On this date in 1922, George Hornsby was hanged in Belton, Texas.
We pick up the George Hornsby’s trail 18 months before his execution, when the bludgeoned body of car dealer J.N. Weatherby was discovered outside Brownwood, Texas, on October 19, 1920.
The mysterious crime was unlocked by 16-year-old Willie Carter, who told authorities that he was the accomplice of the murderer George F. Hornsby* — Carter’s sister’s lover. The motive, Carter said, was theft.
Hornsby was arrested some weeks later in Birmingham, Alabama. He would insist from that time until the trap dropped under his feet that he had already been en route to Birmingham when the crime was committed.
The warring eyewitness testimony** attempting to situate Hornsby’s whereabouts on the days surrounding Weatherby’s murder defined the case both within the courtroom and without. A jury in Belton — where the trial had been moved owing to prejudice against Hornsby in Brownwood — bought Willie Carter’s version.
This did not cinch the case in the court of public opinion, especially since Hornsby vociferously adhered to his original story.
In the weeks leading up to the execution, after Hornsby’s legal team had fought its corner and the matter was in the hands of Gov. (and pioneer tough-on-crime pol) Pat Neff, Carter recanted his testimony.†
Then, a few days later, Carter recanted his recantation.
With the evidence in such a muddle, 7,000 sympathetic Texans — heavily residents of the trial venue Bell county as against those of Brown county, where the murder occurred — petitioned Gov. Neff for Hornsby’s life. Neff ended up personally interviewing Carter to try to figure out what was what. In the end, Neff wasn’t buying what the clemency campaigners were selling, and took a lonely stand against mobs of vigilantes roaming the Lone Star state imposing summary mercy.
No finer example can be had of criminal hero-worship than when a few months ago seven thousand one hundred and twenty-eight persons in Bell County signed a petition that I either pardon or commute the death sentence adjuded by court and jury against one George Hornsby. Hornsby was a man 29 years of age, a deserter from the American army, went under an assumed name to avoid identity, a transient fellow without vocation, lived with a woman not his wife on a negro street in Brownwood, and for the purpose of robbery, murdered, if human testimony is to be believed, one of the substantial citizens of Brown County. That he might have an impartial trial, removed from local influence, the case was sent to Bell County. The jury assessed the death penalty, and from the evidence as I found it to be, any other verdict would have been a travesty on justice. No sooner was the verdict of guilty rendered than there was begun by men and women, among them the very best citizens of Bell County and the equal of those of any other county, a campaign closely resembling hero-worship of the convicted murderer. Eighty per cent of the voting strength of Bell County protested to me against the punishment assessed against him. Reports stated that admiring hands brought to his cell the delicacies of life, flowers were strewn for him to walk on to the scaffold and fair women coveted the privilege of holding his hands while the black cap was being adjusted.‡ By public contributions a costly casket was purchased and flowers were piled high above his grave, even as the grave of one who had fallen in defense of his country. The murderer was praised as a hero and the Governor who refused to set aside the verdict of the Court of Appeals, all declaring him guilty, was held up to scorn and ridicule.
To these more than seven thousand petitioners I made no apology then and I make none now. In the administration of the law, I am for the courthouse, its judgments and its decrees. It is the one tribunal whose sole function is to make life sacred and property secure. It is the outgrowth of the centuries, the ripened product of civilization. When people ignore the courthouse and defy the law, they are blasting with the dynamite of destruction at the very foundation of their government. Without the courthouse the weak would be made to surrender to the strong. I am for the courthouse and against the mob. If civilization is worth preserving on the battlefield when war shakes her bristling bayonets, it is worth maintaining in the courthouse, where justice, when properly supported, holds forth her delicately balanced scales. In this deluge of lawlessness and disrespect for governmental authority which has submerged the State, the courthouse will prove to be the Mount Ararat upon which the ark of the law must finally rest, to send forth the dove of peace and civilization.
Hornsby’s Ararat was the gallows. He went calmly, with a short address reiterating his innocence.
People, I don’t know many of you, but lots of you know me. People, I stand before you a saved man. I accepted Christ as my personal Savior. I am going to leave you people, but I am going to a better land. I am going to where we will all be treated alike. We will all be charged alike, and I want to tell you people I am going as an innocent man.
I have lived a sinful life, but I have not committed any murder, so help me God. (New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 15, 1922)
A crowd estimated at three to four thousand turned up for Hornsby’s funeral.
The next year, state Senator J.W. Thomas from the little Bell County town of Rogerssponsored the legislation that would centralize all Texas executions (formerly conducted, as was Hornsby’s, by local authorities) in Huntsville.
* Here are two interesting facts about George Hornsby: first, he went by “George Scott” in Brownwood before all the trouble, since he was trying to distance himself from a dishonorable army discharge; second, his search results are complicated by his case unfolding during the simultaneous emergence of baseball great Rogers Hornsby.
** Some of it is discussed in Hornsby’s (unfavorable) appellate ruling, here.
† Sign of the times: after Carter’s first recantation — before he recanted the recantation — Hornsby was moved from the Bell county jail as “a precautionary measure owing to reports that efforts to bring about a commutation of sentence were distasteful to friends of Weatherby.” (Wire report in the Portland (Ore.) Oregonian, Aprkl 2, 1922.)
The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a major revival in Texas during the 1920s.
‡ Actually, a high wooden palisade shielded Hornsby from public view of the flower-strewing masses. A Mrs. Bennett Smith of Temple, Texas, who helped lead the clemency campaign did offer to stand on the scaffold with Hornsby, but Hornsby seems to have declined the favor.
On this date in 2000, music producer Bill Ham — noted as the manager of ZZ Top — settled into the witness booth at Huntsville to watch Spencer Corey Goodman suffer lethal injection for the murder of Ham’s wife.
“Minutes before the execution, a witness turned to” Ham, one paper reported, “and asked how he was doing. ‘Great,’ Ham replied.
Ham’s wife Cecile, 48, left her Houston residence on July 2, 1991, and never returned. Five weeks later, her red Cadillac led Eagle County, Colo. deputies on a 32-mile high-speed chase until it plunged over a cliff. The driver survived: he was Spencer Goodman, a repeat felon who had just been paroled.
According to the statement he gave in custody — a statement that helpfully ticks every box a state’s attorney would need for a capital conviction — he’d been very busy during his brief liberty.
On July 1, 1991, I was released from the old Bexar County Jail … I was given a bus ride back to Houston, Texas by Wackenhut [a private prison company -ed.] and dropped off on the east side of town at 9:30 a.m. I was given my papers to report to Texas House at 5:30 p.m. that night. Instead of going to the halfway house I started walking west. I walked most of the night. … During the day on Tuesday, July 2, 1991, I started walking out Memorial Drive. During the mid-afternoon it started raining. I walked up into a Walgreens parking lot maybe about 4:00 p.m. and just hung around the parking lot for about 20 to 30 minutes. I saw a white female drive up in a 1991 red Cadillac. She pulled up in the firelane along the blind side of the parking lot and then went into the Walgreens store. At that time I was not really watching her, but I don’t think that she stayed inside the drug store very long. When the lady came out of the store she opened the driver’s door and started getting into the car. I decided at that point that I wanted to take her car from her. I had been walking for a long time and my feet hurt and I wanted some transportation. I ran up behind her while the driver’s door was still open. She was sitting behind the wheel, and I shoved her over with one hand and punched her just under the left ear, to knock her out. She fell over to the passenger’s side and was knocked unconscious. I got into the driver’s seat. I think that I may have hit her in the back of the neck to make sure that she was unconscious. I think that the keys to the car were in her hand because they fell to the floor. I picked them up and started the car and then looked around to see if anyone had seen what happened. It was raining, and there was nobody around the parking lot. I first pulled out of the parking lot and turned right on Memorial going west, but there was a subdivision down that way, so I turned around and went to the Dairy Ashford for a ways and then turned off towards the west. I know that I was near a high school off of Dairy Ashford. I pulled off the main road and parked on a side road off behind this little building. I then used martial arts and broke the lady’s neck. I don’t know why I did it, but I know that I was lost. I then put her in the trunk of the car. I did not have on a shirt because my shirt was wet from the rain. I was also wearing jogging pants. After I put her in the trunk, I drove down this road. I was right by this high school when I saw this guy in a truck. I then asked him how to get to I-10. . . . I followed the guy’s direction. As I was driving I went through the lady’s purse and got out her wallet. I found about $20.00 and some change in her purse and some credit cards. I saw an Exxon gas station at HWY 6 and Westheimer so I stopped and filled up with gas. I used the Exxon gas card and signed the name on the card. I then got on I-10 and headed west. . . . . . . I knew that she was dead when I put her in the trunk because I felt on her pulse.
The killer’s niece, Megan Goodman, posted a sad memorial to a man who became in his last months “like my older brother”. Though the original host site appears to be several years gone, archive.org preserves it here.
On this date in 2007, John Joe “Ash” Amador died of lethal injection in Texas.
Amador, age 18, and a 16-year-old cousin, hailed a taxi in San Antonio in the dark predawn hours of January 4, 1994, directed it on a long drive to a dark street in Poteet, Texas, and abruptly shot the cabbie in the head with a .25 caliber handgun. Amador’s cousin shot the cab driver’s ride-along companion.
It’s possible to get unusually up close and personal with Amador — both the man himself, and the gears of the death penalty process at the anticlimax of 13 long years.
To begin with, journalist Dave Maass interviewed Ash Amador a month before the latter’s execution, and posted 52 minutes of audio on Archive.org.
And in a more outre vein, a team of British filmmakers crafted a surreal and digressive but frequently touching documentary of Amador’s end, most especially through the eyes of the condemned man’s wife and family. As Maass put it, they’ve “given the man one wicked afterlife.”
If that teaser intrigues, the entire documentary is freely available online here — complete with an amazing scene of a death mask being cast from the freshly-executed, just-body-bagged Ash.
(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.)
“For almost nine years I have thought about the death penalty, whether it is right or wrong and I don’t have any answers. But I don’t think the world will be a better or safer place without me. If you had wanted to punish me you would have killed me the day after, instead of killing me now. You are not hurting me now. I have had time to get ready, to tell my family goodbye, to get my life where it needed to be. It started with a needle and it is ending with a needle.”
— Jeffrey Doughtie, convicted of robbery and murder, lethal injection, Texas.
Executed August 16, 2001
Doughtie had a $400-a-day drug habit, which he financed by selling stolen property. He had once worked for the antique store in Corpus Christi where he sold much of his loot. One day, after shooting a mix of heroin and cocaine, Doughtie beat the store’s proprietors to death with a piece of metal tubing. He confessed to the murders.
On this date in 1993, Joseph Paul Jernigan died by lethal injection in Texas. Yet he lives on still.
A career burglar, Jernigan was surprised mid-robbery in 1981 by 75-year-old Edward Hale: the thief promptly shot the homeowner dead, then finished his looting. His life as a free man would be over within days.
As a criminal you wouldn’t much notice Joseph Paul Jernigan — unless it was your house he was burgling, of course — and you wouldn’t exactly call his smash-and-grab act state-of-the-art. But little over a year after his death, Jernigan was making headlines for a groundbreaking scientific project.
Jernigan donated his body to science, joining an ancient tradition of condemned men and women whose bodies are “cadaverized” for whatever medical material is required of their own day and age.
But instead of serving as a med school’s pincushion, “science” in Jernigan’s case turned out to be — Jernigan had no idea of it while he lived — the Visible Human Project.
So, after his execution, Jernigan’s entire body was “sliced” from head to foot into 1,871 one-millimeter slides. (The “slicing” process ground away the body completely; it did not literally slice it like salami.)
Joseph Jernigan’s thorax, including the heart. (From here.)
The project is still online, and has never yet been replicated/surpassed with the the advancing technologies of the intervening decades. It’s a weirdly beautiful, unsettling, and ethically questionable artifact — a Smugglerius of the digital age — but it’s also inescapably awe-striking.
So here: take a tour down Joseph Jernigan at the, er, cutting edge of anatomization.
On this date in 1989, with the last words “I want to say I hold no grudges,” Carlos DeLuna died by lethal injection in Texas
At the time, not many people took seriously DeLuna’s claim that a different Hispanic man named Carlos — one Carlos Hernandez — was the man who actually slashed Wanda Lopez to death in a Corpus Christi gas station on February 4, 1983.
“I didn’t do it. But I know who did.” That’s what he’d told a police officer soon after his arrest.
A generation later, it’s increasingly clear that Carlos DeLuna really didn’t do it … and that he knew who did it, knew he was going to the gurney for the crime of a man whom the state claimed was just a “phantom” invented by the defendant. Just a few months before DeLuna went to his death, that “phantom”, still on the streets, had knifed a four-inch gash in another woman’s abdomen. Carlos Hernandez had even bragged to others that his “stupid tocayo” — namesake — “took the blame for” a murder he’d committed. (Hernandez died in 1999.)
DeLuna was arrested suspiciously hiding under a truck near the scene of a grisly knife slaying at a gas station. A Hispanic man had been reported as the suspect, and the eyewitness was able to identify DeLuna as that man, just moments after his arrest. Case closed.
Except everyone was wrong.
He was hiding because he’d been violating his parole by drinking at a strip club across the street. He chanced to look just like another Hispanic man from the area, a fellow who just happened to be a violent thug. And he didn’t have a spot of blood on him even though the murder scene looked like the set of a slasher film.
“It was an obscure case, the kind that could involve anybody,” Columbia Law Prof. James Liebman said. “Maybe those are the cases where miscarriages of justice happen, the routine everyday cases where nobody thinks enough about the victim, let alone the defendant.”
The facts of the case have been extensively documented elsewhere, including a 2006 Chicago Tribune series* and an entire 2012 issue of the Columbia University Human Rights Law Review, culmination of a years-long project organized by Liebman.
The latter investigation, complete with original source documents, video, and photographs, is preserved for public use at the magnificent Los Tocayos Carlos site. Its intensively-sourced book-length treatment comes highly recommended, but you might need to clear your schedule.
Executed Today is pleased to welcome one of the coauthors of Los Tocayos Carlos, Andrew Markquart — a 2012 graduate of Columbia Law who collaborated with Prof. Liebman on the DeLuna investigation and now practices in New York.
ET: How did you come to focus on this case, and what went into the investigation?
AM: I got involved after my first year at law school. I started out as a research assistant for Prof. Liebman, and he had been working on this project for years in one form or another when I got involved. I had already had quite a bit of interest in death penalty issues, so I jumped on it.
The initial investigation that Prof. Liebman did was back in 2004. He had done a previous study called “A Broken System” in which they found a shockingly high rate of reversals in capital cases. And basically the question that came out of that for him was, what does that mean?
Does that mean that the courts are doing their jobs and there are a lot of reversals because they’re being very diligent?
Or, is that high number indicative of some big systemic problems?
He started out looking at cases in Texas, for obvious reasons, and particularly focused on cases involving single eyewitnesses. This one came out fairly early on, but there wasn’t much about it initially to suggest this was a strong case. But Prof. Liebman was having someone going down to Corpus Christi anyway and had him check it out, and within one day this investigator was able to track down a lead and figure out exactly who this Carlos Hernandez person was who DeLuna claimed was the actual killer. From there the floodgates opened.
This case reads like something out of Dumas … your doppelganger, who looks just like you and also shares your name, commits a crime and you take the rap. Speaking as a layperson, it’s astonishing that Carlos DeLuna explicitly made the very argument you’re making, that this guy Carlos Hernandez was the real killer. But it wasn’t so much that DeLuna’s allegation was considered and rejected as that it was never taken seriously at all, even by his own defense. Why was that?
It’s a good question and it’s one of the major points we tried to make.
At first DeLuna was a little hesitant, with good reason: Hernandez was well-known in Corpus Christi; he was a terror in the town and had been known to use violence against people who threatened to expose him. Eventually the threat of execution overcame that.
His defense team did very little to research what could or would have been his saving argument, and on the flip side the prosecution said Carlos Hernandez didn’t even exist, which is just a mind-blowing claim. This guy had a rap sheet a mile long. He had been a major suspect in 1979 in another murder case involving one of the prosecutors in the DeLuna case.
The defense lawyer in that case did what DeLuna’s lawyer should have done: he called Carlos Hernandez to the stand and basically prosecuted Carlos Hernandez as his defense. He got his client off, and we’re pretty confident from our research that Hernandez was actually guilty of that murder, too.
Hernandez was definitely no “phantom”: he was known to law enforcement, known in the neighborhood. Can you explain why the prosecuting attorneys would make such a claim?
It’s hard to explain. I suspect they probably thought they had the right guy, they probably thought he was making up a bogus story … and they cut a few corners. But that’s speculation.
Your report writes, “Central to DeLuna’s obscurity was the failure of lawyers on the defense as well as the prosecution side to have the curiosity and gumption to look just an inch or two below the surface.” It seems like there just wasn’t much of any work done by any actor to pursue evidence that could defend DeLuna.
Carlos DeLuna’s defense lawyer had trouble getting any kind of funding to do investigation. And this was his first criminal case of any kind, let alone capital case.
The police only investigated for a couple of hours before turning it over to the store manager to clean up to open the next morning. It was a simple case of tunnel vision: they had arrested Carlos DeLuna, they got a quick eyewitness ID, and they thought they were done.
There’s all kinds of evidence at the scene. In the police photos, which are available at our website, there’s a footprint in blood that has to be the culprit’s shoeprint, and they never even saw it. It was that sloppy. You can also see the detective, Olivia Escobedo, literally standing on evidence — a nice metaphor for the investigation.
Yes, he did. For reasons I can’t make sense of, he either was just severely misremembering, or just made up, some story about hanging out with these girls earlier in the evening that was completely untrue. But the thing about it is that the story as he gave it didn’t even help his case. It didn’t give him an alibi. But it hurt his case, because then they could bring in these girls to testify and destroy his credibility.
It’s hard to figure out what was in his head to say that. DeLuna wasn’t the most intelligent person; his IQ tested just barely above the threshold for cognitive impairment.
The original trial was in 1983, and Carlos was executed in 1989. How representative are the circumstances of this case still, relative to new death penalty trials today or to death row prisoners whose appeals are being handled now?
“[DeLuna]‘s lying. He won’t admit it. I hope this is the day he gets it. He’ll lie like he’s been lying and now he’ll have to pay for what he did to my daughter.”
-Wanda Lopez’s mother Mary Vargas, quoted in Dec. 7, 1989 Dallas Morning News
“After carefully reviewing the information recently uncovered and printed by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley in the Chicago Tribune, I am convinced that Carlos DeLuna did not kill my sister and that Carlos Hernandez was the real murderer.”
-Wanda Lopez’s brother Richard Vargas, June 2006
You see these kind of cases and issues come up even today. That’s one point we try to make: yes, this case was from 29 years ago, but a lot of things remain the same.
There was no physical evidence, despite all the blood at the scene: it was just based on eyewitnesses.** And you kind of have a casebook bad eyewitness identification. They didn’t use a lineup; it was nighttime; it was a cross-racial identification, which we know are highly error-prone; he [DeLuna] was in the squad car, at the scene, handcuffed, under a highly stressful environment. You have these kinds of show-up identifications happen all the time, all over the country. They’re rife with error.
And there’s a lot of good public defenders out there who really work hard and do good work, but also a lot of underexperienced and overburdened public defenders who are just being crushed. There’s always systemic pressure for cops and prosecutors to cut corners. I certainly don’t think the lessons of Carlos DeLuna’s case have been learned.
In your view, what are the most important of those lessons?
The fallibility of our criminal justice system. Carlos DeLuna wasn’t convicted and executed in some third world country — he was given a trial and a lawyer and appeals and all the other protections and yet he still slipped through the cracks.
And the other lesson is the widespread nature of the factors involved, like the unreliable eyewitness ID. People go to prison on that basis every day. It seems highly likely there are more Carlos DeLunas.
The way that we found this story and developed it was enormously labor-intensive. The number of man-hours that went into this, between authors, investigators, research assistants, and the whole staff of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review … you just can’t do this for every case where there’s some kind of colorable suggestion of the possibility of wrongful execution.
I’d be very surprised if there aren’t more like him.
* The Tribune series on DeLuna began on June 25, 2006 … the day before Supreme Court crank Antonin Scalia taunted in Kansas v. Marsh that there was “not one” case of a “clear” wrongful execution. “The innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby,” Scalia wrote.
** Eyewitness (mis)identification is also at the heart of the Ruben Cantu case, another suspected wrongful execution in Texas.
On this date in 1932, two African-American men were electrocuted in Huntsville, Texas.
Richard Johnson was a career criminal already serving a 35-year sentence for various burglaries when he busted out of prison in 1931. He teamed up with 20-year-old Richard Brown to rob a white couple in a parked car.
When the man, Ted Nodruft, tried to drive away, they shot him (he died the next day), and then proceeded to rape his fiancee and steal her jewelry. When caught, each man tried to throw the lion’s share of blame on the other.
These two on their own hardly stand out to posterity, and certainly not in the context of notoriously execution-friendly Texas, whose “List of individuals executed in Texas” Wikipedia entry (most states have such a page) is actually paginated by decade. Here’s the doings for the rest of the 1930s in the still-newish Texas electric chair.
We pause to note them here on this site because they made unexpected headlines earlier this year when Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins — the first elected black D.A. in Texas history — publicly revealed that Richard Johnson was his great-grandfather.
Long before that revelation, Watkins had already earned nationwide plaudits for doing what every district attorney should be doing as a matter of course: publicly emphasizing justice rather than conviction counts as his office’s guiding principle, greeting the rising tide of exonerations with a proactive program to search out potential miscarriages of justice rather than doubling down on them … hell, even apologizing to people whose lives have been ripped apart by wrongful convictions.
Watkins knew about the “dark secret of our family” for many years before he mentioned it in the run-up to witnessing his first execution (it was topical because Watkins used the trip to also visit his great-grandfather’s grave in the prison cemetery). How exactly that blood tie has helped to shape Craig Watkins’s outlook is hard to say, but not for any reticence on the DA’s part: he’s been disarmingly public about speaking to the real ambiguities and human costs of the criminal justice system that prosecutors are usually not supposed to acknowledge.
And so my concern, basically, is, look, we are seeking the ultimate punishment against someone, and we need to have all the safeguards in place to make sure that we don’t wrongly execute someone. And I think with all the evidence that we have seen, I think anyone that does not come to the conclusion that a person has been executed in this country for a crime they didn’t commit is being irresponsible. So that’s my position. Like I said, I can argue from my moralistic standpoint all day, but that’s not where the argument should be had. It should be one of logistics. Are we making mistakes? Do we need to reevaluate the process to make sure we are not making mistakes?
Watkins personally opposes the death penalty on moral grounds, but seeks it routinely in his capacity as district attorney. Here’s the man expanding on some of those themes in a 30-minute interview with the Dallas-Fort Worth NBC affiliate:
Perry is the subject of the 2011 Werner Herzog documentary Into the Abyss; being a Herzog film, it comes recommended.
Abyss is “not an issue film; it’s not an activist film against capital punishment,” Herzog has said. “In this particular case, with this very senseless crime, so senseless it’s staggering, what fascinated me was that it points to a decay in family values and the cohesion of society, all these things that looked so big and beyond this case.”
On this date in 1865, the Confederate forces defending Galveston, Texas shot Antone Richers for desertion.
With the U.S. Civil War into its mopping-up phase, the Texas port was bracing for the Union to land an irresistible force. Many soldiers inclined less to brace than to bow: with the handwriting on the wall for any fool to see, the grey army suffered an epidemic of judicious desertions.
Antone Richers was one of these. Just, maybe not so judicious.
Richers was retrieved from the drink when the stolen boat he was attempting to ride out to the Union blockade capsized, and the upright Confederate officer who pulled him out wouldn’t take a bribe to keep keep quiet about it.
A sharp rattle of musketry, and the prisoner fell dead, several balls having passed through his breast … The saddest part of the story remains to be told. The friends of [the prisoner] had sent Rev. Father Ansteadt on the day before the execution, by hand car, to Houston, as bearer of documents addressed to General Walker, showing that [Richers] was not of sound mind, and setting forth other reasons why he ought to be respited. The telegraph line between [Galveston] and Houston broke down the evening before the execution, and remained down [until] fifteen minutes after the execution. No intelligence from General Walker could therefore reach [Galveston]. But as soon as the telegraph operated, a dispatch was received from General Walker, dated the night before, containing an order for the respite of Anton [Richers]. It was too late — the man was dead.
It was Galveston’s second and last military execution of the war.
On this date in 1992, Johnny Frank Garrett was executed by lethal injection, with the tart last words,
“I’d like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me. And the rest of the world can kiss my everloving ass, because I’m innocent.”
Although Garrett was only 17 at the time a nun from a neighboring Amarillo convent was raped and murdered, and he may have qualified as developmentally disabled to boot — both factors that today would exclude him from execution — that whole innocence story didn’t have much public traction.
“No, no, not at all,” New Mexico attorney Jesse Quackenbush told this site in an interview. “He was villainized from day one: he was a nun-murderer who needed to be executed. The only sympathy really came from the Pope.”
But two decades on, Garrett’s dying profession is one of the more troublesome skeletons in the Texas execution machine’s closet, thanks in no small part to Quackenbush himself.
Quackenbush directed the documentary The Last Word (viewable free on Netflix), a powerful brief not only for Garrett’s innocence* but against the comprehensive rot of the system that shunted hm off this mortal coil — from the front-line investigators all the way through the Lone Star State’s intentionally broken executive clemency farce.
“It was a system-wide failure that caused this kid to die. It wasn’t just the legal system,” Quackenbush said. “The media played a part. The governor was looking more to her own re-election hopes.* There was a dysfunctional family. The Supreme Court wasn’t morally deep enough to realize that executing 17-year-olds and ‘mentally retarded’ prisoners was wrong. There’s the system in Texas that allowed the prosecutors to hand-pick the pathologists to provide junk science.
“It’s a multifaceted failure, and no one facet is more to blame than the others.”
Garrett, a white teenager, disappeared into a Kafkaesque legal labyrinth, after the alleged supernatural vision of a local soothsayer acclaimed him the culprit in the murder of a nun named Tadea Benz. Corporeal indicia of guilt falls somewhere between circumstantial and laughable: fingerprints in a convent he had visited many times, the inevitable jailhouse snitch, and an unrecorded supposed “confession” that Garrett refused to sign.
As in a preponderance of death cases, especially in Texas (pdf), a meek and all-but-unfunded defense team offered scant resistance as prosecutors made the most of this eminently disputable evidence: once the one-sided trial was in the books and the crucial direct appeals likewise slipped past, the proceedings lay beyond the reach of judicial review.
This novel is inspired by the Garrett case.
For all that, there yet remains one un-litigated piece of evidence.
Around the time of Sister Benz’s death, there was another rape-murder of another elderly Amarillo woman, a crime that authorities publicly described as “too similar” to the Benz case not to be part of the same crime spree.
That case went unsolved … but years after Garrett’s execution, DNA databases matched an old semen sample from that second crime to a Cuban rapist (he was among the criminals and undesirables that Castro expelled to the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift) named Leoncio Perez Rueda.
More dispositive evidence in the form of still-testable crime scene samples may yet reside in Amarillo’s evidence lockers — semen and blood samples that, in the era of DNA, Quackenbush thinks would exonerate Johnny Frank Garrett.
If testing this sort of thing sounds like a no-brainer, you don’t work for Amarillo.
“The [Garrett] family offered the city of Amarillo complete civic immunity and they still refused to run a DNA test, and threatened to countersue** if the family tried to pursue it,” Quackenbush says. “In the state of Texas there are still only laws protecting DNA access for living people: if you’re already executed, you have no rights.”
Which is a particular pity — since “the chances of executing innocent people are still really high.”
* Quackenbush’s case for Garrett’s innocence is outlined in this legal memo (pdf). This site maintains an extensive archive of resources about the case.
** In this, it’s not unlike the Ruben Cantu case, where post-execution evidence of innocence has also been met with legal threats by the state.