1990: Charles Coleman, the first lethal injection in Oklahoma

1 comment September 10th, 2015 Headsman

Despite our occasional predilection for the odd “literally executed today” post, this macabre chronicle has never really aspired to focus on our subject matter’s breaking-news beat.

Nonetheless, the landscape of the death penalty has evolved noticeably in the years since we launched on Halloween 2007. Executions are down in China, but up in Saudi Arabia and Iran; India has ended a long death penalty hiatus; Pakistan began, sustained, and dramatically repudiated a death penalty moratorium.

And in the United States, the prevailing execution method, lethal injection, has fallen under a barrage of legal and political challenges.

Like the guillotine, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and weirder contraptions, the prick of the needle had once been sold as a Solomonic compromise between the executioner and his critics: you still get to kill a guy, but now he doesn’t feel a thing. This time we really mean it!

Lethal injection got some run in the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program but was first approved for regular judicial executions by Oklahoma in 1977, and first used by Texas in 1982. Where gas and electricity transferred industrial technology to the death chamber, with great metal chairs and huge switches like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, injection analogized medicine: silent and light, and so sterile that the technicians would hygienically swab the skin before they pushed in the death-dealing needle.

Most of all it was sterile for the viewers, who had occasionally been subjected under the other processes to nauseating botches: men who were supposed to be dying instantly instead thrashing wildly away, catching fire, gushing blood, or requiring jolt after jolt to finish off. The electric chair surely owes its iconic cultural position in part to its reputation for spectacular failures.

When capital punishment got its 1970s reboot, it only seemed natural to think about cleaning up the how along with the why. Nearly everyone now had the experience of anaesthetic; it was natural to think that you could just put a man down like the family dog and not have any mess to clean up afterwards.

“Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him,” future president Ronald Reagan had said in proposing the technology while he was still governor of California in 1973. “Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot and the horse goes to sleep. That’s it.”

As executions surged in the 1990s, lethal injection was thoroughly displacing America’s previous humane technologies to become the overwhelmingly predominant method.


Data via the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

And the state of Oklahoma, which had been first with a lethal injection law back in ’77, finally started rolling out gurneys — when it put murder Charles Troy Coleman to death with the needle on September 10, 1990. It was Oklahoma’s first execution in 24 years.*

It was Oklahoma’s medical examiner Jay Chapman who had formulated the three-drug cocktail that for a long time comprised the definitive lethal injection protocol: the short-acting barbiturate sodium thiopental, followed by the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, capped with potassium chloride to stop the heart. Why three drugs, Human Rights Watch later asked him? “Why not?” Chapman was not a pharmacologist and had little expertise with the drugs in question.

Nevertheless, his process “could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is merely the extreme of procedures done daily around the world for surgical procedures,” Chapman insisted when he proposed it. “It’s simply an extreme form of anesthesia.”

Extreme anaesthesia. Was it really?

Even at Coleman’s death, observers saw it differently.

“I saw him choke and gasp and struggle for air,” said Joe Ward, an investigator in the public defender’s office. “It looked like he was choking to death. He looked over … and mouthed the words, ‘I love you.’ Then he looked straight back up and started choking.” Reporter Art Cox, by contrast, viewed it as “a very easy death … a very cold death, very antiseptic.”

Oklahoma has executed well over 100 people since Charles Coleman but if anything the uncertainty about that “easy” and “antiseptic” death has only grown — in the Sooner state and elsewhere.

And the question has become quite urgent during the lifetime of this blog as political pressure on manufacturers has dried up the supply of sodium thiopental, forcing the many states using lethal injection to scramble for a variety of new drug sequences that are basically being invented on the fly and sussed out with live experimentation on the next death row prisoner in the queue.

Oklahoma’s version was to switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital; in January 2014, a man being executed with pentobarbital exclaimed, “I feel my whole body burning.”. Months later, the manufacturer of that drug also cut off the supply, unwilling to be party to the executions it facilitated.

So Oklahoma switched to a third anaesthetic, midazolam, a drug whose execution debut took place in Florida in 2013. The state has also tried to shield its suppliers from anti-death penalty campaigners with a secrecy law.

Proceeding on a mad catch-as-can basis, Oklahoma proceeded to horribly botch its midazolam executions, throwing its new procedure right back to the courts. Just this past June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court narrowly approved the continued use of its midazolam cocktail, which a dissenting justice savaged as “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.”

It’s a story still being written before our eyes — a long quarter-century after Charles Coleman premiered Oklahoma’s modern era of executions on this date in 1990.

* The last previous execution in Oklahoma was that of James French in 1966.

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

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1990: Sam Cayhall in Grisham’s “The Chamber”

1 comment August 8th, 2015 Headsman

In John Grisham’s The Chamber, it is on August 8, 1990 that the titular enclosure receives its victim in a cloud of lethal gas.

In The Chamber, Sam Cayhall, a Ku Klux Klansman who had long avoided conviction for bombing a Jewish civil rights lawyer in 1967, has at last been condemned in Mississippi twenty years later.

The action centers around the futile and increasingly hopeless efforts of Cayhall’s grandson Adam Hall to save the old man working pro bono for a Chicago law firm.

Adam comes to learn that his grandfather has a long and bloody Klan history, even killing children. (We also find that the missing link in this generational drama, Adam’s father, committed suicide after Sam was sent to death row.)

But Sam is in no way a good guy: still an unreconstructed racist, he refuses to inform on any ex-confederates. As grandpa wends his way towards his date with the executioner, Adam’s torrent of judicial appeals go nowhere and the politically sensitive nature of the case makes executive clemency a non-starter. (When The Chamber was published in 1994, the death penalty was at an acme of popularity.) This is to be expected, of course; as Chekhov might observe, you can’t call the book The Chamber if someone isn’t going to go sit in said chamber by the end.

This bestseller was made into a 1996 film starring Gene Hackman as the grizzled Klansman. (In the film version’s execution scene, the date is changed to April 13, 1996.)

There’s an excerpt of the novel available on Grisham’s site here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,History,Mississippi,Murder,Terrorists,USA

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1990: The October 13 Massacre

Add comment October 13th, 2014 Headsman

This date is the dolorous anniversary of the “October 13 massacre”, a bloodbath wrapping up the Lebanese Civil War when the Syrian army executed hundreds of captured Lebanese.

The intractable war, which dated back to 1975 and made “Beirut” a 1980s watchword for conflict, had boiled down* to two rival governments: a Maronite military government based in East Beirut under the leadership of Michel Aoun, and the Syrian-sponsored Muslim government in West Beirut putatively headed by Selim al-Hoss. Over the course of 1989-1990 Aoun’s “war of liberation” against the occupying Syrian army all but emptied the city of Beirut.

Thanks to a complex political schism, Aoun was also ensconced in the city’s presidential palace from which he issued decrees denouncing and rejecting the political settlement that was supposed to return the country to normalcy.

Unfortunately for him — and moreso for the prisoners who are the day’s topic — Aoun was also supported by Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein. In August 1990, Hussein invaded Kuwait, precipitating an American attack on Iraq in response.

As this latter operation involved the U.S. attacking a Muslim oil-producing state with military resources it deployed for that purpose the politically sensitive sands of a neighboring Muslim oil-producing state, the U.S. spent the last months of 1990 working the Middle East diplomatic circuit to bring the region’s governments on board for the impending bout of ultraviolence.

Syria’s particular carrot was the green light to finish off Aoun — who, simultaneously, had of course been deprived of aid from the now-preoccupied Iraqis. This the Syrian army did with a massive attack on Beirut’s presidential palace beginning at seven in the morning on October 13th. The palace was overcome by 10:00 a.m., but resistance continued elsewhere throughout the day from pro-Aoun militias who had not received word of that gentleman’s surrender and escape to the French embassy.**

Several hundred people were killed during the onslaught into pro-Aoun enclaves. An unknown number of these ballparked to around two or three hundred are thought to have been killed by summary execution after capture (or after intentional rounding-up). A Lebanese nurse claimed that at the nearby village of Dahr al-Wahsh “I counted between 75 and 80 [executed] … Most of them had a bullet in the back of their heads or in their mouth. The corpses still carried the mark of cords around their wrists.” Other captured Lebanese fighters were reportedly deported to Syria and never heard from again.

There are several other atrocity accounts collected here. This two-part documentary on the end of the Lebanese civil war available on YouTube has several participants’ perspectives (including Aoun’s) on the chaotic situation marking the war’s last days: 1, 2.

* This is quite a gross oversimplification of a fractious civil conflict in which innumerable blocs continually rearranged their alliances.

“I had a chart on my wall of the constantly proliferating militias — four dozen or so by the time I left in 1985 — and their constantly shifting alliances and enmities,” one former Beirut denizen wrote recently. “Allies one day could be trying to kill one another the next, even within sects, over issues that had digressed far from their common cause.”

** Aoun went into exile in France, returning in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution finally drove the still-occupying Syrians out of Lebanon. He has served in the Lebanese parliament since that time, leading the country’s largest Christian party.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Known But To God,Lebanon,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Syria,Wartime Executions

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1990: Gideon Orkar, for a Nigerian coup

Add comment July 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1990, Nigerian Major Gideon Gwaza Orkar and dozens of others* were shot for a coup attempt against that country’s military strongman, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.

Orkar was the guy on state radio early on the morning of April 22 announcing the revolution:

On behalf of the patriotic and well-meaning peoples of the Middle Belt and the southern parts of this country, I , Major Gideon Orkar, wish to happily inform you of the successful ousting of the dictatorial, corrupt, drug baronish, evil man, deceitful, homo-sexually-centered, prodigalistic, un-patriotic administration of General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida.

The dictatorial, drug baronish evil man had himself come to power in a 1985 coup, and when not fending off coups kept busy reorganizing the state to his satisfaction and stalling on the promised civilian handover. (“IBB” ultimately held an election in 1992, invalidated the result, and turned over power the next year to understudy dictator Sani Abacha.**)

Said state reorganization was not to the liking of Orkar et al, and the putsch broadcast accused Babangida of wanting to make himself into a president-for-life.

Intriguingly, the broadcast also proffered a strong regional critique of “the favoured class and their stooges” who were gobbling up “the supposedly national wealth derived in the main from the Middle Belt and the southern part of this country, while the people from these parts of the country have been completely deprived from benefiting from the resources given to them by God.”

Accordingly, the government of the abortive coup intended “a temporary decision to excise the following states namely, Sokoto, Borno, Katsina, Kano and Bauchi states from the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” Those states, at the time, constituted the entire northern band of Nigeria, which was also the stronghold of Islam in Nigeria. (Babangida was a Muslim, as was his successor.)

What “excision” of the northern states might have meant in practice was never realized, since Babangida escaped his would-be usurpers and prevailed when the sides fought it out over the course of April 22. One survivor of the coup later described the grievance in these words: “Anytime we went to the Hausa areas in the North, we were given Hausa and Islamic regalia and if you didn’t wear it, they would not be happy with you. It got to a stage that if you were in the Army, you have to speak Hausa.”

So, if inclined to cast a gimlet eye upon the inroads of sharia in those same northern states, one might view Orkar as some sort of prophet. He and his comrades certainly strike many as a nobler and more far-sighted clique than the usual “autocratic general” type.


On trial for their lives: from left to right, Capt. Harley Empere, Major Gideon Orkar, Capt. Perebo Dakolo, Lt. Cyril Ozoalor, Lt. Nicholas Odeh

Despite the fate of Orkar and others this date, some of the plotters managed to escape the country to a better fate. For instance, Major Saliba Mukoro fled to the United States, got advanced degrees in criminal justice, and was a Mississippi Valley State University professor prior to returning to run for a governorship in 2011. (He lost.)

* Amnesty International makes it (pdf) 42 on this date, including Orkar and nine other officers — plus 27 others executed on September 13. Most of the executed and some other casualties of the affair are enumerated here.

** Abacha is the guy who hanged Ogoni poet/activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Nigeria,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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1996: Richard Townes, Jr.

Add comment January 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1996, the executioners of Richard Townes, Jr., mucked about for 22 minutes looking for a vein before sticking the lethal injection needle into his foot. (Source)

The Vietnam veteran’s last words were murmured to the prison warden, an assertion of innocence in the execution-style murder of convenience store worker Virginia Goebel in 1985.

He didn’t have a lot of takers; even the de rigueur anti-death penalty protesters outside the prison were reportedly nowhere to be found.

Townes’s clemency push turned on a once common issue now largely passe: his trial jurors were concerned that the alternative “life” sentence might put the killer back on the street before his dotage. The panel asked the judge to clarify the matter, and in 1985, the judge wasn’t allowed to answer the question — even though the real answer was a reassuring “life means life.” In most jurisdictions, jurors are now entitled to know that information.

Once they got off the jury and found out the answer, two of Townes’s jurors regretted the death sentence sufficiently to sign affidavits opposing Townes’s execution.

“I would not have sentenced Mr. Townes to death had I known that a life sentence meant that he would have really served a life sentence and not been eligible for parole,” juror Ethel Keith said in an affidavit. “In fact, I do not believe any of the jurors would have sentenced him to die under those circumstances.” (Virginian-Pilot, Jan. 23, 1996)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Virginia

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1990: Dalton Prejean, cop-killing child

3 comments May 18th, 2010 Headsman

Just after midnight this date in 1990, Dalton Prejean was electrocuted in Louisiana for murdering state trooper Donald Cleveland.

A 17-year-old (at the time of the crime) black youth who tested just this side of mentally disabled, Prejean shot Cleveland during a traffic stop. (He was, at the time, just seven months out of a reform school stint he had served for murdering a taxi driver at the tender age of 14.)

It was a three-day trial with an all-white jury, and not much question as to Prejean’s culpability.

But as he neared the execution of that sentence, his youth and his limited candlepower loomed ever larger. They would generate worldwide attention with some heated rhetoric like this one from Amnesty International’s southern regional director:

“I doubt that in documented recent world history there is an execution” with “such a pile of reasons not to do it.”

The Louisiana board of pardons agreed — it recommended commutation — but Gov. Buddy Roemer did not.

Dalton Prejean’s was the first execution of a juvenile offender in the United States since the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that practice in the 1989 decision Stanford v. Kentucky. That decision was reversed in 2005, and minors are no longer eligible for death-sentencing in the U.S.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Louisiana,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1990: Farzad Bazoft, journalist

3 comments March 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1990, Iranian-born British journalist Farzad Bazoft was hanged at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison as an Israeli spy.

The 31-year-old Observer freelancer was in Iraq to cover post-war reconstruction when he caught wind of an explosion at a military factory and set off to investigate.

This sniffing about Iraq’s weapons programs was not the sort of journalism Iraqi dictator (and future fellow gallows-bird) Saddam Hussein had in mind when his government invited Bazoft.

Bazoft was nabbed (along with the British nurse who had accompanied him, Daphne Parish) with photographs and soil samples from the sensitive compound.

Held incommunicado for six weeks, Bazoft was trundled onto state TV on November 1, 1989 to confess to spying for Israel (video of that confession is available from this BBC story).

Bazoft’s companion, Daphne Parish, was released after a few months in prison. She wrote this out-of-print book about her experiences. (Review)

He was convicted of espionage in a one-day, in camera trial on March 10 and hanged five days later.

Many years and wars later, Bazoft’s Iraqi interrogator would tell Bazoft’s former Observer colleagues that the man “was obviously innocent,” but that his fate had been decided at the highest levels.*

A few months after Bazoft’s hanging, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and thereby transmogrified from a source of moderation in the region into the new Hitler, Bazoft’s execution naturally went onto the bill of attainder against Baghdad.

Like other Iraqi human rights abuses that became much bigger news only after Saddam became an official enemy, however, Bazoft’s fate exercised some of his defenders more in retrospect than it did in the moment.

Indeed, some British MPs openly endorsed the execution and some Fleet Street contrarians bucked the worldwide humanitarian appeal by publishing embarrassing information about Bazoft (he’d been to jail in Britain) leaked by British intelligence.

(Margaret Thatcher made the seemly applications for clemency, and the incident certainly strained the countries’ relationship. But the Tory government would later be embarrassed by revelations that, before and even after Bazoft’s hanging, it was pushing for closer trade relations and helping British firms skirt the law to ship Baghdad the weapons it would use against British troops in the coming Gulf War.)

* Bazoft is still honored by his former employer and his former colleagues, as well he might be. But the Observer‘s claim that it “proved” Bazoft’s innocence has to be taken with a grain of salt: apart from the de rigueur smoke-and-mirrors, plausible-deniability skein of the espionage game, the interrogator’s exculpatory statement was made by an obviously self-interested party to representatives of a power then occupying Iraq.

Although it’s a minority position subject to hot dispute, some people do believe that Bazoft was indeed a Mossad agent. Gordon Thomas, in Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad makes exactly that case.

Videotaped confession aside, Bazoft reputedly denied the espionage charge at the gallows.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Iraq,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1990: Pastor Hossein Soodmand, apostate

6 comments December 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1990, Hossein Soodmand, a Muslim who had converted to Christianity in the 1960’s, was hanged for apostasy under the sentence of a sharia court in Mashad, Iran — the last known apostasy execution in the Islamic Republic.

Soodmand’s post-conversion ministry in the Assembles of God church was not the sort of thing to endanger life and limb under the westward-looking Shah. But after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, there was a new sheriff in town.

Soodmand was not the last convicted or condemned for the crime — and converting to Christianity is still a crime — and his story has been back in the news of late because he may be in danger of losing his generation-long grip on the milestone.

In fact, he could lose the distinction to the next generation of his own flesh and blood.

The hanged pastor’s son, Ramtin Soodmand, was arrested in August, ostensibly for anti-government propaganda. But having followed his father’s evangelical footsteps, there was considerable fear — only slightly abated by his subsequent release on bail — that he could be put on trial for his life.

Amnesty International even put out an action alert for him during his detention, as a prisoner of conscience.

Around the same time, the Iranian legislature voted overwhelmingly for a measure to codify apostasy as a capital crime: confusingly, apostasy isn’t yet among the state’s statutes, but can be referred to sharia courts empowered to levy verdicts out of the Islamic religious tradition. (Besides Christians, Iran’s Baha’i are the other most likely defendants.)

The fact that these courts’ occasional death sentences since Soodmand have not been carried out is itself a telling indicator that the juridical disposition of apostasy cases in Iran is very sensitive to political pressure.

Small comfort to Ramtin’s sister Rashin Soodmand, who lives in London, and gave this moving interview to the Telegraph while her brother was still in a Mashad prison. In it, she describes her father spurning a bargain to abandon his illicit denomination in exchange for his life.

Of course, my father refused to give up his faith … He could not renounce his God. His belief in Christ was his life — it was his deepest conviction.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Hanged,Iran,Martyrs,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Notably Survived By,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines

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1990: Samuel K. Doe

19 comments September 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1990, deposed Liberian strongman Samuel Kanyon Doe was tortured and summarily executed in Monrovia by the putschists that overthrew him … and gruesomely filmed in the process.

Doe had come to power killing his predecessors — personally murdering, some sources say, President William Tolbert in 1980, then executing his chief aides.

That coup toppled civilian authority in the west African country now permanently prefixed with the adjective “troubled.” “The first of the monsters,” the War Nerd called him: Doe’s murderous rule through the 1980’s set up the succession of current war crimes prisoner Charles Taylor.

Samuel Doe’s turn in the obituaries arrived in particularly grisly fashion, with Taylor rival/semi-ally* Prince Johnson swilling beer as he interrogated — and ordered the ear sliced off — the groveling former head of state before having him executed. (Or if you like, just plain murdered.) The video shot of Doe’s ordeal became an international sensation … so it’s a little surprising that only this paltry excerpt seems to be readily available online:

* And current Liberian Senator! He feels just awful about the whole torturing-the-President-to-death thing.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Infamous,Liberia,No Formal Charge,Political Expedience,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture

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