1999: David Leisure, mob war veteran

Add comment September 1st, 2018 Headsman

Gangster David Leisure — not to be confused with the “Joe Isuzu” actor of the same name — was executed by lethal injection in Missouri on this date in 1999.

A rare real-life mafioso — perhaps the first executed in the United States since Murder, Inc. boss Louis “Lepke” Buchalter in 1944 — Leisure shattered the tense 19-day calm after St. Louis mob boss Anthony Giordano died in 1980.

What would the post-Giordano underworld look like? The Leisure family sized up 75-year-old James “Horseshoe Jimmy” Michaels Sr. as a rival to eliminate for reasons both personal and professional. Paulie Leisure, his brother Anthony, and their cousin, our man David Leisure, already held Michaels responsible for permitting the murder of another family member in 1964. But as a more direct inducement, Michaels purposed to wrest control of a mobbed-up union from the Leisures.

On September 17, under Paulie’s orders, David Leisure and Anthony Leisure tailed Michaels onto Interstate 55, where by remote control they detonated a bomb they’d attached to the undercarriage of their enemy’s Chrysler Cordoba.

A nationally known gangland war ensued, nicknamed the “Syrian-Lebanese War” — not in tribute to world news but because mobsters of Levantine descent were a principal St. Louis crime faction, and it was for primacy among them that the Michaels and Leisure circles murdered one another. The next year, Paulie Leisure lost his legs to a retaliatory bomb, which in turn led the Leisures to kill Michaels’s grandson, and on and on.

By 1983, FBI informants had brought all our Leisure characters under indictment. David Leisure already had lengthy prison sentences for racketeering and for a different car bomb murder by the time the Show Me State was ready to prosecute the Michaels murder. Paul Leisure never got the death penalty but he died in federal prison a few months after his cousin’s execution. The St. Louis mafia has been said to be reduced by the present day to little more than a social club for aging wiseguys from a bygone world.

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

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1999: Dobie Gillis Williams

Add comment January 8th, 2018 Headsman

Dobie Gillis Williams was executed by Louisiana on this date in 1999.

Sister Helen Prejean, the Louisiana nun of Dead Man Walking fame, ministered to Williams on death row and became convinced of his innocence — a perspective she argues forcefully in another book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.*

Sister Helen has been accused of overstating her argument here; certainly the state was able to develop a number of incriminating circumstances, like Williams’s observed absence from his home just a half-mile from the murder and abrasions that speculatively could have been incurred shimmying out the small bathroom window. The best forensic evidence was blood at the scene matched by type to Dobie Williams, although blood was oddly absent from the purported murder weapon dropped outside of Sonja Knippers’s Sabine Parish home one summer night in 1984.

Home on a prison furlough, Williams profiled as a central casting suspect and his un-recorded confession late that night would cinch the case. Williams’s attorneys throughout his 14-plus-year legal odyssey suggested that the borderline developmentally disabled Williams might have been manipulated into a false confession, a factor that today is today increasingly understood as a frequent contributor to wrongful convictions. What Helen Prejean wrote about back in 2005 of the possible dynamic could certainly be read as special pleading but her understanding of the interrogation as an event of collaborative storytelling full of subtle back-and-forth cues ran well ahead of the general public’s.

Dobie’s defense attorney, Michael Bonnette, in his cross-examination of the officers, pressed them on the way the confession had been obtained, taking Dobie in the middle of the night and questioning him over and over, feeding him information. Bonnette did get the officers to acknowledge two crucial pieces of information about the crime they had relayed to Dobie — that the victim had been stabbed and that the crime had taken place in the bathroom. Perhaps they had also pieced things together for him: If there was a stabbing, there had to be a knife — so where was the knife? And how did he enter and leave the apartment? Didn’t he leave through the bathroom window? Didn’t it have to be the bathroom window, since that was what Mr. Knippers reported his dying wife had said?

Coming up on two decades gone, Dobie Gillis Williams’s case isn’t widely remembered these days; the Death Penalty Information Center doesn’t even name him on its “Executed but Possibly Innocent” page.

The likely reason is that Williams had a November 1998 execution date stayed so that DNA tests could be attempted on the bathroom curtains, the ones that had yielded the blood type match at the time of the trial — and the tested sample reportedly matched Williams. Helen Prejean is sticking to her guns; she explains why she doubts the lab’s conclusions here.

On this day..

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

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1999: Gary Heidnik, serial kidnapper

Add comment July 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Gary Heidnik was executed in Pennsylvania for a horrific spree that saw him kidnap five African-American women to a makeshift torture dungeon in his Philadelphia basement.

Intelligent but socially maladroit and diagnosed from his youthful U.S. Army service as mentally ill, Heidnik gave a preview of his later notoriety by signing his girlfriend’s sister out of a mental hospital in 1978 and locking her up in his basement to rape. He spent most of his resulting sentence in a mental institution of his own, refusing even to speak for two-plus years after claiming in 1980 that Satan had stopped up his throat.

Afflictions of the infernal and the criminal justice variety somehow failed to impede the growth of Heidnik’s personal sham church and tax dodge, the “United Church of the Ministers of God” from piling up a half-million in assets operating from the mid-1970s until Heidnik’s last arrest in 1987.

Heidnik got out of detention for the 1978 kidnap-rape in 1983. After a short mail-order marriage to a Filipina woman who ditched him in 1986 for beating and raping her, he finally went full Gary Heidnik.

On November 25, 1986, Heidnik authored the first of the abductions that would etch his name in serial killer lore, snatching Josefina Rivera and imprisoning her in the cellar of his house at 3520 North Marshall Street. (Rivera recently published an autobiographical account of her captivity.)

For the next five months, Heidnik’s underdark played host to its owner’s unspeakable depravities. Five women he kept there for various periods, shackled to pipes and subject to the gratifications of his violent sexual predilections. One woman, Sandra Lindsay, died of the maltreatment, leading to Heidnik’s closest accidental brush with the law: the stench of incinerating pieces of her dismembered corpse in his oven attracted the complaints of neighbors. Heidnik coolly shooed away the responding police officers with a story about burning the roast.

His prison’s most distinctive chilling feature was a tomblike hole handy for punishing resistance; a second woman, Deborah Dudley, died when Heidnik flooded and electrocuted this crevasse with her in it.

Considering the diabolically systematic nature of the torture dungeon, it’s actually a lucky job that it didn’t go on much, much longer. Remarkably, Heidnik’s last kidnap victim Agnes Adams was able to talk her way into a spot of temporary leave which she naturally used to summon disbelieving police and arrest Heidnik on March 23, 1987.

Once exposed to public view the Marshall Street monster could scarcely fail to leave a cultural impression. Among other things, Heidnik is one of several serial killers on whom Thomas Harris based the fictional murderer “Buffalo Bill” in his 1988 novel Silence of the Lambs.

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1999: Leo Echegaray, by lethal injection in the Philippines

1 comment February 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1999, the Philippines resumed executions after 23 years with its first-ever lethal injection.

Judicial executions had ceased during the Marcos dictatorship’s martial law period — extrajudicial killings were another story — and formally all but abolished after Marcos fell in 1986.

But rampant crime made an execution comeback a potent political issue that helped to carry Fidel Ramos* to the presidency in 1992. The revival would bring along the latest upgrades in killing-people technology: whereas the Philippines had previously used the electric chair, a holdover from its former colonial domination by the United States, it now followed America’s footsteps in preferring the sanitized experience of lethal injection.

Leo Echegaray, destined to become the first person to meet such a fate in the Philippines, was a house painter convicted of raping his daughter or stepdaughter. (Despite Rodessa’s surname, her mother and Leo never married. Rodessa Echegaray’s uncertain biological parentage was at issue in the case, as to the question of whether the rape could be said to be incestuous: rape committed by a father was a specific subcategory of rape under the law uniquely eligible for the maximum penalty.)

The Supreme Court had no interest in parsing DNA, finding that the parenthood “disclaimer cannot save him from the abyss where perpetrators of heinous crimes ought to be.”

“The victim’s tender age and the accused-appellant’s moral ascendancy and influence over her are factors which forced Rodessa to succumb to the accused’s selfish and bestial craving,” it ruled. “The law has made it inevitable under the circumstances of this case that the accused-appellant face the supreme penalty of death.”

That was in 1996. By the time Echegaray came to the actual end of his appeals cycle, Ramos had given way to the mercurial Joseph Estrada. A former actor, Estrada put his showmanship to use by having his telephone hotline to the prison disconnected prior to Echegaray’s execution to underscore his resolve not to entertain any 11th-hour commutation.

The 11th hour was of intense interest to everyone else. The supposedly secret time and circumstances of Echegaray’s move to the death house was leaked and resulted in a circus scene as the doomed prisoner, Bible in hand and “Execute Justice, Not People” pinned his orange prison jumpsuit, pushed through a raucous crowd of journalists to a van waiting to drive him to New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa for his milestone date. The undignified “execution fiesta” continued hours later in the official witness room, where media jostled for the best seats, and even to Echegaray’s last rest as reporters hounded the hearse and beyond. (Actual example: “I’m here at the funeral parlor and I’m holding Leo’s leg. It’s a bit warm and it looks like he is only sleeping.”)

Once the death chamber’s seal was cracked, it saw steady traffic: Six other people suffered execution in the Philippines during the ensuing 12 months. Then, as abruptly as capital punishment had returned to the Philippines, it blinked away.

Whether pricked by his conscience or by the political resistance of the Vatican, Estrada’s flamboyant resolve appeared to waver after Echegaray’s execution, even leading to one appalling occasion where he tried frantically to call in a last-second stay for another man but couldn’t get through until the execution was underway. Estrada finally suspended executions once again in March 2000 to honor the millenial Jubilee of Christ‘s birth. Estrada himself didn’t last much longer after that moratorium expired, and his successor President Gloria Arroyo also finalized no death sentences during her term — until in 2006 Arroyo signed repeal legislation and commuted all 1,230 existing death sentences.

* Ramos had formerly been a Philippines Constabulary officer, and in that capacity been personally present at the televised 1973 execution of heroin kingpin Lim Seng.

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1999: Sean Sellers

Add comment February 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Sean Sellers became the last person put to death in the U.S. for a crime committed at the age of 16.

Sellers was just four months into his 17th year when he shot dead an Oklahoma City convenience store clerk in a haze of adolescent angst.

“When I was that person, that murderer, I felt superior,” he later wrote in a confession. “I looked down on people with the secret knowledge that I had killed and was capable of killing them too. When I was not that person I was just a confused teenager, going to school, working, learning to drive, still full of anger, and counting the days when I’d be 18 so I could move OUT of that house.”

Six months later, he moved OUT for good by killing his mother and stepfather as they slept. This killing did not stay secret.

The U.S. at the time still allowed the execution of juvenile offenders, a practice that was barred by the Supreme Court only six years after Sellers died.

But on trial for having avowedly killed as “an offering to Satan” during the height of the 1980s’ bizarre devil-worship panic, his age barely figured at all. A cash-strapped public defender tried to argue that he was possessed; later, a defense psychiatrist claimed that Sellers suffered from multiple personality disorder. It’s safe to say the young man wasn’t right in the head at some level, but this sort of thing is juridical grasping at straws.

Sellers later converted to Christianity, but this conversion wouldn’t help him any more than it had helped Karla Faye Tucker the year before. In Sellers’ case, quite a lot of people thought it was all more or less a scam — the manipulative killer’s ploy to avoid the needle.

One footnote to the much-hyped Satanism angle was the teenage Sellers’ interest in Dungeons & Dragons. (Just him and a few million other people.)

Once mainstream enough to have its own cartoon, the popular role-playing game came under hysterical fundamentalist Christian attack during the Reagan years as Lucifer’s very own sport, the gateway drug to erosion of family values and situational ethics.


(via)

A guy like Sean Sellers magic missile-ing a beholder one day and then wasting his parents the next — that was pretty much the Platonic ideal of the anti-D&D campaign. People magazine said the hobby “fueled his darkening fantasies”. (For his part, Sellers disputed the connection.)

Although this sort of thing looks pretty laughable, there are still some authorities who fail their saving throw against dumb when it comes to the infernal pastime.


Haven’t they seen the after-school special?

As an aside, this “rant” (author’s word) from a man whose ex-wife became involved in the Sellers clemency campaign is a pretty interesting snapshot of the prisoner himself, and of the relationships in close proximity to him.

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

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1999: Recak Massacre

2 comments January 15th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1999, Serbian militants killed approximately 40 to 45 Kosovo Albanians near the village of Reçak in Kosovo. The victims allegedly included a twelve-year-old boy and at least one woman.

Depending on who you listened to, it was either a massacre against innocent civilians, or a military action against guerillas.

The New Kosova Report, adopting the former point of view, summarizes in a 2008 article:

In the early morning of 15 January, 1999, forces from Serbian Interior Ministry (MUP) and Yugoslav Army (VJ) moved into the village with tanks and began to shoot at houses sheltering civilians. After ransacking all the houses, they gathered 28 Albanian men and boys and ordered them to head towards a hill outside the village for questioning. There they were sprayed with machine guns and 23 of them died. Only five survived by pretending they were dead. Another 22 people were shot and/or decapitated at different places in the village. Some in a ravine behind the village, while others in front of their houses.

A local villager named Shefqet Avida gave photographer and BBC Radio reporter Melanie Friend an account which was later quoted in Friend’s book No Place Like Home: Echoes from Kosovo.

Policemen — Serbs — were hiding here, expecting them. I heard the Serbs saying, “Anyone under fifteen years old, don’t touch, but upwards of sixteen or seventeen years old, just kill them …” The people, when they were captured here, were made to stay in line, and every one of them was shot, and after that with a … very nice knife … they took eyes from the faces and hearts from the chest, and the Serbs later said, “That’s not true, we didn’t do that,” the mice, they’d eaten them. […]

Serbian police were shooting until four or five in the afternoon. When the observers arrived in the morning, we went with them to see the place where the people were murdered. Three of us stayed here all night to guard the bodies. […] Thirteen members of my family were killed there.

The Serbs denied having murdered civilians and claimed all those killed were all Kosovo Liberation Army fighters, shot during a skirmish with Serbian forces. To this day, many maintain the entire thing was staged, a hoax set up by the KLA in order to get support for their side.

Trying to sort the matter out, the European Union dispatched forensic experts to the scene from Finland. Helena Ranta, one of the experts, concluded that “There were no indications of the people being other than unarmed civilians.” When her opinion was broadcast in a press release, many mistook it for being the opinion of the entire group of scientists.

The Finns’ official report, however, has never been released. Dr. Ranta, a forensic dentist, later accused officials from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of pressuring her to go against the Serbs.

Yugoslav and Belarusian scientists also examined the bodies and said they believed all the dead were KLA combatants. In response, critics blasted them for using allegedly out-of-date and unscientific testing methods.

News of the killings made headlines all over the world and incited NATO to finally get involved in the war. A couple of years later, Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Miloševic was brought up on war crimes charges; ordering the Reçak killings was one of them. It was later removed from the indictment for lack of evidence, however. (Miloševic died before his trial was concluded.)

In 2001, a Kosovo Serb police officer was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for participating in the killings. Outside observers, including the United Nations and Amnesty International, criticized the trial proceedings, accusing the Kosovo war crimes tribunal of ethnic bias and politically motivated decision-making. As of this writing, no one else has been called to account for what happened in Reçak.

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1999: James Beathard, on the word of a known liar

Add comment December 9th, 2011 Mary OGrady

(Thanks to Mary O’Grady for the guest post. -ed.)

Murder is not a common occurrence in Trinity County, Texas. The shotgunning of three members of the Hathorn family in their trailer home on the evening of October 9, 1984 remains notorious, even among locals who were not yet born on the date of the crime.

Clues scattered at the crime scene, African-American human hairs and Kool cigarette butts, were supposed to convince authorities that a certain sort of suspect had killed Gene Hathorn, Sr., his wife Linda Hathorn, and their teenaged son Marcus Hathorn. Mr. Hathorn’s recent receipt of a $150,000 property settlement and his recent disputes with his elder son, Gene Hathorn, Jr., led law enforcement in a different direction. Less than one month after the bodies were found, Gene Hathorn, Jr., and his running buddy James Lee Beathard faced charges of capital murder.

Prosecutors developed evidence that Gene Hathorn, Jr., hatched the plot to kill his family in order to inherit his father’s new wealth. It seems he was unaware that his father had formally disinherited him three weeks before he was murdered.

James Beathard was first to stand trial.

Called to the witness stand by District Attorney Joe Price, Gene Hathorn, Jr., testified against Beathard, to devastating effect. Hathorn claimed that Beathard entered the trailer, killed all three victims, and planted the false clues, while he himself fired only one shot through a window. Beathard was sent to death row.

When the younger Hathorn was brought to trial, District Attorney Price reversed his theory from Beathard’s trial, depicting Hathorn as the “inside man” and the strategist who believed he had concocted the perfect crime. Gene Hathorn, Jr., joined James Lee Beathard on Texas’s death row. Hathorn recanted his testimony against Beathard. No appeals court took notice.

In the mid-1980s, Texas’s male death row occupied part of the aging, red brick and steel Ellis I prison unit outside Huntsville. For prisoners such as James Beathard and Gene Hathorn who conformed themselves to the rules, a considerable amount of communication with other prisoners and with the outside world remained possible. Each of these sons of East Texas soon found himself editor of a death row periodical, the Lamp of Hope in Hathorn’s case and the Texas Death Row Journal for Beathard. Over the years, Beathard emerged as a prolific letter-writer and essayist, publishing a brief nonfiction piece describing life on death row in the British Guardian Weekly in August, 1996.

Beathard’s talent as a correspondent won him considerable sympathy during his fourteen years on death row. As they exchanged letters, American playwright Bruce Graham fictionalized Beathard in his short play, Coyote on a Fence.

James Beathard’s intelligence and powers of articulation were unusual among death row prisoners. Since he could be trusted to exit and re-enter his cell with no fuss and to refrain from blithering forth psychotic delusions, he was sometimes trotted out when prison authorities needed a condemned man to meet the press.

James Beathard’s appeals ran out at last in 1999. He was executed, still protesting his innocence, on December 9th of that year.

His partner in crime, Gene Hathorn, Jr., won an appeal in 2009 based on his trial attorney’s failure to introduce evidence of his father’s abuse of him in childhood. He is now serving consecutive life sentences, reportedly working as a prison cook in general population.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Lethal Injection,Murder,Other Voices,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1999: Chen Chin-hsing, Taiwan’s most notorious criminal

10 comments October 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Taiwan put to death a man who, as the Reuters story about his case led it, “shook public confidence in law and government with the kidnap-murder of a TV celebrity’s daughter and a string of subsequent gun battles, killings, rapes and a hostage drama.”

Dramatic enough for you?

This operatic crime spree was the work of three men, Chen Chin-hsing, Lin Chun-sheng, and Kao Tien-min.

They punched their ticket to popular infamy when they snatched 16-year-old schoolgirl Pai Hsiao-yen in New Taipei City on April 14, 1997.

Her family received terrifying photos of the girl stripped naked and bound, a severed pinkie finger, and a demand for $5 million U.S. And they were in a position to get it, because Pai’s mother was celebrity singer and TV personality Pai Ping-ping. (Alternatively: Bai Bing-bing.)

However, despite multiple attempts to drop the ransom, the kidnappers kept not showing up, and the captive, who’d been brutalized and raped during her captivity, was eventually murdered and dumped in a drainage ditch.

Pai Hsiao-yen’s murder not only captivated media but crystallized public backlash against politicians and police who showed as ineffective in the midst of a massive crime wave. It helped cave in the government of Taiwan’s first democratically elected president.

The criminals themselves magnified the case by drawing out the initial public horror into a seven-month drama as they eluded police manhunts. At one point, they forced a plastic surgeon at gunpoint to alter their appearances, then murdered him after he was finished.

Chen Chin-hsing was finally captured (after the other two had judiciously committed suicide when about to be apprehended) after a televised standoff wherein Chen gave self-valorizing media interviews while holding a South African ambassador’s family hostage.

All this made Chen a dead man, and few in the Republic of China much pitied the serial rapist and spree killer’s fate of taking a magazine of automatic rifle ammunition in the chest. (Several others in this dreadful affair also got non-capital sentences for various forms of aiding and abetting.)

It also made Pai Ping-ping into a tough-on-crime social activist. Taiwan’s death penalty has been in the news recently with the government’s admission that it executed an innocent man in an unrelated case. Pai vehemently opposes the resulting abolition efforts that other case has helped along; in 2010, she helped to break a 52-month death penalty moratorium and force a resumption in executions when she threatened to commit suicide if Taiwan went through with abolition. That would be operatic indeed.

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1999: Double execution in Arkansas

2 comments September 8th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Arkansas went retro with the double execution of Mark Gardner and Alan Willett.

Time was that the multiple-execution format was one of the standard guises of capital punishment in America as elsewhere in the Anglo world back to the Tyburn tree and well before.

Not uncommonly a party of malefactors — like the Lincoln assassination conspirators, the Rosenbergs, or Sacco and Vanzetti — would all get their deserts together, symbolically tying up the crime. So too the convenience of the state, or its interest in an impressive show of force, could put together a group hanging just for the whole effect.

The scaffold scaled up easily, of course, but even some more modern devices — like the two-seater California gas chamber — were constructed with committee sessions in mind.

For whatever reason, Arkansas really cottoned to this format in the Nineties. It carried out a double execution on May 11, 1994, and two separate triple executions on August 3, 1994 and January 8, 1997. Volume packages account for nearly half of the 21 Arkansan executions in that decade.*

But the operational efficiency of killing people in multiples inevitably bowed in the more deliberate modern era to the overriding inefficiency of its supporting judicial process. Rare would be the day — especially for a smaller state like Arkansas — when more than one prisoner exhausted remedies at the same time, even if they’d begun their legal journey as parties to the same crime.

In this late degenerate age, whatever rationales may once have existed for group executions have faded well away. The double execution this date in 1999 was at best a minor public relations flourish, and there wasn’t any symbolic import at all. The two culprits were completely unconnected:

  • Mark Gardner, a career criminal out on parole who had slaughtered a family in order to rape their daughter and steal their valuables (last meal: fried shrimp, grilled salmon, garden salad, and chocolate cake with a Coke);**
  • Alan Willett, a guy who killed his own son and mentally impaired brother, then dropped appeals to volunteer for execution (last meal: beef jerky, barbecue-flavored potato chips, onion dip, garlic dip, buttered popcorn, and Pepsi)

The volunteer aspect helped make the twofer scheduling happen, but to what end? A “double execution” here really means two individual executions back-to-back, each one with its own witness room, its own set of last-minute appeals, its own dose of poison. So why bother coordinating execution dates when there are already so many other moving pieces in the machinery of death? It’s just bad engineering

So this date’s exercise was the last multiple execution in the United States save one. In 2000, the absolute high-water mark for execution pace in the country’s busiest death chamber, Texas injected Oliver Cruz and Brian Robertson on the same day, Aug. 9. That’s the last multiple-execution to date in the U.S.

Arkansas actually made a bid to conduct another one in 2004. Condemned prisoner Karl Roberts, like Willett a volunteer, picked up his appeals at the last moment and remains on death row to this day; the state had to settle for one out of two.

* All these dates and figures per the Death Penalty Information Center’s handy searchable executions database.

** Gardner piously anticipated “a never-ending feast” at “the Lord’s supper” in his last statement, but his worldly appetites were less transcendental. He was accused of rape by his neighbor on death row: Damien Echols.

Echols was one of the West Memphis Three convicted for a supposedly occult triple homicide during the late gasps of America’s infantile Satanism panic. This case became a cause celebre (literally so: Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and other glitterati were among his vocal supporters), and the convictions were debunked to such an extent that Echols and his two friends (both serving prison terms) were all released earlier this year.

Echols is not offically “exonerated” since ass-covering prosecutors negotiated an Alford plea as the price of his liberty. He remains a convicted killer in the eyes of the state and among some holdout defenders of the original verdict. This polarizing case is the subject of the HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and its sequel Paradise Lost 2. A third installment of the series is in post-production as of this writing.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Volunteers

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1999: Andrew Kokoraleis, the last ever in Illinois?

6 comments March 17th, 2011 Headsman

There was certainly no cause when killer Andrew Kokoraleis suffered lethal injection at 12:34 this afternoon to suppose that his would be the last execution in the illustrious history of Illinois.

Against all odds, however, it was the last.

Illinois has had plenty of poster boys for death penalty foes — Rolando Cruz; the Ford Heights Four — but Andrew Kokoraleis was hardly among them.

As a member of a satanic murder cult branded the Ripper Crew, he’d participated in abducting, raping, mutilating, murdering, and cannibalizing prostitutes under the charismatic sway of one Robin Gecht.*

The exploits of Gecht, Edward Spreitzer, and brothers Andrew and Thomas Kokoraleis in the Dark Lord’s services are nauseatingly recounted at trutv.com and the spellbinding true-crime book Deadly Thrills.

By the time Andrew Kokoraleis’s appeals had wended their way through the courts, it was high tide for capital punishment in the United States: a modern record 98 executions were carried out in 1999; a Texas governor best-known to the general public for his prodigious execution output was lining up the White House bid that would hurl America into much deadlier pastimes; a law stripping condemned prisoners of federal appellate avenues had just been passed with overwhelming support. Even liberal Democrats dared not touch the divisive issue of capital punishment for fear of appearing soft on crime.

Though sub-Texan in its gurney output, the Land of Lincoln was cranking out a consistent 1 to 2 executions per year in the late 1990’s. It had just inaugurated a Republican governor who as a lawmaker had voted to reinstitute that state’s death penalty statute. Illinois held well over 100 death row prisoners, including one of Kokoraleis’s own confederates from the Ripper Crew.

So the 21st century figured to present an ample harvest for the Illinois death chamber.

Even as Ryan’s graft-plagued term was beginning, however, the executioner’s swan song was underway.

Just days into Ryan’s term, a man named Anthony Porter, who had avoided execution by the narrowest of margins the year before, walked out of Illinois death row a free man — exonerated by the efforts of a Northwestern University journalism class.

“I turned to my wife, and I said, how the hell does that happen? How does an innocent man sit on death row for 15 years and gets no relief? And that piqued my interest, Anthony Porter.”

-George Ryan

Ryan okayed the execution of Kokoraleis six weeks later, but the piqued governor would soon impose an executive moratorium on further executions.

Ryan’s personal journey on the death penalty during his four years in the governor’s office, as linked to his state’s journey over the past decades, must be one of the rare operatic sagas in modern American political life.

Days before he left office (bound for trial on federal corruption charges, and thence to prison), George Ryan emptied death row in Illinois — including a commutation to Ripper Crew member Edward Spreitzer.

Because our three year study has found only more questions about the fairness of the sentencing; because of the spectacular failure to reform the system; because we have seen justice delayed for countless death row inmates with potentially meritorious claims; because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious – and therefore immoral – I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.

I cannot say it more eloquently than Justice Blackmun.

The legislature couldn’t reform it.

Lawmakers won’t repeal it.

But I will not stand for it.

I must act.

Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error, error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.

This move drew plenty of criticism, but the George Ryan death penalty moratorium persisted through the terms of his successors.

Finally, legislators did repeal it.

Early in 2011, longstanding efforts to push that moratorium into formal abolition finally bore fruit in the state legislature. After a protracted silence on the matter, Gov. Pat Quinn** finally — just eight days ago as of this posting — signed that legislation into law, simultaneously commuting all the state’s then-existing death sentences.

Naturally, no government can bind its successors, and laws eliminated today might be reinstated tomorrow. But for now and for the foreseeable future, this date in 1999 marks the final destination not just for Andrew Kokoraleis — but for the Illinois executioner.

* To magnify this troupe’s outsized crime-tabloid appeal, Gecht, the leader, had actually worked for legendary serial sex-killer John Wayne Gacy.

** In earlier years, Quinn was a political rival of George Ryan.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Illinois,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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