Posts filed under 'Mississippi'

1987: Edward Earl Johnson, “I guess nobody is going to call”

17 comments May 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1987, murmuring “I guess nobody is going to call,”* Edward Earl Johnson was gassed for capital murder in Mississippi’s Parchman Farm prison.

Don Cabana, the prison warden who oversaw Johnson’s gassing, eventually resigned over his misgivings about carrying out executions and wrote this book about it.

Johnson was convicted of raping a white woman and killing the policeman who answered her distress call. These are no-nos for a young person of color in the South.

Johnson fought his execution for eight years on death row, insisting on his innocence even on his last walk to the gas chamber.

And the case against him looks pretty thin — supported, as these things so often are, mostly by a highly suspect confession Johnson miraculously coughed up when he was out on a drive with John Law. (This led the victim, who knew Johnson and had excluded him as the attacker, to decide he did it after all.)

Needless to say, Johnson’s state-appointed public defender was unable to make the most of these gaping lacunae in the state’s case.

Years later, the prison warden Don Cabana — who was on this date overseeing his very first execution, and was deeply shaken by it — recalled his charge’s fearful situation in testimony to the Minnesota legislature:

He insisted to the very end, somewhat oddly, that he did not commit the crime … my experience with condemned prisoners was always that once strapped to the chair, they came around somehow with something, if only something simple as “Tell the victim’s family I’m sorry,” “Tell my mother I’m sorry,” something that indicated something bad had happened, I was there and I was part of it.

But not so with this young man. When I performed my ritualistic function of asking if he had a final public statement, this young man looked me in the eye with tears streaming down his cheeks, and he said: “Warden, you’re about to become a murderer. I did not kill that policeman, and dear God, I can’t make anyone believe me.”

This is a musty old case by now, but with the growing awareness of false confessions as a contributing factor in wrongful convictions, it may soon come in for a long-overdue re-examination.

Johnson, unfortunately, does not have any prospect of an a-ha forensic science win. However, as with Cameron Todd Willingham‘s case, there’s simply no balance of evidence that should point a fair-minded present-day observer to a conviction beyond reasonable doubt, and a good deal that points to an affirmative conclusion of innocence.

As the (admittedly partisan) Wrongful Conviction: International Perspectives on Miscarriages of Justice sums up,

[t]he murder weapon was never connected to Johnson; indeed, no physical evidence linked Johnson to the crime. The case against Johnson is weakened by his claim of inadequate counsel, his immediate recantation of his confession, and his claim that his confession was produced under threat of death. Also, after Johnson’s execution, a young woman came forward claiming to have been with Johnson on the night of the murder, and claiming also that she had come forward during the investigation but was rebuffed by police.

Edward Earl Johnson is the subject of the riveting BBC documentary Fourteen Days in May.

* Quoted in the New York Times, May 21, 1987.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Mississippi,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1955: Gerald Albert Gallego, like father like son

7 comments March 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1955, murderer Gerald Albert Gallego became the first client of Mississippi’s new gas chamber.*

It was a botched job, though that didn’t stop Mississippi from retaining the gas chamber into the 1990s.

Gallego coughed, choked, and wheezed on a less than lethal cloud of cyanide poisoning. Finally, after some forty-five minutes while officials feverishly worked to correct the problem, the repairs were completed and Gallego quickly died. An additional step was then added to the required testing of the chamber prior to an execution: an animal, usually a rabbit, would be placed in a cage in the chamber chair and cyanide gas was released to make sure the mixture was sufficiently lethal.

Gallego killed a cop, then engineered a prison break out of death row by giving a guard a faceful of acid and a fatal beating.

But if you think he was bad, get a load of his son.

The younger Gerald Gallego drew two gas chamber sentences of his own, in California and Nevada, for a far more diabolical crime spree (though he ultimately died in prison, not at the hands of an executioner).

The son’s story is the subject of The Sex Slave Murders: The Horrifying True Story of America’s First Husband-and-Wife Serial Killers, whose author gave an interview to indefatigable true-crime blogger Laura James here.

Despite the familial resemblance in lawbreaking, the father and son never met in this life.

According to The Sex Slave Murders, a prison conversion gave Gallego pere a care for his next life, and on his last walk this day to the gas chamber, he handed the Mississippi sheriff a note that read in part,

Sheriff, if at any time you should have young men in your jail, please tell them that I was once like them, and should they continue, there is no reward but hardships and grief for their parents.

* Mississippi’s gas chamber replaced the electric chair.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Milestones,Mississippi,Murder,Notably Survived By,USA

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2007: Not Earl Wesley Berry … for the time being

1 comment October 30th, 2008 Headsman

Minutes before he was to die this day last year, the lethal injection of Mississippi murderer Earl Wesley Berry was stayed by the Supreme Court — the signal that it had imposed a de facto moratorium on executions while it considered the constitutionality of lethal injection.

Condemned to die for kidnapping and beating to death Mary Bounds in 1987, Berry was your basic unappealing death row case with no particular issue either substantive or technical likely to help him out in the courts.

Luckily for Berry, the fundamental issue of whether whether the lethal injection regime used in Mississippi and in most of the United States was cruel and unusual punishment had reached the high court at just time time.

Also luckily, the phone lines were open: Berry got his reprieve with about 15 or 20 minutes to spare.

Berry’s stay finally clarified a few weeks of uncertainty that prevailed after the Court took last year’s lethal injection challenge, Baze v. Rees.

Could executions still go forward while lethal injection was under review? Would the holdup be limited to Kentucky, where the appeal originated? Was there any manner of case-by-case flexibility?

Berry was the bellwether. The execution-friendly Fifth Circuit Court let Berry’s scheduled date go ahead, making the hapless killer “the last best chance for prosecutors to restart executions this year [2007].”

But Earl Wesley Berry’s luck was only about seven months long: he was executed on May 21, 2008, the second prisoner put to death after the moratorium expired upon the Court’s rejection of Baze.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Kidnapping,Last Minute Reprieve,Lethal Injection,Lucky to be Alive,Mississippi,Murder,Not Executed,USA

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