Posts filed under 'Oklahoma'

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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1920: Lee Monroe Betterton, three strikes and you’re out

Add comment July 9th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1920, Lee Monroe Betterton (addressed by his middle name) was electrocuted in Oklahoma for the murder of his wife, whose unusual name has been given variously as “Elzeana,” “Aldazia” and “Elzadah.” (This account will use the latter spelling, which was the one used in Betterton’s Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals syllabus.)

Little is known about Monroe Betterton’s background, other than that he was born in Missouri and was the seventh of twelve children, ten of whom survived to adulthood.

He was a heavy drinker and his violent nature was self-evident: Elzadah was, sadly, not the first wife Betterton killed. Nor was she even the second wife Betterton killed.

Betterton killed his first wife, Laura Elizabeth, in Barry County, Missouri in 1904. They had four young children together, two sons and two daughters. During an argument he beat her unconscious and she was taken to the hospital, where she soon died. For some reason, her husband was not prosecuted.

By 1908, Betterton had remarried and was living with Rosie, Wife #2, in Neosho, Missouri. They were walking to nearby Monett to visit some of his relatives when they started quarreling. Both of them had been drinking. About two miles outside of town, Betterton suddenly pulled out a knife and stabbed Rosie in the heart. She died instantly and he laid her body beside the railroad tracks.

This time he was arrested and charged with the crime. Betterton maintained that “I was guilty of that woman’s death, but it was an accident.” He got 99 years in prison, but served only ten before he was paroled in 1918.

He was 48 by then, and he returned to Monett and began courting Elzadah Lockwood, a widow close to his own age who was unfamiliar with the old adage that while once is a coincidence, twice is a trend. They got married, but their relationship turned rocky almost immediately and they argued constantly.

The couple separated after only a few months and filed for divorce. However, they reconciled after Betterton’s son Clifford married Elzadah’s daughter Mamie. In the first week of July 1919, a mere week after their divorce was final, Monroe and Elzadah remarried and settled in Vinita, Oklahoma.

Their previous problems resurfaced, however, and within days they were fighting like cats.

On July 9, 1919, Elzadah was preparing to leave her son-in-law Arthur Thomas’s house after yet another argument when Betterton shot her three times in the back. One of the bullets blew away the whole right side of her heart, and she was dead before authorities arrived at the scene.

When questioned, Betterton implicated everyone: the son Clifford; the son-in-law Arthur; even Elzadah herself as a phenomenally effective suicide. Mamie had been present at the scene, though. She and Elzadah’s eight-year-old son Raymond saw the whole thing, and both testified against their stepfather at his trial.

The case was pretty open-and-shut: As the Vinita Daily Journal noted, “The prisoner seems to be the least [a]ffected of the family and pays close attention to the testimony for or against him … There was practically no defense.”


Hobart (Okla.) Daily Republican, June 21, 1920.

Less than an hour before his execution, Betterton gave an interview in his cell and continued to assert his innocence: “I am not guilty of the crime with which I am charged. I am ready to die. I am ready to meet my God. I do not fear death, but I do not want to die for a crime which I did not commit.”

Approximately 100 people witnessed his execution. He had no final statement.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,Murder,Oklahoma,Other Voices,USA

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1897: Choka Ebin, by his own relatives

Add comment June 14th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1897, Choka Ebin (Eben), a full-blooded Creek Indian, was executed in Perry, Oklahoma for the murder of Laura Anthony. He’d killed her just three weeks before, on May 23, and was arrested that same day. The law required Ebin’s own tribe to try and sentence him, and his own nearest kin to perform the execution — a precaution against the execution initiating a blood feud.

Ebin remained free between his conviction and his execution. He was supposed to die on June 4, but sent word that he was too sick to ride to town, and got a ten-day reprieve. On June 14 he dutifully appeared and turned himself in to the authorities.

He was placed on his knees on a chair, and his father and brother, Riley and Palko, took positions twelve paces back and fired their Winchester rifles.

The bullets hit the target dead center: shot in the heart, Ebin died within seconds. Riley and Palko then put his body in a coffin and took it home to bury. (Here’s a short contemporary newspaper blurb in a pdf)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Murder,Notable Participants,Oklahoma,Other Voices,Shot,USA

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1999: Sean Sellers

Add comment February 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Sean Sellers became the last person put to death in the U.S. for a crime committed at the age of 16.

Sellers was just four months into his 17th year when he shot dead an Oklahoma City convenience store clerk in a haze of adolescent angst.

“When I was that person, that murderer, I felt superior,” he later wrote in a confession. “I looked down on people with the secret knowledge that I had killed and was capable of killing them too. When I was not that person I was just a confused teenager, going to school, working, learning to drive, still full of anger, and counting the days when I’d be 18 so I could move OUT of that house.”

Six months later, he moved OUT for good by killing his mother and stepfather as they slept. This killing did not stay secret.

The U.S. at the time still allowed the execution of juvenile offenders, a practice that was barred by the Supreme Court only six years after Sellers died.

But on trial for having avowedly killed as “an offering to Satan” during the height of the 1980s’ bizarre devil-worship panic, his age barely figured at all. A cash-strapped public defender tried to argue that he was possessed; later, a defense psychiatrist claimed that Sellers suffered from multiple personality disorder. It’s safe to say the young man wasn’t right in the head at some level, but this sort of thing is juridical grasping at straws.

Sellers later converted to Christianity, but this conversion wouldn’t help him any more than it had helped Karla Faye Tucker the year before. In Sellers’ case, quite a lot of people thought it was all more or less a scam — the manipulative killer’s ploy to avoid the needle.

One footnote to the much-hyped Satanism angle was the teenage Sellers’ interest in Dungeons & Dragons. (Just him and a few million other people.)

Once mainstream enough to have its own cartoon, the popular role-playing game came under hysterical fundamentalist Christian attack during the Reagan years as Lucifer’s very own sport, the gateway drug to erosion of family values and situational ethics.


(via)

A guy like Sean Sellers magic missile-ing a beholder one day and then wasting his parents the next — that was pretty much the Platonic ideal of the anti-D&D campaign. People magazine said the hobby “fueled his darkening fantasies”. (For his part, Sellers disputed the connection.)

Although this sort of thing looks pretty laughable, there are still some authorities who fail their saving throw against dumb when it comes to the infernal pastime.


Haven’t they seen the after-school special?

As an aside, this “rant” (author’s word) from a man whose ex-wife became involved in the Sellers clemency campaign is a pretty interesting snapshot of the prisoner himself, and of the relationships in close proximity to him.

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

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1952: Chester Gregg

3 comments July 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1952, 58-year-old Chester Gregg nonchalantly died in Ohio’s electric chair for killing his wife the previous year.

Gregg shotgunned Alma Colliday Gregg, his estranged spouse and the head of the “lonely hearts” club through which the pair oiginally met, in her Kenton apartment after she filed for divorce.

As that killing made him a two-timer — he’d been paroled from a 1927 murder rap in Kentucky; the daughter of that victim petitioned unsuccessfully to attend Gregg’s execution — his clemency prospects were remote.

Although he’s of no known relationship to the namesake of the landmark Gregg decision returning death penalty to the U.S. in 1976, Chester has managed to find his way into the news of late.

Apparently, he was acquainted with an Ohio child named Jay Chapman (newspaper reports have termed Gregg Chapman’s “childhood friend”, but Chapman would only have been about 13 at this time: we intend no derogation to intergenerational friendship in saying that this is not the connotation of “childhood friend”). And Chapman would go on, as Oklahoma’s medical examiner in the 1970s, to play a subtle but important role in the modern death penalty: he invented the “traditional” lethal injection three-drug cocktail.

Dr. Chapman, who at least has the comfort of not having the lethal needle named after him a la Joseph Guillotin, knocked out the standard sodium thiopental-pancuronium bromide-potassium chloride sequence at the request of legislators looking for a less unpleasant alternative to that ubiquitous 20th century contraption, the electric chair. (That’s also how Gregg was put to death.)

But apparently, Chapman assumed that trained medical personnel who knew how to administer IVs and measure drugs would be conducting the procedure.

In fact, as executions “medicalized”, professional medical associations like the AMA barred members from participating as a breach of professional ethics. More recently, supply interruptions for lethal drugs have made a mess of the entire process. The upshot has been some high-profile botches — including Ohio itself outright failing in a recent lethal injection attempt — necessitating a 20072008 U.S. execution moratorium to sort out legal challenges to the needle.

It’s a far cry from Chapman’s vision of a litigation-proof method: “We felt that by going with this type of regimen, no one could suggest that it was cruel and unusual because people undergo this very protocol every day for anesthetic for surgery world-round,” he said in 2009.

The doctor’s own interest in the subject was merely instrumental: fewer appeals avenues mean more executions. “I’m an eye for an eye person,” Chapman told the London Guardian.* “The lethal injection is too easy for some of them.”

For that reason, Chapman is quite alright with the switch his home state an others have recently made to conducting lethal injections with only a single massive overdose of a single drug, either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital. Whatever gets the case out of courts, and onto the gurney.

As for the ghost of Chester Gregg, he really doesn’t enter the picture either way.

“It’s a totally separate thing,” Chapman said of his executed former neighbor. “It’s just an experience I had along the way.”

* There are some May 2010 photos of Chapman in the Guardian magazine archive.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notably Survived By,Oklahoma,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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2003: Daniel Juan Revilla

1 comment January 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 2003, Daniel Juan Revilla was executed in Oklahoma for beating his girlfriend’s daughterson to death.

“Daniel gave his last few years to his project in the hope that his laughter and good spirit would live on through his work.”

Six months after his 18th birthday, Revilla appeared at the Jackson County hospital with his girlfriend’s infant son, screaming that the child had stopped breathing. The boy never revived.

Doctors trying to save little Mark Gomez couldn’t help but notice a catalogue of injuries: burns, bruises, cuts, brain hemorrhaging. Revilla’s explanation of careening through the house Homer Simpson-esque with the child — scalding him by trying to revive him with bathwater, bonking his head on the door running out to the hospital — didn’t persuade many.

Indeed, trial testimony from the mother and others tended towards the notion that Revilla openly disliked the kid because it wasn’t his, and was given to violently taking out his frustrated reproductive rivalry. He may have tried to “accidentally” kill the child previously.

The victim’s father, Juan Gomez, emerges from the news reports as a distinctly more impressive character, remembering the “short time, but still a good time” he had with Mark without losing empathy even for his murderous rival.

“I do forgive Mr. Revilla,” Juan Gomez told the media. “He was young at the time and I don’t think he realized what he did until it was too late. And I feel very sorry for his family for the loss of their son.”

Some thoughts of Daniel’s (about death row and the death penalty; he didn’t remark on the facts of the case) remain preserved on an ancient Internet page here. Sample:

The death penalty is unequivocally imposed arbitrarily. If you can’t afford justice, you’ll receive just as much justice as you can buy. In the case ofthe poor, that equals : none. There are those on death row, right now, with witnesses, evidence, DNA proof…etc, who can prove their innocence, if only they could afford it. Sadly, they can’t. Nor can they fight the Goliath system that oppresses them…They will die… The indigent, since they cannot afford to hire competent legal representation, are forced to capitulate. They abdicate their lives to the states ‘indigent defense system.’ An unimpressive, underfunded, jerkwater organization; implemented and appointed by the state, to facilitate the state’s desire to escort you through the formalities and into the execution chamber.

A comic series he drew during the half of his life he spent being escorted through the formalities and into the execution chamber was recently published as Dirt Road.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Oklahoma,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1933: Earl Quinn, forgiver

2 comments November 24th, 2011 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

I don’t hold it against all you folks because you have condemned me without a fair trial. I don’t even hold it against the jury. Ignorance is not the fault of the ignorant. I don’t even have any malice for the courts although they defied all laws in affirming my case. I forgive all of you. You loved the girls. You let your desire for revenge overshadow your sense of justice.

-Earl Quinn, convicted of murder, Oklahoma. Executed November 24, 1933.

Quinn was described as a “one-time alcohol runner” by the Associated Press, but few other details survive except the names of his victims: schoolteacher sisters Jessie and Zexia Griffith.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Oklahoma,Other Voices,USA

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1924: Richard A. Birkes, stickup man

1 comment September 5th, 2011 Headsman

Our serialized Americana would hardly be complete without that classic rogue, the bank robber.

On this date in 1924, “chewing the frayed stump of a cigar,” holdup man Richard Birkes sauntered to the electric chair at the McAlester, Oklahoma state prison and rode the lightning for gunning down a teller in the course of a heist.

“So long boys,” which he tried to accompany with a wave of the hand already strapped to the death-chair, were Birkes’ last words.

Although other points give his last words as “I’m not guilty and I am not afraid to die; turn it on, boys.”

Birkes was unquestionably part of the three-man team that had knocked over the Ketchum Bank the summer prior, laying poor Frank Pitts, Sr. in his grave. The robber’s potential “innocence” turned on the question of which miscreant actually put him there.

This “non-triggerman” stuff is not necessarily legally or morally compelling in the best of circumstances, but right or wrong it was dispositive in this case: his accomplices both drew life terms.

This generic Prohibition-era bandit was so perfectly a creature of his time that his dear mum Eliza trekked over from Siloam Springs, Ark. to make a tearful eleventh-hour clemency plea, maternally (and mistakenly) certain that “the governor will surely spare my boy’s life.”

That executive’s thoughts ran to different plans.

Alarmed at the rash of bank jobs by brazen outlaws like Birkes who could strike and then escape over county lines in their period Studebakers, twirling their villainous mustaches, said unmerciful Gov. Martin E. Trapp the next year created a statewide law enforcement agency, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Invesigation.

This bureau’s effective intervention in the Sooner gangland scene (bank robberies fell … ) heralded a long and fruitful life that still continues to this day. They’re the people you’re gonna call when some local police pathologist gets caught systematically cooking forensic results to order for the state’s prosecutors.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,Oklahoma,Pelf,Theft,USA

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