Posts filed under 'Oklahoma'

1896: The Rufus Buck Gang, heaven-dream’t

Add comment July 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1896, the Rufus Buck Gang was hanged at Fort Smith, Arkansas for a two-week spree of violence against white Oklahoma settlers.

More about this novelization is available on this companion website.

After doing a 90-day turn in Judge Isaac Parker‘s jail for selling liquor, the half-Creek, half-Black teenager Rufus Buck emerged violently politicized — “enraged by what he considered the theft of Indian lands. He decided it was his duty to rid the land of those who, in his eyes, did not belong”

If his theory of resistance was naive, the grievance was real enough. Earlier that century the Creeks of the American Southeast had been made to quaff humiliation by the emerging United States, and expelled with many other indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands to present-day Oklahoma; in Buck’s own lifetime, this remnant Indian Territory was itself being positioned for takeover by white settlement.

Buck gathered four other youngsters to his banner and from July 28, 1895 — when they slew a U.S. marshal — until their capture on August 10 they gave vent to rage and despair in a spree of robberies, murders, and rapes consciously directed at white settlers. This hopeless paroxysm of violence, almost precisely contemporary with suppression of the Ghost Dance movement and the official closing of the American frontier, marks the passage of an era; even the famous Judge Parker was in his dotage and would pass away a few months after the Buck gang’s own execution.

After the young men went to the gallows for rape on July 1, 1896, a poem was discovered in Buck’s cell, scribbled on the back of a photograph of his mother.

Mi dreAM —
i, dremP’T i, wAs, in, HeAven,
Among, THe Angels, FAir:
i, d, neAr, seen, none, so HAndsome,
THAT TWine, in goLden, HAir:
TheY, Looked, so, neAT,
And; sAng, so, sweeT
And, Play, d, THe, THe, golden, harp
i, was, ABouT, To, Pick, An Angel ouT,
And, TAke, Her, To, mY HeaRT:
BuT, THe, momenT, i, BegAn
To PLea,
i, THougHT, oF, You, mY, Love,
THere, Was, none, I, d seen
so, BeAuTiFul,
On, eArTH, or, HeAven, ABove.
gooD! By, My Dear, Wife..anD MoTHer
All. so. My SisTers.
Rufus, Buck
Youse Truley

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Oklahoma,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,U.S. Federal,USA

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2010: John David Duty, the first pentobarbital execution in the U.S.

Add comment December 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2010, John David Duty reclined on an Oklahoma gurney with an apology for his victim’s family on his lips, and became a milestone: the first U.S. inmate executed using pentobarbital in the lethal injection process.

Already sure to die in prison via sentences from his 1978 convictions for kidnapping, rape, attempted murder, and robbery, Duty spared himself some time by recruiting the state to assist in his suicide.

His means of doing so was the murder of his new 22-year-old cellmate Curtis Wise, which Duty tried to tell Wise’s mother all about in a taunting letter that was confiscated before it hit the post:

Mary Wise,

Well by the time you get this letter you will already know that your son is dead. I know now because I just killed him an hour ago. Gee you’d think I’d be feeling some remorse but I’m not. I’ve been planning since the day he moved in last Friday. Tonight I finally pulled it off. Would you like to know how I did it? Well I told him I wanted to use him as a hostage. Hell he went right for it, thinking he was gonna get some smokes out of the deal. Well I tied him up hands and feet, then I strangled him. It’s not like the movies, it took awhile. But I really did him a favor as he was too stupid to live. I mean he didn’t know me 5 days and he let me tie him up like that, Please! Besides he was young and dumb and would’ve just been in and out of prison his whole life.So I saved him all the torment. I’ve been in 24 years, wish someone would have done me the same favor back then. I guess you’re thinking I’ll be punished for this. Well not likely in this county. The DA’s here are weak bitches and don’t give a damn about deaths of inmates. We’re all just scum to them. Besides I’m doing 2 life sentences so they can’t hurt me. But you can call them and tell them about this letter, but it wouldn’t do you any good. Well I’m gonna close for now and I’ll tell police in the morning about Curtis.

Even though Mary Wise argued against it in court, this horrific gambit secured him his desired death sentence — with the help of Duty’s credible vows to kill again if he didn’t get what he wanted. Perhaps entertaining second thoughts, Duty did pursue his appeals, however, and that meant that the legal journey of his case did not reach its end until almost a decade later — a new era in American lethal injection, as it turned out.

Ever since lethal injection debuted in 1982 it had taken over as the go-to execution method around the United States. But by about 2010, it was increasingly difficult to come by the first drug in the standard lethal injection “cocktail”, sodium thiopental.

The system has been adapting ever since, including switches to a variety of alternative drug combinations that sometimes have ghastly results.

And Duty’s was the very first execution* to so adapt.

To kill him, Oklahoma sedated him first not with sodium thiopental, but with pentobarbital — the very first use of this drug, which has gone on to become one of the most frequently deployed substitutes for thiopental in death chambers around the country. Although Duty fought the chemical innovation on appeal (again contradicting his original suicidal intent) pentobarbital wasn’t exactly experimental: it had been used for animal and human euthanasia for years.

“There were no apparent issues” with the execution, a Department of Corrections spokesperson said afterwards.

* Ohio on December 8 of 2009 conducted an execution using only sodium thiopental, deviating from the three-drug protocol while still using one of its standard constituents. Pentobarbital itself has also subsequently been used in single-drug executions; consult the Death Penalty Information Center for up-to-date information on the still-shifting landscape of lethal injection protocols in the U.S.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,Oklahoma,USA,Volunteers

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1966: James French, fried

1 comment August 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1966, James French went to the Oklahoma electric chair, clinching his spot in perpetuity on last-words listicles by cracking to the press pool, “Hey, fellas. How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? French Fries!”*

French had enjoyed five years to work out this chill fare-thee-well since the calculated murder of his cellmate in 1961, back when he, French, was already serving time for murder.

It’s alleged that French committed this ruthless deed in pursuit of the mercy seat, as a form of suicide by executioner; whether this is or isn’t so he had certainly embraced the consequence by the time he presented himself to the judiciary.

“He deserved to die,” the expansive French once informed an interviewer. “And now because of what I did, I deserve to die, too. I don’t want to die. Who does? But the rules are clear: to take a life is to forfeit your own.”

It’s just that his letters imploring speedy implementation of justice could not override procedural errors in his first trial (they biased the jury by presenting French in manacles) nor his second trial (bad jury instruction by the judge) until the third time charmed in 1965.

The man could have lived a long life punning on his surname — perhaps he would have insisted on going by James Freedom as a post-9/11 America blundered into Iraq? — had he chosen to fight his death sentence, for even then the law’s French frying apparatus was grinding to a halt. Just two more executions — Aaron Mitchell and Luis Monge, both in 1967 — would take place in all the land before capital punishment went into a decade-long hiberation during which all previously existing death sentences were invalidated. French’s was the last death by electric chair until John Spenkelink in 1979 and the last ever electrocution in Oklahoma (which has used lethal injection in the modern, post-1972 era).

* His actual, and better, last words in the death chamber were by way of declining to make a final statement: “Everything’s already been said.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Gallows Humor,Milestones,Murder,Oklahoma,USA

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1893: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment June 30th, 2017 Headsman


This headline tally from the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Gazette of July 1, 1893 omits an additional Georgia hanging on the same day (also overlooked by the Espy File index of U.S. historical executions), but mistakenly attributes the June 29 execution of Pietro Buccieri in Pennsylvania to the 30th; between the two contrary errors, it arrives at the correct total of noosings. A sixth execution occurred by musketry in the Indian Territory on the same day.

Indian Territory (Oklahoma): Joe Bird


Dallas Morning News, July 1, 1893

Maryland: Daniel Barber and William Pinkney


Baltimore Sun, July 1, 1893

Louisiana: Gus Albers


New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 30, 1893

Georgia: Sam Thorpe…


Macon Telegraph, July 1, 1893

… and George Summer Rachen


Macon Telegraph, July 1, 1893

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Louisiana,Maryland,Murder,Oklahoma,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,USA

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1992: Robyn Leroy Parks, botched lethal injection

1 comment March 10th, 2016 Headsman

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 appeared to suffer a violent reaction, possibly allergic, to the execution drugs. “I’m still awake,” he said after the drugs were dispensed — said that “lightheartedly,” according to the New York Times.

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.

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Entry Filed under: Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Oklahoma,USA

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1990: Charles Coleman, the first lethal injection in Oklahoma

1 comment September 10th, 2015 Headsman

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.

Most of all it was sterile for the viewers, who had occasionally been subjected under the other processes to nauseating botches: men who were supposed to be dying instantly instead thrashing wildly away, catching fire, gushing blood, or requiring jolt after jolt to finish off. The electric chair surely owes its iconic cultural position in part to its reputation for spectacular failures.

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.


Data via the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

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.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,Oklahoma,USA

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1894: Joe Dick, “allowed to go anywhere he desired”

Add comment February 16th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1894, a young Indian named Joe Dick was executed outside the courthouse of Eufaula in present-day Oklahoma.

At the time, Eufala was part of the Muscogee Creek jursidiction of Indian Territory. Until the 1898 Curtis Act, the tribal governments in Indian Country enjoyed full legal jurisdiction, up to and including application of the death penalty.

One interesting feature of that jurisdiction (previously noted in these annals) was the absence of standing jails to incarcerate death-sentenced prisoners. Joe Dick was only loosely guarded and on “Christmas week, he told the officers that were guarding him that he was of a lively nature and would like to attend some of the dances that were going on through the country.” They happily loaned him a horse and saddle, and Joe Dick was as good as his word: after dancing all night, he returned and “reported the next morning for breakfast.”

On another occasion, with firewood running short, an officer John Hawkins set Dick loose in the woods with a cart. The murderer came back three hours later, loaded with firewood. “After that, he was allowed to go anywhere he desired, if he would promise to report for duty at meal times.”

Hawkins and a fellow-officer named Bob Roberts conducted the execution by musketry — both shooting Dick dead through the heart from five yards’ distance as Dick stood against a large tree. (In the Indian Territory, only the Cherokee had enough death penalty cases to warrant a standing gallows; other nations generally carried out executions by shooting.)

Dick had opportunistically murdered a man named Thomas Gray against whom he held a grudge. Chancing upon Gray at work in an orchard one day, Dick simply shot him and rode away. Dick confessed the crime.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Oklahoma,Public Executions,Shot,USA

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

1 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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2003: Scott Hain, the last juvenile offender executed in the United States

10 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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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Oklahoma,Theft,USA

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1903: Dora Wright, in Indian Territory

2 comments July 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Dora Wright was hanged at McAlester in Indian Territory — the present-day U.S. state of Oklahoma.

Wright beat and tortured to death a 7-year-old orphan in her charge named Annie Williams. Wright tormented the little girl over several months until she finally succumbed to a thrashing in February 1903. It was, the local paper said, “the most horrible and outrageous” crime in memory in the area; Wright’s jury only needed 20 minutes’ deliberation to condemn her.

As Oklahoma was yet four years shy of statehood, “Indian Territory” jurisdiction — and with it any decision on executive clemency — fell to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. The inclination of the Rough Rider is aptly conveyed by the words of Attorney General Philander Knox‘s brief on the case to the President, which were released for press consumption:

The real facts in this case are that this woman tortured to death a little child seven years old, her niece, whom she was pretending to care for and support. She whipped the child most unmercifully with large switches, struck it about the hand and face so as to cause wounds sufficient to produce death, burned holes in its legs and thighs with a heated poker, and committed other nameless atrocities upon the person of the child. The testimony shows that the woman pursued a course of cruelty which was fiendish and barbarous … The only ground upon which her pardon is sought is that she is a woman, and that the infliction of the death penalty upon a woman would be a shock to the moral sense of the people in the community.

T.R. was incredulous at the feminine special pleading.

“If that woman was mean enough to do a thing like that,” Roosevelt said, “she ought to have the nerve to meet her punishment.”

Wright did have that nerve in the end, and was noted for the calm with which she comported herself on the scaffold. (She was hanged alongside another fellow, Charles Barrett, who shot a man dead in a robbery.)


From the Duluth (Minn.) News-Tribune, July 18, 1903.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Oklahoma,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,U.S. Federal,USA,Women

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