1961: Henryk Niemasz, the last hanged at Wandsworth

Add comment September 8th, 2018 Headsman

Wandsworth Prison hosted its 135th and final hanging on this date in 1961.

The star of the show was Henryk Niemasz, who became infatuated with a married woman and shot her dead when she refused to break up her marriage for him. Niemasz was also married himself, to a wife who surely deserved better given that Grypa Niemasz was willing to give her husband a fake alibi for the time he was off shotgunning his paramour.

The death penalty departed English shores in the 1960s, but the Wandsworth gallows was kept in working order until 1993, just in case. (It would have been in case of treason, which was the only remaining capital statute by then.)

The prison itself, which dates to 1851, remains in operation to this day. According to friend of the blog Another Nickel in the Machine, Wandsworth’s former condemned cell “is now used as a television room for prison officers.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Sex

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1961: Rokotov and Faibishenko, black marketeers

Add comment July 26th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1961,* two 22-year-old Soviet men were — very much to their surprise — shot as black market currency speculators.

Ian Timofeyevich Rokotov and Vladik Petrovich Faibishenko were leaders of a small ring of illicit currency traders who made their bones swapping Soviet rubles with foreign visitors at a handsome markup, earning “wealth” on the scale of moderate personal ease that seems laughable compared to their homeland’s present-day oligarchy. Among this nine-person ring, authorities recovered 344,000 Russian rubles plus about $19,000 in gold coins and a few thousands each of various western European currencies.

These deeds augmented the inherently parasitic act of profiteering by the inherently subversive act of making unchaperoned contact with foreign visitors, at a moment when the Soviet state was particularly sensitive to both infractions. This was nearly the exact apex of the Cold War, in the tense months between the U-2 Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis.** “Peaceful coexistence,” Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev said in a 1961 address, means “intense economic, political, and ideological struggle between the proletariat and the aggressive forces of imperialism in the world arena.”

In a 13-day trial concluding on June 15, Rokotov and Faibishenko were sentenced along with another of their circle, Nadia Edlis, to 15 years in prison. You might think that’s a stern message sent, but the excitable Khrushchev took an almost personal offense to their behavior and on viewing the intentionally nettlesome exhibition of the black marketeers’ banknote heaps, exclaimed, “They need to be shot for this!”

The minor matter of having no capital statute on the books for the occasion was resolved on July 1 by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which introduced the death penalty for major economic crimes; the statute was then immediately deployed to retroactive effect in a new trial before the Russian Republic Supreme Court.

Many people more would face capital punishment for economic crimes under that 1961 law.

* The official execution date is elusive but press reports indicate that the Soviet news agency TASS announced it on July 26. Given that their final condemnation had occurred only five days previous, we fall at worst within a narrow margin of error.

** Also of note: the USSR had just revalued the ruble as of January 1, 1961.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Pelf,Russia,Shot,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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1968: Karol Kot, the Vampire of Krakow

Add comment May 16th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1968, Polish serial killer Karol Kot, called the Vampire of Kraków, was hanged in the city of Mysłowice. He was only twenty-one years old.

Kot was born in Kraków in 1946, the son of an engineer and a housewife. His abnormal, violent behavior began early. He was jealous of his baby sister, who was born when he was eight, and thought their parents loved her more. While their parents were away, he beat her and even tortured and killed her pets.

He was fascinated by death and hung around slaughterhouses in his free time, helping the employees there kill calves and drinking the animals’ blood.

Most of the sources about Karol Kot, such as this Warsaw Post article, and this article from Polish Newsweek, are in Polish. He was, however, the subject of an episode in the 2014 English-language documentary series Killers: Behind the Myth.

This Kraków Post article describes Kot’s origins. He did well enough in his studies at school, but his classmates knew him as a shy, withdrawn loner and a weirdo. Between that and his enormous knife collection, it’s no wonder there was a running joke at Kot’s school that he must be the Vampire of Kraków.

One of the few things he truly excelled at was shooting; he was the star of the local rifle club. At one point he was ranked tenth in the entire country in the youth division. Kot’s coach mentored him, invited him to his home and even told his own son, “Be like Karol.” Kot found this hilarious: he had been planning to murder the boy.

He committed his first knife attack in September 1964, at the age of seventeen, stabbing a 48-year-old woman repeatedly inside a church as she knelt to pray. She survived. In fact, she didn’t even realize she was hurt until she went home, removed her coat, saw that she was bleeding and went to the hospital.

Kot went after his second victim, a 73-year-old woman, a few days later. Kot saw her exit a tram, followed her home, and stabbed her in the back as she walked up her front steps. She survived, but remained paralyzed for the rest of her life.

Six days later he stabbed a third woman, 77 years old, again inside a church; this was his first fatality. When the nuns found her, with her dying breaths the victim whispered that her attacker had been a schoolboy.

All three of Kot’s first victims were older females. He committed no more stabbings for a year and a half, but became interested in poison instead. Kot laced open bottles of beer and soda with arsenic and left them lying around, hoping someone would drink from them, but no one was tempted. He tried giving a poisoned drink to a classmate, but his intended victim poured it out because it smelled funny.

In 1966, Kot gave up on the poisoning idea and returned to his old weapon, the knife. He changed his target demographic from elderly women to young children.

In February, he stabbed and killed an eleven-year-old boy named Leszek at Kościuszko Mound. It was a horrific attack, with far more wounds inflicted than were necessary to kill Leszek. In April, Kot attacked a little girl named Małgorzata as she was checking the mail outside her home. He stabbed her a total of eleven times in the chest, back and abdomen. She suffered from severe internal injuries, but survived.

After knifing Małgorzata, Kot went to the militia to get his gun permit renewed, then went home.

In Communist Poland, crime was rarely reported in the newspapers. In the case of Kot’s murders, however, the vexed police took the rare step of issuing press releases about his crimes, appealing to possible witnesses to come forward with information.

The citizens of Kraków were terrified. People began going out with boards and cast-iron pot lids stuffed under their clothes to protect themselves from the Vampire’s blade.

Kot was caught after he bragged about his crimes to fellow member of the rifle club. She didn’t believe him until she read in the newspaper about the attempted murder of Małgorzata. Then she went to the police.

He was arrested, but was permitted to take his final school-leaving examinations, in hopes of forestalling an anticipated insanity plea. Police used the fact that he passed his exams as evidence that he was rational and sane.

After being taken into custody, the baby-faced killer denied everything. But after his surviving victims all identified him as their attacker, he cheerfully confessed to everything. He said he committed the murders because it gave him a sense of pleasure, and he enjoyed drinking his victims’ blood as they lay dying. He even studied books of human anatomy to figure out where to place his knife.

The murders thrilled him and gave some spark to his “heavy, dull and colorless” life, he said. He felt no remorse at all.

Kot’s rifle coach was outraged at first when he heard that such a fine young athlete had been arrested. Surely this was a miscarriage of justice. After Kot confessed, however, his devastated coach wrote to him in prison, asking him to return his rifle medals because he was unworthy of them.

In his final interview, Kot said, “Soon, where I’m going, I’ll meet with my victims, and we can speak. Here on Earth, I have no one to talk to.”

Kot was sentenced to death, but his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment on appeal due to his youth. However, after the General Prosecutor intervened, the death sentence was reinstated and Kot was hanged.

On autopsy, a large tumor was found in his brain. It had gone undiagnosed in life. Whether this was the reason for Kot’s sadism is anyone’s guess.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Poland

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1969: Equatorial Guinea’s Christmas Eve executions

3 comments December 24th, 2017 Headsman

A story from the 1970s Equatorial Guinea dictatorship of eventual Executed Today client Francisco Macias Nguema, via Suzanne Cronjé’s out-of-print 1976 volume Equatorial Guinea, the forgotten dictatorship: forced labour and political murder in central Africa.

a first batch of murderers were unskilfully hanged at Bata on the mainland early in December while another group met their end in Fernando Po [the island also known as Bioko, home to Equatorial Guinea’s capital city Malabo -ed.] on Christmas Eve. After a kind of public trial before most of the Cabinet in which assembled population was asked to endorse the verdict, they were shot or hanged to the strains of Mary Hopkin singing ‘Those were the days’ over the loudspeaker system.

The Headsman must admit to being flummoxed at the slipperiness of dependable primary sourcing for this extraordinarily picturesque event: as Cronje’s source notes, “the government probably only gets away with them because so little ever gets out about its doings.”

Many sites around this Internet situate the event on Christmas Eve of 1975. This appears to me unambiguously mistaken; Cronje’s narrative quotes its information from a February 1970 Financial Times report, and the Mary Hopkin detail also better fits the earlier date. (Her song was a hit in 1968.) However, it’s possible that distinct seasonal events were conflated between the years, for the 1970s were years of terrifying purges in Equatorial Guinea that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Christmas Eve 1969 is also the date reported by Randall Fegley in Equatorial Guinea: An African Tragedy (1989) although in Fegley’s telling the nostalgic soundtrack accompanied that ugly early December execution, not the one on Christmas eve. Wikipedia’s entry for Macias Nguema asserts as of this writing that the shootings were carried out by executioners dressed as Santa Claus; the only hint of textual authority I have located for this outlandish detail points to a 1981 Human Rights Quarterly article by Fegley which I cannot access. (Update: In fact, Fegley’s article makes no claim about Saint Nick getup. Thanks to cz for the comment.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Equatorial Guinea,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Shot

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1963: Four CIA saboteurs in Cuba

Add comment November 12th, 2017 Headsman

Cuba executed thirteen people in the course of this week in 1963 as CIA agents. This date marked the middle group, as detailed in the Nov. 13, 1963 New York Times:

HAVANA, Nov. 12 (UPI) — Four more Cubans were executed by firing squads today as “agents” of the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

Five other Cuban [sic] accused as “CIA agents” were executed last Friday.

The victims today were identified as Antonio Cobelas Rodriguez, Orlando Sanchez Saraza, Juan M. Milian Rodriguez and Jose S. Bolanos Morales.

An official announcement said that they had been captured while trying to sneak ashore from an armed boat that sailed from Marathon, in the Florida Keys, on an undisclosed date.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Shot,Terrorists

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1960: Tony Zarba, anti-Castro raider

Add comment October 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1960, American adventurer Anthony “Tony” Zarba was shot after his capture in an ill-fated raid on Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

The Somerville, Mass. native had been shaken like many U.S. citizens by the recent Cuban Revolution; antagonism toward Castro featured prominently in the tight Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign that was nearing its climax during the events of this post, the backdrop for the world’s coming brush with nuclear apocalypse. Confrontation of some kind seemed a foregone conclusion, and in a tradition as old as filibustering, a private clique formed in the U.S. with the intention of hastening the day.

“Today I leave for the Cuban hills. I am going to fight against communism that has come so close to our American shores,” Zarba wrote a friend before launching in a PT boat from Miami with three other Americans, 22 Cuban exiles, and a stockpile of black market weapons that September of 1960.

All this could have been prevented by our government. Now the time has come when all this can be fixed only one way — fighting.

When my country is daily insulted and abused by the Commies of Cuba, I think that this is the opportunity I missed when I could not qualify physically as a U. S. soldier because of my asthma.

But where my generation is falling for its lack of political maturity and comprehension, I am going to do my duty regardless of any foolish considerations about legality, neutrality and other technicalities of which the diabolic Communist takes so much advantage …

I have confidence that God would give me the necessary strength and courage to die with honor and pride if this were necessary in the hills or in front of a Red firing squad.

I am sure many others will follow in my steps.

The intent of this operation was to rally anti-Castro disaffection believed to be burgeoning in Cuba and escape to the Sierra Maestra to build a guerrilla movement like Castro and Che had done in their own day.

But they were surprised by government soldiers shortly after their landing at Nibujon and shattered the foray right there on the beach, a preview of the more (in)famous Washington-backed Bay of Pigs disaster six months hence. Zabra was captured on the beach with a number of Cubans, still wet with sea salt from wading their ammunition ashore. Two other Americans, Allen Dale Thompson and Robert Fuller, escaped for the moment but would also be captured within days; they followed Zabra to the firing posts on Oct. 15. (Some others, including the fourth American, were aboard a fishing launch when the Cubans arrived and fled to open seas.)

Boats and guns don’t quite grow on trees even in Florida, so fiascos like this require moneymen to orchestrate the junction of enthusiasts and their Red firing squads. This particular operation was underwritten by former Communist turned Batista henchman Rolando Masferrer, a prominent mafioso whose 1960s pastime was extorting fellow Cuban exiles and plotting Castro’s assassination. (Castro put a price on Masferrer’s head in return.)

An associate of Santo Trafficante, Masferrer enjoys bit roles in some John F. Kennedy assassination theories. His underworld murder in 1975 has done nothing to abate them.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,USA

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1960: George Scott

Add comment September 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1960, a goon went to the San Quentin gas chamber for his violent retort.

On the evening of December 30, 1958, George Albert Scott was exiting a Melrose cafe with his partner in crime Curtis Lichtenwalter, having profitably held up the joint with a sawed-off shotgun.

A Samuel Goldwyn Studio executive with very poor timing named Kenneth Savoy just happened to be walking in the door as the robbers were walking out, and Scott decided to augment their takings en passant.

“Just a minute, mister,” Scott hailed Savoy (according to this Los Angeles Times blog retrospective). “Give your wallet.”

Savoy upped the ante with a bravado that he might have regretted seconds later when Scott’s shotgun blasted him in the stomach: “I’m single and have no responsibilities — no one will miss me. If you want my wallet, you will have to shoot me first.”

This was the first casualty in the course of several Los Angeles stickups the pair had perpetrated that December. Lichtenwalter, who had no previous criminal record, bailed out of the duo’s Jesse James act after this but the parolee Scott went on to knock over a couple more places before he was cornered in a hotel with a woman named Barbara White, picturesquely described via a lax Eisenhower-era Times copyeditor as “a former woman wrestler.”

Scott made multiple suicide attempts during his death row stint, ranging from a gory throat-slashing at his sanity hearing to (according to the Associated Press wire dispatch*) three tries on the more desperate end of the spectrum on the literal eve of his execution:

First he smashed a light globe and stuffed glass in his mouth. A doctor said he was not harmed seriously.

Two hours later, guards reported, he stood on his cot and dived against the wall with his head.

Restrained, he eluded guards and began ramming his head against the cell wall.

He went to his death calmly, and with a skull-splitting headache.

* Quoted here from the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle of September 9, 1960.

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

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1964: James Coburn, George Wallace’s first death warrant

Add comment September 4th, 2017 Headsman

James Coburn was electrocuted on this date in 1964 in Alabama’s “Yellow Mama”.

He’d been condemned for a Dallas County robbery … and only for that. He has the distinction of being the very last human being executed in the United States for any non-homicide crime; at a stretch one could perhaps reckon him the most distant echo of the Anglosphere’s long-ago “Bloody Code” days, when the sturdy Tyburn tree strained with mere burglars and pickpockets.

Such draconian laws were not enforced in England any more, not for a very long time. (Great Britain abolished the death penalty for purely property crimes in the 1830s.) In fact, the last British executions for any kind of crime at all had occurred weeks before Yellow Mama destroyed James Coburn for robbery.

Presiding over this anachronistic penal event was a knight of the nascent American reaction: Alabama Governor George Wallace. He’d been sworn in just the previous year with the infamous vow, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Coburn’s was the first death warrant to bear Governor Wallace’s signature, but it’s a small surprise that it was the first of just four — considering that Wallace served 16 total years in three separate stints as a conservative executive in a southern state.

One reason was simply because, like his contemporary Ronald Reagan, Wallace’s political star reached its height during the the death penalty’s late sixties to early eighties lull.

But another is that, despite musing inclusively about “a lot of bad white folks and a lot of bad black folks who ought to be electrocuted,” Wallace nurtured gnawing doubts about capital punishment that seem to have grown throughout his strange career.

As a young law student, Wallace had assisted a capital defense for a man who had murdered his wife by dynamiting the house — the charge “blew her through the roof, and she fell down a mass of meat,” in Wallace’s words. The defense seemed hopeless, but Wallace conjured a strategy to keep this particular bad white folk out of the electric chair.

One morning before court opened, just as Beale and Wallace thought all was lost, a relative brought the defendant’s son to see his father. “He was about ten or eleven,” Wallace remembered, “but he looked younger than that. He was a sallow-looking boy, like he had hookworms, and he ran over to his daddy when he came into the courthouse and hugged him and kissed him.” Wallace, who witnessed the scene, told Beale they could use the boy to try to whip up some sympathy among the jurors. Beale agreed; the two took the boy into a room, and Wallace asked him if he understood what was going on. “Do you understand that people in that courtroom are asking that your daddy be electrocuted? That they want to do away with him? Do you understand that?” And Wallace said that every time he would mention it, the boy would break down and cry. So Wallace sat the boy right behind the defendant’s table. “Every time Attorney Beale was asking questions of a witness,” Wallace said, “I would lean over and whisper to this young boy, ‘Son, they’re trying to kill your daddy.’ He would immediately break down in sobs, and the judge would have to recess the court.”

After the testimony concluded, Beale addressed the jury on the circumstantial nature of the state’s evidence; then he asked Wallace to make a final statement for the defense. “I pinned it all on the boy,” Wallace recalled. “I put my arms around him and I said, ‘Now listen, this fellow here has nobody left in the world but his father. His father is no good, he’s no account — but his son still loves him; you saw that in the courtroom. So I am pleading with you for this boy. Save his daddy’s life so he’ll have somebody in the world who loves him, even though he’s in prison.'” The prosecutor had asked for the death penalty, Wallace told the jury. “He said, ‘If anybody deserves the electric chair, this man deserves it.’ If we were trying this man on whether he is a sorry, no-good individual, I would agree: he’s no good; he’s no account; he’s killed his wife for no good reason. But I ask you to let this man live so the son will still have a father.” Wallace then brought the boy to the jury box and said: “Gentlemen, think of this child when you are making that decision. He comes from a poor family. He has not had many good things in life. But he still loves his daddy, whether or not he has committed this horrible crime. I plead with you for this little boy.” After the judge’s charge, Wallace and Beale went to a cafe, but they had barely finished a cup of coffee when the bailiff rushed over and told them the jury was coming back in. “We find the defendant guilty,” the foreman said, “and we fix his punishment at life in prison.” Wallace was elated — so much so that he refused the hundred-dollar fee that Beale offered him. “I would have given you a hundred dollars for the experience this gave me,” he told Beale.

-George Wallace: American Populist

Cynical, sure. (Even Wallace’s ultra-segregationist persona was cynical, adopted after he lost an earlier election as the moderate running against a Klan-endorsed opponent.) But whatever his other faults, he genuinely didn’t seem to delight in the executioner, and by the end of his life his acquaintance with this character had put him in fear for his soul.

Governor Wallace signed one other death warrant in 1965, and — after an interim of three presidential bids on the white ressentiment ticket plus a near-assassination that left him wheelchair-bound — found himself governor again in the 1980s. The first death cases under the “modern” Alabama law that Wallace himself had signed in 1975 were just then beginning to reach the end of the line.

And we find, via this post channeling Evan Mandery’s A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America, that Wallace was agonized before doing what he was always going to do.

George Wallace was beginning his final term as Alabama’s governor when he was asked to sign [John Louis] Evans’s death warrant. Wallace’s notoriety, of course, rests primarily on the day in 1963 that he stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to keep black students out. But it is also worth noting that his 1968 third-party presidential campaign perfected the “tough-on-crime” sloganeering that would dominate much of American electoral politics into the 1990s.

Privately, George Wallace had long harbored doubts about capital punishment. In 1964, he told his law clerk that he thought it should be ruled unconstitutional. By 1983, Wallace had survived a shooting, converted to born-again Christianity, and recanted his segregationism. In Mandery’s words, his “reservations about the constitutionality of capital punishment had evolved into full-blown opposition.” The night before Evans was due to be executed, Wallace telephoned his lieutenant governor “in tears,” Mandery recounts. Wallace said that “he had been up all night ‘praying the Bible,’ and couldn’t bring himself to sign the warrant.” That lieutenant governor was the former law clerk, Bill Baxley,* with whom Wallace had shared his reservations 20 years before. Baxley was a liberal Democrat — as Alabama’s attorney general, he had earned the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan for his investigation and prosecution of civil rights cases — who supported the death penalty. He convinced George Wallace that there was no political choice but to sign the warrant … Evans was strapped into an electric chair and, after two botched jolts that left him burned but alive, was shocked to death on the state of Alabama’s third attempt.

* Baxley is famous for investigating a notorious 1963 church bombing, and relatedly for deploying Alabama state letterhead in one of its very best uses ever.

On this day..

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

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1962: LeRoy McGahuey, the last involuntary execution in Oregon

Add comment August 20th, 2017 Headsman

The U.S. state of Oregon has the death penalty on the books, but hasn’t employed it on a non-consenting prisoner since August 20, 1962.

That was the date that former logger LeRoy Sanford McGahuey, with a shrug of his broad shoulders and the sanguine parting observation “That’s it,” paid in the gas chamber for the 1961 hammer slayings of his girlfriend and her son.* (He’s also the last of seventeen people executed by lethal gas in Oregon history.)

The late Oregon political lion Mark Hatfield, who was governor at the time, permitted the execution to go ahead despite misgivings about capital punishment. It was the only time he would ever be called upon to shoulder that burden: Oregon repealed its capital statutes in 1964 during the nationwide death penalty drawdown; Hatfield had moved on to the U.S. Senate by the time voters reinstated capital punishment in 1978. In an interview almost 40 years after the fact, Hatfield said that being party to McGahuey’s death still troubled him.

As Governor of Oregon, how did you resolve your legal charge versus your moral feelings about the death penalty?

Having been governor when we had an execution, I can tell you it still haunts me. However, when you swear to uphold the constitution of the State of Oregon you swear to uphold all of the laws — not just the laws you agree with. I felt there were too many examples in our history when people tortured the law or played around with it.

So if you were governor today, would you have commuted that death sentence?

I don’t know. I would have to wrestle with that. We experienced the repeal of the death penalty when I was Governor. After the first execution, I had my press secretary have as many press people there to witness it as possible; reporting it in all its gory detail. By making it a broadly based experience for all people — by not having it at midnight — we were able to garner enough support to get it repealed. Even though there were executions scheduled to happen during the hiatus time between when the law was passed and the time it took effect, I immediately commuted all the sentences. I believe it was seven. [actually, it was three -ed.]

Oregon currently retains the death penalty but has had a moratorium on executions enforced by its governors since 2011. Its only “modern” (post-1976) executions were in 1996 and 1997, and both were inflicted on men who voluntarily abandoned their own appeals to speed their path to the executioner.

* Technically, McGahuey was executed for the murder of the child, 22-month old Rodney Holt: he’d slain the mother, 32-year-old Loris Mae Holt, in a fit of passion, but he followed up by bludgeoning the tot with premeditation out of (as he said) concern for the boy’s upbringing now that he’d been orphaned.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Milestones,Murder,Oregon,USA

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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.”

On this day..

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

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