Posts filed under 'Florida'

1999: Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis, the end of the road for Old Sparky

48 comments July 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1999, America’s obesity epidemic met Florida’s death penalty politics in the ugly electrocution of Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis.

The reader will discern that Tiny earned his nickname ironically. Reportedly 159 kg (350 pounds) at his death, he’d put his ample heft to work bludgeoning a pregnant mother of two beyond recognition with a revolver handle back in 1982 … and then shooting to death the now-motherless two.

As his appeals meandered through the courts, Davis got fatter — and got high blood pressure, arthritis, hypertension and a wheelchair. Meanwhile, the death penalty was meandering its own way across the weird political chessboard of the Sunshine State.

For the American death penalty nowadays, it’s Texas and then everyone else … but time was that Florida was the capital of capital punishment.

It conducted the first “modern” involuntary execution in 1979. It had carried out three executions before anyone else had more than one. And when the the drip-drip-drip pace of one or two execution nationwide per year in the early 1980’s finally burst into a torrent, Florida led the way with eight of the 21 executions in 1984.

Not until late in 1986 did Texas overtake Florida in the body count sweepstakes.

All that time, Florida was happily using its vintage electric chair, Old Sparky (one of several electric chairs with that moniker), built in 1923 of 100% oak wood and prison labor. And the more the chair’s quasi-medieval ickiness drove other states to lethal injection, the more Floridians cherished electrocution.

Law-and-order Tampa mayor Bob Martinez won the governorship in 1986 on the promise that “Florida’s electric bill will go up.” There was a high-profile botch in 1990, and another in 1997 — flames shooting from the inmates’ heads. What was the state’s Attorney General going to do about it? “People who wish to commit murder, they’d better not do it in the state of Florida because we may have a problem with the electric chair.” Under pressure to move to lethal injection — the chair’s unsightly malfunctions were spawning legal and public relations nightmares that were gumming up the gears — the legislature voted nearly unanimously to keep Old Sparky.

And then along came a giant.

After three-quarters of a century and 266 jobs, Old Sparky was “falling apart” … and that was going to be a problem for a man of Davis’ carriage.

The killer’s lawyers argued that Davis was so fat he couldn’t conduct electricity efficiently and would be slowly cooked to death. According to Slate, Florida authorities were nervous that he’d break the chair during his electrocution and send a disconnected live cable scything into someone else in the room.

It was time for the unthinkable: Florida retired Old Sparky and built a new chair … and supersized it. (Image, from the Florida Department of Corrections)

And it worked, in that it killed Tiny. But what a mess — especially when an ensuing Florida Supreme Court opinion once again upheld the constitutionality of electrocution, and a dissenting judge attached the photos on this page to his opinions. Naturally, they became a grisly Internet sensation.

Old Sparky’s custom-built successor would only manage this single execution before Florida finally got on the lethal injection bandgurney.

Or at least, it’s only managed one so far. Old electric chairs don’t die, they just fade away … and in Florida, Tiny Davis’s chair remains available for condemned prisoners who choose it. Since this date in 1999, none have.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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1979: John Spenkelink, the harbinger

31 comments May 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1979, John Spenkelink was electrocuted in Florida — the first man executed involuntarily in the U.S. since 1967.

A series of court decisions in the 1970’s had scrapped the country’s old death penalty institutions and obliged legislators to restructure the process. Now, the new architecture was in place and the decade-long hiatus in actual executions was drawing to a close.

Gary Gilmore had earned trivia-question notoriety as the first put to death under the new regime two years before, but Gilmore was always an outlier, a bizarrely active exponent of his own death who greased the skids for himself.

Spenkelink was the true harbinger. For six years, a span which seemed long then but would today rate on the speedy side, Spenkelink resisted death with every tool at his disposal. Florida officials fought just as stubbornly to kill him.

An itinerant parolee, he had in 1973 shot a fellow drifter named Joseph J. Szymankiewicz.

Spenkelink claimed that Szymankiewicz had stolen his money, forced him to play Russian roulette, and sexually assaulted him, all of which seemed within the vicious character attested of the victim. But the killing itself was clearly not a moment of passion or immediate self-defense: Spenkelink had left their shared hotel room, returned with a gun, and shot his man in the back.

In the new Court-mandated balancing act between “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors whose intent was to harmonize unfair application of the death penalty, this evident premeditation is what doomed Spenkelink. (The fact that Spenkelink committed the crime for pecuniary gain — that is, to get back his own money — also militated against him. The Clark County (Ind.) Prosecutor’s site has some legal briefs in addition to media reports on the case.)

In the larger reality not circumscribed by legal briefs, the defendant wasn’t exactly Charles Manson. More considerable than the act itself was where it occurred (North Florida) and the rootless, friendless character of its author — a “white nigger”. As Florida Supreme Court Justice Richard Ervin put it:

As usual under “discretion,’ it is left to sentencing judges to determine in particular cases who will get death. We know intuitively who will: the poor, the underprivileged, the public defender clients, the blacks and other minority people, the mentally incompetent or those holding unpopular or unorthodox ideologies. The affluent usually escape the death penalty.

The result here is an old story, often repeated in this jurisdiction where the subconscious prejudices and local mores outweigh humane, civilized understanding when certain segments of the population are up for sentencing for murder.

Or in Spenkelink’s epigram, which he often signed to prison correspondence, “capital punishment means those without capital get the punishment.”

The last of his 22 appeals* was rejected by the Supreme Court this very day. Ten minutes later, trussed hand and foot with each of his orifices stopped up and two shots of whiskey for the ride, Spenkelink was presented in Old Sparky to the event’s official witnesses.** It had been 15 years since the chair’s last use; prison officials didn’t remember how to operate it — but they managed to pull it off with no more than the electric chair’s average ration of gruesomeness.

Five minutes later, Spenkelink was declared dead — and the death penalty was back in America.†

* Filed by David Kendall, later to gain a measure of fame as Bill Clinton’s personal attorney during his impeachment.

** Spenkelink was gagged when the blinds were opened to the witnesses, and denied a final statement (his famous bon mot about those without the capital is sometimes mistakenly reported as his last words). Since the witnesses had not seen the prisoner brought in, rumors spread that he had fought the guards, even that his neck had been broken in the altercation and that he was dead or dying by the time the first 2,250-volt jolt hit him. This rumor in turn caused the state not only to exhume and autopsy Spenkelink, but to institute a policy of autopsying all executed prisoners … and the documentary trail created by this policy contributed to the Sunshine State’s later legal and public relations headaches with its execution protocols.

† Executions would remain freak events — one or two a year — until the mid-1980’s when they finally resumed taking place with regularity sufficient to return them to the everyday fabric of American life.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Famous Last Words,Florida,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,USA

1818: Alexander Arbuthnot and Richard Ambrister

6 comments April 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1818, on the authority of a military tribunal of doubtful legality, a general who would become a president hanged two British citizens for aiding America’s Indian enemies.

You don’t get to be the $20 bill guy without knocking a few heads.

The First Seminole War saw the ambitious General Andrew Jackson appropriate for himself authority considerably beyond that authorized by Washington to escalate border conflicts around Spanish Florida into an outright invasion.

Though both Spanish and British interests had a foothold on the peninsula, neither was ever formally drawn into war; the conflict pitted Jackson’s armies against Seminole Indians who were also known to take in escaped slaves from over the border. Regardless the immediate casus belli, the war’s eventual effect was to force the Spanish to cede Florida, fitting it unmistakably into America’s evolving pattern of imperial conquests. But Europeans proved not to be exempt from Jackson’s fury.

The elderly Scottish trader Alexander Arbuthnot and the young British ex-marine Robert Ambrister were swept up as Jackson pillaged through Florida. Both had friendly relations with the natives, and somewhere amid personal pique, deliberate provocation, and squelching their knowledge of white Americans’ provocations against the Seminoles lay sufficient reason to string them up.

Due process

Jackson, who would win the White House himself on a populist platform in a decade’s time, has had many advocates in history; few of them would deny the man’s authoritarian streak.

A decidedly unsympathetic — arguably corrective — study of Jackson’s conduct in the Southeast during this period unravels Jackson’s reasoning as to how British citizens in Spanish territory were capitally liable in the eyes of a third country that neither state was at war with:

As soon as [Jackson] reached St. Marks, he set into motion the wheels of his personal justice system to punish Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister for crimes against the United States.

Jackson appointed a military court of twelve voting officers, Edmund Pendleton Gaines presiding, to hear charges that Arbuthnot and Ambrister had aided and abetted the enemy of the United States in the Seminole War. Of the panel, five were Volunteer officers whom Jackson had personally recruited for the campaign. Even though partially stacking the board and conducting the proceeding as a court-martial in the Florida wilderness obviated the need for precise legal punctilio, Old Hickory ruminated over just how to go about the business. His original idea of charging his two prisoners with piracy had appeal because it allowed him to take action against these subjects of a neutral power for aiding one nation against another nation. Yet the similarities of such a circumstance to that of the Marquis de Lafayette’s Revolutionary War service nagged at Jackson as an embarrassing comparison. By the time he convened the court-martial, Jackson had hit upon the solution. “The laws of war did not apply to conflicts with savages,” he solemnly intoned, and thus was he able to dispense with not only the laws of war, but virtually all laws altogether. The court would charge Arbuthnot and Ambrister with assisting and encouraging the Seminoles. In Jackson’s legal universe, these were capital offenses.

The specific charges accused Arbuthnot of inciting the Creeks to make war on the United States, of spying for the Seminoles, and of inciting the Seminoles to kidnap, torture, and kill William Hambly and Edmund Doyle. Charges against Ambrister stated that he had aided and abetted Seminoles and had led Seminoles against the United States.

Arbuthnot requested counsel, and the court obliged him by appointing one, but he apparently managed most of his own defense. Some describe his efforts as eloquent, but both he and Ambrister must have realized that their part in this show was already scripted to its conclusion. Ambrister, in fact, finally abandoned all pretense of due process simply to throw himself on the mercy of the court.

(The original minutes of the trial are available from Google books here.)

Jackson’s justification of himself, essentially placing the condemned men outside the law by stripping them of their whiteness, will not much flatter his latter-day partisans:

These individuals were tried under my orders by a special court of select officers, legally convicted as exciters of this savage and negro war, legally condemned, and most justly punished for their iniquities … I hope the execution of these two unprincipled villains will prove an awful example to the world … that certain, though slow retribution awaits those unchristian wretches who, by false promises, delude and excite an Indian tribe to all the horrid deeds of savage war.

… although a further point takes a tack the modern reader may find more familiar:

The moment the American army retires from Florida the war hatchet will be again raised, and the same scenes of indiscriminate massacre, with which our frontier settlers have been visited, will be repeated, so long as the Indians within the territory of Spain are exposed to the delusion of false prophets and poison of foreign intrigue; so long as they can receive ammunition, munitions of war, from pretended traders and Spanish commandants, it will be impossible to restrain their outrages. … The savages, therefore, must be made dependent on us, and cannot be kept at peace without being persuaded of the certainty of chastisement being inflicted on the commission of the first offence.

Even at the end of his life, this day’s hanging was still flung against Jackson: “By the Eternal! You old Hags! If I get hold of you, I’ll hang you all up under the 7th section as I did Arbuthnot and Ambrister!” (click to see the entire cartoon)

(The letter is as read by a friendly congressman here.)

Jackson’s own popularity essentially carried the day against a measure of Congressional censure, but the affair caused him ongoing political annoyance; for Jackson’s enemies, it would forever impugn the man’s motives and behavior. (See the cartoon, which dates to the incipience of a later generation’s own imperial war.) The success that sufficed to exonerate him to his peers might seem rather less compelling to posterity.

Nevertheless, there are defenders of America’s “War on Terrorism” military tribunals prepared to number this farcical procedure among their precedents.*

* A 2004 Congressional Research Service report (pdf) on military tribunals also touches the Arbuthnot and Ambrister affair and hints, in its neutral way, at the Napoleonic direction Jackson’s legal reasoning would mark out:

Experts in military law have differed on the legitimacy of Jackson’s action. William Winthrop, writing toward the end of the nineteenth century, noted that if any officer ordered an execution in the manner of Jackson he “would now be indictable for murder.” To William Birkhimer, in his 1904 treatise, Jackson had asked the special court only for its opinion, both as to guilt and punishment, and the delivery of that opinion could not divest Jackson of the authority he possessed from the beginning: to proceed summarily against Arbuthnot and Ambrister and order their execution. Birkhimer’s analysis would allow generals to execute civilians without trial or to dispense with the fact-finding and judgment that results from trial proceedings.

It bears remembering that this incident was in fact only three years removed from Bonaparte’s last hurrah, and some few of Jackson’s countrymen saw such a figure in Old Hickory.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Florida,Hanged,History,Lynching,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Scandal,Shot,Spain,Spies,Summary Executions,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

1998: Gerald Eugene Stano, misogynist psychopath

7 comments March 23rd, 2008 Lilo

(Thanks to the tireless Lilo of Lost In Lima Ohio and Perverted Primates for the guest post.)

On this date in 1998, the story of a boy named Paul ended in Florida’s electric chair.

Paul was born in 1951, in Schenectady, New York. He was the fifth child born to his mother, and would be the third she put up for adoption. At thirteen months old, Paul was malnourished and neglected both physically and emotionally to the point that county officials found him unfit to be adopted. But out of the slightest bit of luck, the small child caught the attention of Eugene and Norma Stano, who fought for six months to adopt the severely delayed child. And it was out of that luck that Paul became Gerald Eugene Stano.

Gerald Eugene Stano’s problems didn’t end with his new life with his adoptive parents; instead, he continued to develop a series of problems that would follow him, shaping his outlook on the world forever, and likely providing him with the excuses he needed to justify his actions later in life.

Gerald still wet the bed at ten, was the target for bullies and regularly laughed at by girls. Late in his life he would claim that women used to pull his hair, and even threw beer bottles at him, all without any provocation. He lagged behind in school, failing to graduate high school until he was 21 years old, and except for music class never achieved a grade higher than a C or D.

Yes, Gerald had a sad and difficult life, one that most people would find it easy to sympathize with. Despite his claims of being an outcast, Gerald flaunted his high opinion of himself, often going as far as to refer to himself as a “real Italian stallion”.

It seems that few really paid attention to Stano — not until March 25, 1980, when a woman by the name of Donna Hensley stumbled away from him, and walked into a police station.

Hensley would tell police that she was a prostitute, and had been approached by a man requesting her services. Once at her motel room, the two began to argue and the man ended up slicing her with a knife before insulting her and fleeing. Hensley was adamant that the man be found and charged.

An officer investigating the incident went looking for the prospective suspect, but ended the search with only a license plate for a car that matched the description. Following up with the plate number, the officer found the vehicle was registered to Gerald Eugene Stano, a 28-year-old man with a long arrest record but no convictions. Hensley gave a positive identification from Stano’s mug shot, and thus began investigation into a series of grisly murders.

On February 17, 1980 two college students had stumbled onto the decomposing remains of a young woman, and police had begun investigating the gruesome murder. The victim, 20-year-old Mary Carol Maher, was found in a remote area lying on her back, her arms at her side. Police believed she had been there for weeks, and upon moving the body discovered that she’d been repeatedly stabbed in the back, legs and chest.

During questioning for the assault on the prostitute, Stano, who fit the profile of the person sought for Maher’s slaying, was asked about the murder victim. Despite having confessed to the assault, Stano would only provide enough information to confirm that he’d previously seen Maher. But with more questioning, Stano broke and began replaying the scene out with the detective, even accompany the detective to the murder scene, and confirming the position of the body.

After returning to the police station, another detective suggested questioning Stano on a missing persons case, that of Toni Van Haddocks, a 26-year-old prostitute who had not been seen for some time. Stano denied any involvement in that case.

On April 15, 1980 a human skull was found in a garden by a Daytona resident, and a search of the area lead to clothing and more bones. Police would determine that these were the remains of Haddocks. Stano was again questioned and despite his first denials, later confessed to the murder, and would soon begin confessing to many more.

In the end, Stano admitted the gruesome murders of over 40 women, and was sentenced to death. After many failed appeals, his execution took place on March 23, 1998.

The death penalty has always been a very touchy subject. Many of its opponents believe that nothing justifies the taking of another person’s life, even if done by the state as a means of punishment. I agree that every life has value, but am personally compelled to ask whose life had more value — the victims that Stano murdered, or Stano himself?

My answer would favor the victims, and therefore I am resolved to believe that giving him any punishment less than what he received — death — would be an injustice to those who were killed by his hands.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Florida,Guest Writers,Infamous,Lethal Injection,Murder,Other Voices,Serial Killers,USA

1933: Giuseppe Zangara, who is not on Sons of Italy posters

9 comments March 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1933, Giuseppe Zangara went to Florida’s electric chair for the murder of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak — the man he had accidentally shot while attempting to assassinate President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Zangara had to stand on a chair to take the shot: he was only five feet tall. This image is from Miami Police of Yesterday, a site by a descendant of one of the officers who arrested Zangara.

A strange and strangely forgotten man, the Italian immigrant came within inches of dramatically altering American history.

On February 15, 1933, at a Roosevelt speech in Miami’s Bayfront Park, Zangara perched himself on a metal folding chair within ten meters of the man who was then President-elect, but somehow managed to miss him. A bystander, Lillian Cross, grabbed his arm, and others in the crowd wrestled him down.

Certainly Zangara would be better remembered if he had shot Roosevelt (and Roosevelt would be very much less remembered), but his head-scratching persona accounts for at least some of his obscurity.

He’s sometimes called an anarchist — the early 20th-century equivalent of calling him a terrorist — and he talked the talk. Here, his last words:

You give me electric chair. I no afraid of that chair! You one of capitalists. You is crook man too. Put me in electric chair. I no care! Get to hell out of here, you son of a bitch [said to the chaplain] … I go sit down all by myself… Viva Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere!… Lousy capitalists! No picture! Capitalists! No one here to take my picture. All capitalists lousy bunch of crooks. Go ahead. Pusha da button!

Zangara was a working-class immigrant. But his specific motivation for murdering Roosevelt seems murky at best — there’s no clear subversive organization or cause with which Zangara seemed a dedicated fellow-traveler. The wikipedia page about him describes his lifelong stomach pains as the cause of his act, which seems a queer thing to make a fellow shoot a president.

The major conspiracy proposal, that the anti-mob mayor Cermak was the real target all along of a mafia-engineered hit (here (.doc) is a version) is highly speculative, to put it generously. (Update: More on this here, via Chicagoland) Certainly Zangara might have been, as he claimed and most believe, a lone nut — many have done worse for less cause.

The world didn’t have long to unravel this man’s mysteries; justice moved with a rapidity terrifying even by the standards of the time — as reflected in the title of one of the books about him, The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara.

Zangara had already been sentenced to a long prison term for the several bystanders his errant shots had struck when Anton Cermak finally succumbed — after 19 painful days — to a gut shot. Two weeks after that, his killer was dead, too.

During his first trial, the judge pressed him on his motivation, as reported in a press clipping that became part of Zangara’s FBI file:

Q. Have you ever been in jail before? Ever been in any trouble?

A. No, this is the first time.

Q. Did you ever hurt anyone before?

A. No, me no hurt anyone.

Q. Did you plan this shooting?

A. No.

Q. When did you decide to do it?

A. I got it in my mind capitalist hurt people. They are to blame for my stomach hurting. My stomach was hurting bad. It was like I was on fire. It burns my mind, I act like a drunken man. It came in my mind when I was suffering.

At this trial — the one before Cermak died — he pled unsuccessfully for execution: “I am sorry only because I did not kill. I am sorry about nothing. Put me in the electric chair.” It reads like “suicide by cop”.

Zangara might not be a name of Oswaldesque dimensions among the assassinariat, but he comes in for a scene in Stephen Sondheim’s strange musical theater, Assassins.

Officially, Zangara was punished for the man he killed, not the soon-to-be-President he was (presumably) aiming at. But such a close scrape for such a transformative American leader, a man sometimes credited with saving capitalism from itself in an age of crisis, has made Zangara’s one famous act fodder for alternative history that asks the question “what might have been?”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Famous Last Words,Florida,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

2006: Angel Diaz

9 comments December 13th, 2007 Headsman

On this date one year ago, Angel Diaz suffered lethal injection for the 1979 murder of a topless bar manager.

And “suffered” was the word. The procedure was botched, and Diaz took 34 minutes — and a second dose of the lethal three-drug cocktail — before dying, with chemical burns left on both arms.

The incident provoked an immediate media storm and a moratorium on executions in Florida pending the perversity of public servants molding killing procedure by committee. As a result, Diaz remains the last person executed in Florida, and 2007 will be the first year since 1982 that the Sunshine State puts nobody to death.

The debacle in Florida has been a microcosm for the nation. Lethal injection as an execution protocol was by this time last year already facing growing scrutiny. It was immediately apparent that Diaz’s execution could spell serious trouble for the American death penalty’s legal machinery.

And indeed that machinery has now ground to a halt, if only a temporary one. Facing judicial confusion, the Supreme Court is weighing a potential landmark case on the constitutionality of lethal injection, with actual executions — at least involuntary ones — under a de facto moratorium for months yet to come.

That same disquiet is setting down legislative as well as judicial milestones: New Jersey is poised to has this very day become the first American state to abolish the death penalty since 1965.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Florida,Lethal Injection,Murder,New Jersey,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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