1987: Jimmy Glass, electrocution appellant

June 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1987, Jimmy L. Glass died in Louisiana’s electric chair — having come one vote short of having the device declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The 20-year-old Glass escaped from a parish jail with fellow inmate Jimmy Wingo on Christmas Eve, 1982, robbing and murdering an elderly couple in the process. Each blamed the other; both got the chair.*

But should they have?

Glass would lend his name to a landmark 1985 Supreme Court decision contesting Louisiana’s method of execution.

By a 5-4 decision, the high court held that electrocution, still at that point the country’s prevailing method of execution despite its medieval reputation for grisly botches, remained a constitutional method of inflicting death.

Liberal Justice William Brennan‘s vigorous dissent from that judgment is not for the squeamish. (For readability, I’ve added emphasis and removed the many citations in the original.)

[E]vidence suggests that death by electrical current is extremely violent and inflicts pain and indignities far beyond the “mere extinguishment of life.” Witnesses routinely report that, when the switch is thrown, the condemned prisoner “cringes,” “leaps,” and ” ‘fights the straps with amazing strength.’ ” “The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands.” The prisoner’s limbs, fingers, toes, and face are severely contorted. The force of the electrical current is so powerful that the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and “rest on [his] cheeks.” The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool.

“The body turns bright red as its temperature rises,” and the prisoner’s “flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking.” Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire, particularly “if [he] perspires excessively.” Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound ” like bacon frying,” and “the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh” permeates the chamber. This “smell of frying human flesh in the immediate neighbourhood of the chair is sometimes bad enough to nauseate even the Press representatives who are present.” In the meantime, the prisoner almost literally boils: “the temperature in the brain itself approaches the boiling point of water,” and when the postelectrocution autopsy is performed “the liver is so hot that doctors have said that it cannot be touched by the human hand.” The body frequently is badly burned and disfigured.

The violence of killing prisoners through electrical current is frequently explained away by the assumption that death in these circumstances is instantaneous and painless. This assumption, however, in fact “is open to serious question” and is “a matter of sharp conflict of expert opinion.” Throughout the 20th century a number of distinguished electrical scientists and medical doctors have argued that the available evidence strongly suggests that electrocution causes unspeakable pain and suffering. Because ” ‘[t]he current flows along a restricted path into the body, and destroys all the tissue confronted in this path . . . [i]n the meantime the vital organs may be preserved; and pain, too great for us to imagine, is induced. . . . For the sufferer, time stands still; and this excruciating torture seems to last for an eternity.‘ ” L.G.V. Rota, a renowned French electrical scientist, concluded after extensive research that

“[i]n every case of electrocution, . . . death inevitably supervenes but it may be very long, and above all, excruciatingly painful . . . . [T]he space of time before death supervenes varies according to the subject. Some have a greater physiological resistance than others. I do not believe that anyone killed by electrocution dies instantly, no matter how weak the subject may be. In certain cases death will not have come about even though the point of contact of the electrode with the body shows distinct burns. Thus, in particular cases, the condemned person may be alive and even conscious for several minutes without it being possible for a doctor to say whether the victim is dead or not. . . . This method of execution is a form of torture.”

At least neither the juridical near miss nor Brennan’s graphic description of his impending manner of death dented Jimmy’s sense of humor. Asked for his last words, the “swaggering” inmate, already strapped in the chair, replied

Yeah, I think I’d rather be fishing.

Luckily for Carlisle United, he’s not the same guy as journeyman goaltender Jimmy Glass, who in 1999 improbably struck home one of the greatest goals in English football history.

* Wingo was put to death four days after Glass.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Gallows Humor,Louisiana,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Theft,USA

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1997: Henry Francis Hays, whose crime cost the Klan

13 comments June 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1997, an Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan went to Alabama’s “Yellow Mama” for lynching a black teenager.

Henry Francis Hays, son of a top Klan officer in Alabama, had vented dissatisfaction with a jury’s failure to convict a black defendant for a white policeman’s murder by grabbing and stringing up a random black, 19-year-old Michael Donald.

Hays and his 17-year-old accomplice skated for more than two years because Mobile’s finest figured a publicly hanged black man probably had it coming from some drug deal.* Only through the victim’s mother’s persistence — she got Jesse Jackson involved, which helped involve the FBI — did the real murderers feel the heat.

Before long, the Klan would wish it had stayed out of the kitchen.

After Hays’ conviction, Michael Donald’s mother brought a civil action against the United Klans of America with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The $7 million liability verdict she won financially destroyed the United Klans — perpetrators of some of the 1960s’ most infamous anti-civil rights terror — and Donald was awarded its national headquarters building in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

This novel keys on the Michael Donald lynching as part of a (fictional) Mobile teen’s coming of age.

Hays wasn’t through making the sort of history he’d rather not have made.

When his turn in the electric chair finally came in 1997, he became the first white in Alabama put to death for an offense against a black in 84 years.**

Seemingly less cocksure in answering for his crime than he had been in committing it, Hays had always maintained his innocence. A few days before walking his last mile, he finally confessed to the Mobile chapter head of the NAACP.

* Michael Donald was not, in fact, involved in drugs.

** There haven’t been any other executions for white-on-black crime since Henry Hays, a span of 11 more years and 22 more executions as of this writing. (via the Death Penalty Information Center’s Execution Database)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Sleuthing,USA

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1987: Valery Martynov, betrayed by Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen

9 comments May 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1987, a once-promising American intelligence asset was executed with a single gunshot to the head in Moscow — his treachery exposed by two of the most infamous Soviet moles in U.S. intelligence history.

A Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB posted to the Soviets’ official Washington, D.C. offices in 1980, Martynov had turned in 1982 and begun funneling intelligence to the CIA and FBI under the cryptonym “Gentile”. Truth be told, he was a mediocre source, but he was a younger officer with the chance to grow into a more important asset in the years ahead.

Fate had sized him up as an extra in someone else’s story instead.

In 1985, “the year of the spy” to those in the know for the volume of important cloak-and-dagger work, the Soviets landed two highly-placed moles in the American intelligence world — Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI.

Both those notorious turncoats shopped Martynov (among others); duly informed, Russian spymaster Victor Cherkashin conned Martynov into returning to Moscow where he could be arrested.

Here’s a 2001 New York Times account on how it went down:

[Soviet counterintelligence officer Vitaliy] Yurchenko, unhappy with his lot as a defector [after coming over to the Americans in August 1985], suddenly redefected back to the Soviet Union in early November [1985, still]. Mr. Cherkashin has said in a previous interview that Mr. Yurchenko’s redefection presented an opportunity to lure Valeriy Martynov, a K.G.B. officer in the Washington station working for the F.B.I., back to the Soviet Union: The K.G.B. arranged for Mr. Martynov to serve as a member of an honor guard escorting Mr. Yurchenko back to Moscow.

When they arrived back in the Soviet Union, it was Mr. Martynov who was arrested; Mr. Yurchenko was given a job at the K.G.B. again.

No honor among thieves.

Martynov left a widow, Natalia, and two children. But he is remembered and written about exclusively in the context of the men who sold him out, who taken separately or together rate among recent history’s most catastrophic intelligence failures. (Or triumphs, depending on your point of view.)

Martynov’s ultimate tragedy, of course — one he shares with his more infamous American betrayers in this shadowland chess match — is that not by all the information he provided, and neither by his life nor his death, was the Cold War protracted or abbreviated by one single hour.

Books about the Ames and Hanssen cases

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Russia,Shot,Spies,Treason,USA,USSR

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1987: Jacek Lazar condemned

4 comments November 27th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1987, according to the sentence read to him in the climactic scene of The Decalogue no. 5,* Jacek Lazar was condemned to hang for the senseless murder of a taxi driver. (“Lazar” was fictional, but he had a real-life inspiration.)

The movie, plainly reflecting the director’s opposition to the death penalty, is the most overtly political of Krzysztof Kieslowski‘s ten-film cycle exploring the themes of the Ten Commandments. But it is far from tendentious.

The supposed date of the actual execution, depicted here, is not identified.

If one credits the dates, this hanging would be among the last performed in Poland. After April 1988, death sentences were no longer carried out, and Poland formally abolished the death penalty in the late 90’s — thanks in no small part to this film.

* Or Dekalog, per its Polish rendering. This particular installation of the series is also referred to as “A Short Film About Killing”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Common Criminals,Fictional,Hanged,Mature Content,Murder,Poland,Theft,Uncertain Dates

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