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 It was the only time he would ever be called upon to shoulder that burden: Oregon repealed its capital statutes in 1964 during the nationwide death penalty drawdown; Hatfield had moved on to the U.S. Senate by the time voters reinstated capital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based experience for all people — by not having it at midnight — we were able to garner enough support to get it repealed.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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1962: Roger Degueldre, OAS commando

Add comment July 6th, 2016 Thomas Kanyak

Thanks to Thomas Kanyak of @ModernConflict for the guest post. -ed.

On this date in 1962, Organisation Armee Secrete (OAS) Delta commando leader Roger Degueldre was executed by firing squad at Fort d’Ivry, near Paris, France.

Degueldre, 37 years old at his death, was one of only three OAS men executed by France for the terrorist excesses in the end game of the Algerian War in 1961 and 1962. Fittingly, that conflict wrenched to a conclusion five days before Degueldre’s death by musketry, with a referendum confirming Algeria’s independence from France. After the January 1960 “Barricades Week” revolt failed, Degueldre swore he “took an oath to keep Algeria French. As far as I’m concerned the oath will be kept. I’ll go to the limit.” He certainly did.

Like many men who joined the French Foreign Legion, Degueldre was the product of a murky past: either a Belgian who joined the SS Wallonie and fought on the Russian front, or a Frenchmen who served in the Resistance in occupied France.

What is known is, he joined the regular Army towards the end of the war, and then enlisted in the Foreign Legion under a nom de guerre. He served in Indochina and was wounded at Dien Bien Phu. In Algeria, he assumed his real name. After being suspected of taking part in the December 1960 riots during President de Gaulle’s visit to Algeria, Degueldre deserted from 1er REP, the French Foreign Legion parachute Regiment, in early 1961. The French Army, after crumpling against Germany, losing in Indochina and being humiliated at Suez, was determined to make a stand in Algeria. But the army’s resolve proved to greatly exceed the nation’s.

As France’s commitment to the fight against the Moslem rebel FLN began to crack, the army’s simmering resentment turned into open revolt, culminating in the failed Generals Putsch of April 1961 and the formation of the Secret Army Organization (Organisation Armee Secrete or OAS) that spring. It was comprised of disaffected soldiers and pieds noirs (black feet, a nickname for the European population of Algeria).

The OAS was structured in early May 1961, and Degueldre was assigned to the Organisation-Renseignement-Operation (ORO) section which was responsible for most of the OAS terrorist violence.

Degueldre’s OAS codename was Delta, and his commandos within the ORO became known as the “Deltas”; they carried out the majority of operation punctuelle (assassinations) from the failed Putsch to Algerian Independence in July 1962.

In Algiers, betrayed, Degueldre was identified slipping away from a OAS meeting in Algiers and arrested by French authorities on 7 April 1962.

“At Caserne des Tagarins, gendarmes toasted Degueldre’s arrest with champagne. They were very relieved. The Captain in charge approached the long, grim, sun baked figure and offered to wager a case of champagne that French Algeria would no longer exist within a few months.

“I won’t be here in a few months to drink it” Degueldre replied simply.

Degueldre went on trial on 27 June at Fort de Vincennes in Paris. After legal maneuvers to unseat a second judge (the first judge resigned, and committed suicide two days after the trial), Degueldre went essentially undefended, refusing to answer questions. After providing no defence witnesses, and hearing the testimony of four prosecution witnesses, Degueldre was convicted by the military court of ten murders and sentenced to death. Upon hearing the verdict, Degueldre smiled.

In Fresnes Prison after the conviction, fellow prisoners discussed going on hunger strike in protest of the death sentence meted out to Degueldre. When Degueldre was informed of the plans for the strike, he curtly replied “there’ll be no strike for me.”

On 6 July 1962, Degueldre was driven to Fort d’Ivry Prison outside of Paris where the sentence would be carried out. An 11-man firing squad delivered a volley of shots, the captain in charge administered the traditional coup de grace, and it was over (there are several versions of the fusille hier matin au Fort d’Ivry; one had it that only one shot of 11 hit Degueldre, and the Captain had to empty his revolver into him). The man described by Jean-Jacques Susini, an OAS leader, as “a magnificent revolutionary” had pour l’honneur de la parole donnee: he kept his oath.

On 23 November 1961, French President Charles de Gaulle delivered a speech to 2,000 assembled military personnel in Strasbourg. This “Lost Soldiers” Speech sought to quell discontent in the Army over the direction of French policy in Algeria after eight years of war.

it’s an illusion to think one can make things be what one desires and the contrary of what they are … at that moment when the state and the nation have chosen the way, military duty is traced out once and for all … outside these limits there can be — there are only — lost soldiers.


Sources:

Wolves in the City, the death of French Algeria by Paul Henissart

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 by Alistar Horne

Various New York Times articles

@claireparisjazz twitter account

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Algeria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1962: The only hangings in independent Cyprus

Add comment June 13th, 2016 Headsman

Three Men Hanged in Cyprus
From the London Times, June 14, 1962

NICOSIA, June 13

Three Greek Cypriots found Guilty of murder were hanged before dawn at Nicosia Central Prison today, the first capital sentences to be carried out in Cyprus since independence in August, 1960. Their fate had been in the balance until 11 o’clock last night, when Mr. Glafcos Clerides, the acting President, announced that after considering all the circumstances, he had decided not to grant a suspension of the executions.

The three men were Hambis Zacharia, Michael Hiletikos, and Lazaris Demetriou. Zacharia was convicted of killing a man with an axe in a Limassol vineyard in September, 1958. The other two were jointly convicted of the murder of a man outside a Limassol cabaret last year.

Last night Mr. Rauf Denktash [the future president of Northern Cyprus -ed.], the Turkish advocate who appeared for Zacharia, had filed a petition in the High Court seeking a declaration that the execution warrant issued by the acting President was illegal and ultra vires, and a declaration that the superintendent of prisons was not legally appointed and could not carry out the executions. The petition was heard in the chamber of Mr. Justice Vassiliades and adjourned for a full court hearing, but this morning was withdrawn.

The English-language Cyprus Mail this morning commends the courage of the acting President and points out that the House of Representatives has power to amend the law if it wishes to abolish capital punishment. It adds that such action is unlikely to be publicly welcomed in view of the number of murders in the republic in recent months.

Despite the correspondent’s confidence in the endurance of the gallows, these first executions for independent Cyprus were also its last executions: no further hangings occurred before Cyprus abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes in 1983, and for all crimes in 2002.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cyprus,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants

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1962: Kelly Moss, restless of spirit

1 comment March 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1962, J. Kelly Moss went to the Kentucky electric chair in Kentucky for murder.

A lifelong criminal whose offenses ran more to the impulsive than the diabolical, Moss was arrested 10 or more times from 1950 to 1953, according to an Evansville (Ind.) Courier and Press profile. “Kelly Moss, when he was sober, was a real gentle person,” the former police chief of Henderson, Ky. told reporters decades later. “My recollection is that he was a real good man. But when he got drunk, he was a holy terror. When (Moss) was coming at you, he looked like a raging bull. When you got a call to Kelly’s house, you sent every car you had.”

His stepfather Charles Abbitt unfortunately didn’t have all those cars.

When Moss, fresh out of his latest prison stint on a robbery charge, showed up at Abbitt’s Henderson home blind drunk and in need of fare for the cab that had just delivered him. The cab driver gave up and left while Moss wailed on the door; what happened in the next 90 minutes or so must be guessed at, but Moss’s mother returned from church to find her husband’s mangled remains. “His face was pulverized by blows, and many of his ribs had been broken,” according to the Henderson Gleaner.

Moss apparently hadn’t realized just how much damage he’d done in his raging-bull mode; when arrested later, he was shocked to discover himself a murderer. “We had a little fight but I certainly didn’t intend to kill him. This is the worst thing I have ever had happen to me. This means a long term for me.”

Actually, the term was not so long — although Moss did his level best to extend it.

Leveling himself up into a skilled jailhouse lawyer, he papered Kentucky courts with relentless self-prepared writs that protracted the short lease on life his murder conviction offered. (He helped other prisoners file their appeals, too.) Outliving his victim by four-plus years was making good time by his era’s standards.

“The restless spirit of Kelly Moss was stilled just after midnight this morning,” the Gleaner reported on March 2, 1962. He wasn’t reconciled to the electric chair, and the device almost choked on him: Moss was the last person executed in Kentucky prior to the death penalty’s long 1960s-1970s lull in America. Kentucky’s next, and last, electrocution would not take place until 1997.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Kentucky,Murder,USA

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1962: James Dukes, philosophical

Add comment August 24th, 2014 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. 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.)

A circled passage in the section “He Is Sentenced to Death,” in Plato’s Apology:

The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways, I to die and you to live. Which is better God only knows.

— James Dukes, convicted of murder, electric chair, Illinois.
Executed August 24, 1962

Dukes was executed for killing Detective John Blyth Sr., who had pursued him after he had beaten his girlfriend in church and shot two other men who tried to stop him. On Dukes’s execution day, Detective Daniel Rolewicz, who took part in the final gun battle, told a newspaperman, “I’ve been waiting a long time for this night.”

Dukes made no oral statement but left behind a copy of the Apology for the press.

(Dukes was the last person executed in Illinois prior to the national death penalty hiatus of the late 1960s. He was also the last person electrocuted in Illinois, and the last put to death in Chicago’s Cook County. -ed.)

On this day..

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

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1962: Talduwe Somarama, Ceylon assassin

Add comment July 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1962, the Buddhist monk — turned Christian convert in detention — Talduwe Somarama was hanged for assassinating Ceylon Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. (Ceylon became Sri Lanka in 1972.)

Somarama was a 44-year-old ayurvedic medicine practitioner when he was tapped for the job by a powerful Buddhist named Mapitigana Buddharakkitha, high priest of the Kelaniya temple. The latter had played kingmaker in Bandaranaike’s 1956 election — and had perhaps two interlocking grievances against Bandaranaike:

  1. Buddharakkitha had been balked by the government of lucrative trade concessions he anticipated as the quid for his quo; and,
  2. Buddharakkitha was closely linked to the movement of partisan Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who in Ceylon’s early years systematically discriminated against the island’s ethnic Tamils — and were angered at Bandaranaike’s halting moves to reach an accommodation.*

Exploiting the prerogatives of clergy, Somarama obtained a September 25, 1959, meeting un-screened by security for one of the Prime Minister’s public-audience days, a revolver secreted in his saffron robes. When Bandaranaike knelt ceremonially to the monk, Somarama shot him in the stomach.

The wound was mortal, but the Prime Minister lingered on all that night — long enough even to give a televised address from his hospital bed asking his countrymen to “show compassion to” his assassin “and not try to wreak vengeance on him.”* Only months before the murder, ethnic riots had devastated minority Tamil communities, and another pogrom might have been averted on this occasion only the quick thinking of a government official to promulgate immediate word that the assassin was not Tamil.

Ironically Buddharakkitha was so far above suspicion at that he was solicited for a broadcast eulogy of his victim. One can only imagine his relish at the performance — but it was not to last. Buddharakkitha was tried as a conspirator for orchestrating Somarama’s deed, dodged a prospective death sentence, and died in 1967 serving a prison sentence at hard labor.


Talduwe Somara on the steps of the courthouse …


… and Buddharakkitha likewise.

Bandaranaike’s daughter Sirimavo succeeded him as Prime Minister in 1960, becoming the world’s first elected female head of government. A second daughter, Chandrika, and a son, Anura, have also been prominent Sri Lanka politicians.

This three-part series unpacks some of the primary sources on the murder and speculates as to cui bono: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

* Buddharakkitha, also noted for exploring paths to enlightenment with various Sinhalese elites’ wives, was the high priest of the Kelaniya temple — which is the titular temple in the 1953 Sinhalese nationalist tract The Revolt in the Temple, “a blunt statement that the Tamils are a threat to [the Sinhalese] historic mission.” Its author was Don Charles Wijewardena, who had been a patron of Bandaranaike as a young monk; the (still-extant) Wijewardena dynasty had likewise associated itself with the Kelaniya temple itself, the political and the devotional mutually reinforcing one another.

The Sinhala-Tamil conflict stoked in these years has progressed in the decades since to ever-bloodier consequences.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Pelf,Power,Religious Figures,Sri Lanka

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1962: Gottfried Strympe, purported terrorist

Add comment June 21st, 2014 Headsman

The novel East German polity was coming in the late 1950s to a crossroads that saw security paranoia ratchet up dramatically.

Emigration to West Germany accelerated considerably as the 1960s began, eventually giving rise to the infamous Berlin Wall.

In the countryside, forced collectivization implemented in 1960 produced resistance all its own. Agricultural output plummeted (the knock-on effects of a 1959 drought helped too); according to Patrick Major’s Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power, groceries and everyday household items became markedly more difficult to procure in the early 1960s, sapping productivity throughout the economy as city workers queued for hours and black-market exchanges proliferated.

Following the Soviet Union’s great tradition of attributing economic trouble to running-dog wreckers, East Germany introduced the death penalty for politically motivated economic sabotage* — for example, the 206 cases of arson it attributed among 862 rural fires in 1960. (Figures as per Major.)

Our figure today, Gottfried Strympe, fell foul of these laws. In reality, he was no cackling secret agent but a disturbed loner.

He lurked about the eastern city of Bautzen opportunistically by turns the petty thief or the peeping tom.

Unfortunately for Strympe, who did some spells in psychiatric wards, his deviance extended past the titillation of spying a Hausfrau in her bustier to the much more menacing diversions of pyromania.

The poor man needed a social worker; what he got was the executioner. The charge sheet dramatically attributed his 28 acts of arson (crimes that each caused only minor property damage, and no human casualties) to the inspiration of “West German and American imperialists.”

Strympe, you see, had often visited a father (deceased in 1958) in West Berlin, back before the Wall sealed that city. Of course on those trips, Strympe picked over a Whitman’s sampler of western decadences, from pornography to Social Democracy. On this basis, the Stasi attributed his incendiarism to “terrorism” rooted in “an antisocial attitude strengthened by his stays in West Berlin.”

Strympe had a public show trial, the better that “the population of Bautzen will recognize the danger of communication and travel to West Berlin” (with props of said population — workers’ and civic groups — obligingly supplying the requisite demands for the traitor’s execution).

He was beheaded by Fallbeil at Leipzig on June 21, 1962.

* See Politische Strafjustiz in der Ära Ulbricht: Vom bekennenden Terror zur verdeckten Repression by Falco Werkentin.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Treason

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1962: Henry Adolph Busch, Psycho

1 comment June 6th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1962, 30-year-old Henry Adolph Busch went to the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison in California.

Condemned for the murder of his aunt, he had in fact slaughtered three Hollywood women and nearly killed a fourth.

Busch’s childhood was about what you would expect for a multiple murderer. Born Charles C. Hutchinson, he spent the first six years of his life being passed around to various foster homes before he was adopted by his much older half-sister, Mae E. Busch, and her husband Henry.

He emerged from those first six years emotionally scarred, and physically too: emaciated and with a deformed jaw. (En route to his adult “rat-like” face, enormous ears, and scrawny physique “like a string bean.”)

Years six through adulthood were no treat, either. Schoolmates teased young Henry about his appearance, and he had serious problems with his adoptive mother: one evaluation noted that Mae was a cold parent and “usual maternal feeling between mother and son seemed totally lacking.”

The youth also had difficulty maintaining concentration and suffered from terrible headaches, so it’s no wonder he did badly at school. He joined the Army but was dishonorably discharged; after that he became an optical technician and was viewed as “an excellent lens polisher” and a good employee.

Busch blurs the line between “spree killer” and “serial killer” (the former being itself a poorly defined medium between serial killer and mass murderer). He knew all of his victims, which isn’t typical for a serial murderer. Four months passed between his first and his second murders, but he went on to kill two women and attack a third within the space of three days.

That first victim was 72-year-old woman named Elmira Myrtle Miller, whom Henry had known since he was a child. On May 2, 1960, he dropped by her house and they watched The Ed Sullivan Show together. According to Busch, during the TV program he began to have irresistible thoughts of killing the old woman.

So he did. When Miller turned around to cover up her birdcages for the night, Busch seized her and strangled her to death. He pulled her housecoat up over her waist and tore her underclothes in an attempt to make the murder look like a sex crime, but made no attempt to molest her body.

Elmira’s murder baffled the police; months passed, without any solid leads.

On September 4, the 29-year-old Busch was in his adopted mother’s apartment building when he encountered 65-year-old Shirley Payne, who also lived there. He asked her out on a date to see the hot new film Psycho.

They watched the movie, went to his apartment and had sex. As Payne was getting ready to leave, Busch, again, jumped her from behind and strangled her. He wrapped the body in a sheet and stowed it under the sink temporarily. Fluid was oozing from Shirley’s eyes and nose, so the next day he bought a waterproof sleeping bag and put the body inside it.

Now getting the hang of this murder thing, Busch drank the draught deeply. The very next evening, he went to visit his favorite aunt, Margaret Briggs … and brought along a knife and a pair of handcuffs. They watched television until the early morning hours. He wanted to tell Margaret about Shirley’s murder and ask for advice, but when he started to confide in her she told him that, whatever his problem was, she was too tired to talk about it tonight.

So he strangled her too. After her death, he cut the clothing off her body. The police would subsequently discover numerous bruises and some cigarette burns on the corpse, something Busch never explained.

Henry went to sleep in Aunt Margaret’s bed. The next day he drove her car to work, where he asked a co-worker, 49-year-old Magdalena A. Parra, if she’d like to grab a coffee with him before their shift started. She agreed and got in his car, and immediately he tried to throttle her.

Magdalena was able to fight him off, however, and her screams caught the attention of two truck drivers. Busch bolted from the car; the truckers gave chase. He only went around the corner before he gave up and allowed them to catch him. The police initially thought Busch had just been trying to steal Mrs. Parra’s purse, but, he immediately confessed to the attempted homicide as well as the murders he’d committed during the previous 48 hours. He would eventually cop to Elmira’s slaying too.

In the aftermath of his arrest, predictably, the newspapers suggested Psycho might have given Busch the idea to attack Mrs. Payne. But it’s hard to reconcile the blame-the-movie idea with the inconvenient fact that he had killed before the movie was even released. When asked for comment, Psycho‘s director Alfred Hitchcock said violence was ubiquitous in cinema and his movie wasn’t any more likely to cause someone to commit murder than any other film.

When a doctor, William J. Bryan, examined him prior to his trial, Henry Busch said he’d been wanting to kill someone for years, but had always kept the urges in check, except for one time in the Army when he killed a POW. He said he probably would have kept killing people if he hadn’t been caught in the act with Mrs. Parra, and that he’d had his eye on his landlady for his next victim.

Dr. Bryan (who, it should be noted, was an expert hypnotist but not a psychiatrist) diagnosed the defendant with a schizoid personality and said he didn’t think Busch was capable of forming the intent to commit murder. Bryan suggested Busch’s murders, all of women significantly older than he, were inspired by Henry’s mommy issues: “The killings themselves seem to represent an attempt to possess the desired maternal object, at the same time destroying the power of the object to hurt.”

The state argued that Busch knew exactly what he was doing and was motivated not by mental illness but by pure and simple sadism. The prosecution suggested Shirley Payne had been raped before her death, a contention unsupported by the medical evidence.

In the end he was convicted of attempted murder of Mrs. Parra, second-degree murder in the Miller and Payne cases, and first-degree murder in the case of his aunt. The sentence was death.

Dispute about Henry Busch’s mental state continued as he waited to die. His mother, who testified that he had never been normal, appealed on his behalf. Even his fellow denizens of death row sent a petition to Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, saying they thought Henry’s life should be spared because it was obvious to them he was mentally ill. But the governor decided to let the law take its course.

Henry Busch is buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Gassed,Guest Writers,Murder,Other Voices,Serial Killers,USA

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1962: James Hanratty, the killer all along

9 comments April 4th, 2012 Headsman

Fifty years ago today, still insisting that he had “a clean conscience,” James Hanratty was hanged at Bedford Prison for the murder of Michael Gregsten and the rape-shooting of his mistress Valerie Storie.

Hanratty, a petty criminal with no history of violence — “I try to live a respectable life, except for my housebreaking” he testified* — fell into a web of questionable circumstantial evidence, plus the (also questionable**) eyewitness identification of the surviving Ms. Storie.

It was called the “A6 murder” because a stickup man had forced the lovers at gunpoint to drive him along that road, until pulling them over at the aptly-named Deadman’s Hill where he did the vicious deeds and left his victims for dead.

This was a bizarre and shocking crime, and the investigation led back to Hanratty only via a winding, almost accidental trail.

The murder weapon materialized on a bus, wiped clean of fingerprints; later, cartridges to match it materialized at a boarding house, and a confused reconstruction of whose aliases were occupying which rooms there uncertainly suggested Hanratty as a suspect.

The case, checking in at a then-record 21 trial days, featured 70 witnesses battling over inconclusive data points like the doubtful relationship between autobiographical remarks made by the killer and Hanratty’s actual biography, and Hanratty’s want of an apparent motive for an act so foreign to his previous m.o. On the other hand, some witnesses put him in incriminating places, and Hanratty damningly lied about and changed his alibi.

What to do? A jury mired in hours of inconclusive deliberation at one point sent back to the court to clarify the concept of “reasonable doubt.” In the end, it decided its doubts weren’t reasonable enough to spare James Hanratty the noose.

Meanwhile, another suspect from the same boarding-house, Peter Alphon, behaved extremely erratically in the run-up to Hanratty’s hanging, hounded Hanratty’s friend until the latter committed suicide, and then eventually (after the hanging) confessed outright. For Hanratty’s many advocates, Alphon looked an awful lot like reasonable doubt … or more.

This case was long a cause celebre for death penalty foes in the U.K. owing to its evidentiary shakiness; none of the other seven put to death in Great Britain after Hanratty were plausible innocents.


John Lennon and Yoko Ono commiserate with James Hanratty’s parents in 1969. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images, via here.)

In 2000, DNA tests conducted on Valerie Storie’s underwear and the handkerchief which wrapped the recovered gun finally offered the prospect of more certain forensic identification than had been available at the time of the trial. Those tests matched (pdf) James Hanratty’s DNA … and nobody else’s.

While this result has not resolved all controversy about the A6 murder case — witness this book-length forum discussion — nor ended the Hanratty family’s campaign for exoneration, it’s pretty well cut the legs from Hanratty’s actual-innocence argument. Whatever one can say about the original trial, it sure looks like Hanratty was the killer all along.

A few books about James Hanratty and the A6 case

* Feb. 8, 1962 testimony, as reported in the next day’s London Times.

** Aside from the inherent unreliability eyewitness testimony, Valerie Storie at one point picked an airman stand-in in a lineup; when she later identified Hanratty, it was not by his appearance but by his cockney accent.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Wrongful Executions

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1962: Mack Merrill Rivenburgh cheats the executioner

Add comment September 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1962, just hours before he was to face a firing squad for the murder of a fellow inmate, Mack Merrill Rivenburgh cheated the executioner with a fatal drug overdose.

It was the final escape for a prisoner who had had a lot of them: five previous stays had scotched scheduled executions, sometimes with just hours to spare, back when such stays were anything but routine. The state’s Pardons Board was a long time mulling the case.

Rivenburgh’s own suicide note complained that he was “tired of waiting, tired of the excessive delays,” which is an interesting reason to take one’s own life just before the executioner was going to do it anyway. (Rivenburgh also asserted his innocence.)

Actually, Utah had built wooden execution chairs for two men set for death a September 14 death by musketry, but didn’t manage to seat either inmate.

The other, Jesse Garcia — condemned for helping Rivenburgh slay LeRoy Varner — was granted a commutation on the evening of September 13.

As it turned out, Utah would not put another criminal to death until Gary Gilmore in 1977.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Shot,USA,Utah

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  • markb: Hello, Bart. i am also into a writing project. i would recommend you take a good look at dennis rader, the...
  • Bart: Hi, Kevin, it’s been ages! Hi, all the crew – the old ones and new ones! For example – Fizz....
  • Fiz: I thought the book was a real piece of special pleading, Meaghan. The fact remains that wherever Mary Ann Cotton...
  • Meaghan Good: I recently read a new book about Mary Ann Cotton, “Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel” by Martin...
  • Kevin M Sullivan: Hey Bob— I’m not surprised that sex toys and pot stashes were a part of Cho O, as they are in most...