper and has become a leading anti-death penalty activist in the intervening years.

** The notion of age 18 as the age of majority predominates worldwide, but is of course as arbitrary as any other, and has not been the threshold selected in all times and places. The Austrian empire declined to execute Gavrilo Princip for assassinating Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 and precipitating World War I because it could not establish that he had reached the age of 20 when he did so.

† Among the notable cases affected was that of Lee Boyd Malvo, the underaged collaborator of Beltway sniper John Muhammad. Malvo was being considered for capital charges in Virginia at the time Roper came down.

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1949: Dr. Chisato Ueno, because life protracted is protracted woe

Add comment March 31st, 2014 Headsman

The Truk Atoll, in Micronesia, is more commonly known today as Chuuk. It’s a hot diving location notable for the many sunken World War II Japanese hulks to be explored there — the legacy of its once-pivotal position in the Pacific War.

Japan used Truk as forward naval base in the South Pacific, and armored up its little islands like an armadillo.

Rather than capture it outright, the U.S. Navy bombed Truk right out of the war in February 1944, leaving that enormous warship graveyard and a stranded stronghold of starving soldiers who were left to wither on the vine. At war’s end, it was just a matter of circling back to collect 50,000 surrenders.

Unfortunately, the castaway Truk garrison did not pass the last months of the war with sufficient care for its foreseeable postwar situation.

According to testimony given the postwar Guam war crimes tribunal, 10 American prisoners were murdered on Truk in 1944 “through injections, dynamiting, tourniquet applications, strangling and spearing.” (Source) Hiroshi Iwanami was executed for these gruesome experiments/murders in January of 1949.

Ueno, a lieutenant surgical commander, hanged for two other killings that read quite a bit murkier.

Five American POWs were being held in a temporary stockade that was hit by an American bombing raid in June 1944 — killing three of those prisoners.

The surviving two were severely injured, eventually leading Dr. Ueno on June 20, 1944, to perform what he characterized as a legitimate exploratory surgery on one of those men. His prosecutors framed it instead as a fiendishly gratuitous vivisection.

During that procedure, an order arrived for the execution of both the prisoners. The other guy, the one Dr. Ueno wasn’t operating upon, he never had in his care at all; that unfortunate fellow ended up being bayoneted to death. The man on the table (both men’s names were unknown to the prosecuting court) Dr. Ueno stitched back together well enough that subalterns could stretcher him out to a swamp and chop off his head.

Here’s the difficult part: Ueno actually gave the immediate order to execute his ex-patient.

As described in the National Archives’ Navy JAG Case Files of Pacific Area War Crimes Trials, 1944-1949, the physician’s barrister mounted a quixotic philosophical defense of this deeply indefensible order, noting the principled acceptability of euthanasia in Japanese hospitals (so he said), the inevitability of the prisoner’s approaching execution via superior orders, and the agony the man was already in from his wounds.

[Dr. Ueno] had expected that some other person would dispose of this prisoner. But he could not find anyone who looked like the person to carry this out … the thought dominated his mind that all hope is lost to save this prisoner. His fater has been determined. Yet the prisoner is in pain …

He was faced with the predicament of killing by his order the prisoner which he had treated as hiw [sic] own patient. What sarcastic fate was this that he had to face? As the Napoleon, described by George Bernard SHAW, and as McBeth [sic] described by William SHAKESPEARE, the accused, UENO was also “a man of destiny.”

A certain English poet wrote, “Life protracted is protracted woe.” If the life of the prisoner in the present case was protracted one second, he would have so much more suffering to endure. Should it be condemed [sic] so severely to shorten one’s life under such circumstances and shorten his last woe in this world?

There were in all either 10 or 13 official executions of Japanese war criminals on Guam from 1947 to 1949. It’s devilishly difficult to find those 13 enumerated by name and date, but it appears to me that Truk and his boss Admiral Shimpei Asano were the very last to achieve that distinction.**

The readable little history on Truk island and the U.S. Navy operations against it, Ghost fleet of the Truk Lagoon, Japanese mandated islands”, captures the scene.

Shortly after eight o’clock on the humid, tropical evening of March 31, 1949, according to War Department Pamphlet #27-4 Procedure For Military Executions, the 5’6″ Japanese surgeon with extremely strong neck muscles was escorted up the nine steps to the gallows. The handcuffs were removed by a Marine guard and a strap placed to secure his arms to his side and another placed around his legs. A black hood was placed over his head and at 8:26 p.m. the floor panel on which he was standing fell from under his feet and Ueno dropped 94 inches to eternity. He was the last to die, as Rear Admiral Shimpei Asano* had preceded him only moments before. Under the dubious honor that rank has its privileges — the Admiral went first.

* Executed for these same two murders on Truk, as well as two other POWs killed at Kwajalein, in the nearby Marshall Islands.

** Angered by Naval administration of the island, Guam’s Congress had staged a walkout earlier in March 1949. This action did successfully force an end to Naval government.

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