2003: Scott Hain, the last juvenile offender executed in the United States

7 comments April 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 2003, the state of Oklahoma executed Scott Hain for a Tulsa carjacking that netted $565 and two dead bodies.

The Hain that was strapped down on the gurney that evening was a 32-year-old with a nebbishy middle manager look, high forehead pursuing his hairline to the scalp’s horizon where it had drawn up a wilting rearguard picket fringing an egg-bald pate.

But back in 1987 when he stuffed Laura Lee Sanders and Michael Houghton into the boot of their own car and set it ablaze, Scott Hain was 17 years, 4 months, and 4 days of age.

American jurisprudence through the ages has regularly compassed the execution of minors, sometimes astonishingly young ones. But come the late 20th century the still-ongoing execution of a few men (they were all men) for crimes they had committed when still only boys was a deeply contentious subplot of the death penalty drama.

Because of the protracted judicial processes, there was no longer any question at this point of boosting wispy teenagers into electric chairs as South Carolina had done in 1944. The Scott Hains of the world were grown men by the time they died: grown up on death row.

They were, to be sure, nearly men when they killed as well.

The prevailing jurisprudence at this point was the 1989 Supreme Court decision Stanford v. Kentucky, which set the minimum age for death penalty eligibility at 16.*

And so 17- and even sometimes 16-year-old offenders not considered equal to adult responsibility** in most other spheres of life continued to face the executioner through the 1990s and into the 21st century, a period when the death penalty itself picked up steam.

This became an increasingly awkward situation. For one thing, it placed the United States internationally among a very small handful of countries with unsavory human rights records. Maybe it was a matter of the raw numbers; on the day Stanford came down, the United States had executed only 114 people in its “modern” era, and just three of them were juvenile offenders. For the 1990s, there would be an average of 48 executions every single year, and (again on average) one of those would be a juvenile offender.

But even as the numbers grew, only 20 of the 38 death penalty states permitted such executions, and only three states — Virginia, Texas, and Hain’s Oklahoma — actually conducted any such executions at all after 1993.

Foes argued over those years that the diminishing scope of the juvenile death penalty reflected an emerging national consensus against it — which could in turn be held to create a constitutional prohibition under the 8th Amendment’s proscription of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Most of the death-sentenced juveniles made similar arguments in the course of their appeals, hoping to be the case that would catch the conscience of the court. Hain’s appellate team made this argument, too. It didn’t take, like it didn’t for any of the others who tried it.

Except, it was taking. Those evolving standards of decency were about to evolve right past a tipping point: in 2004, the justices accepted a new case from Missouri that placed the juvenile death penalty question before it once more.

The nine-member high court’s inconstant swing vote Anthony Kennedy — who had once upon a time (call it a youthful indiscretion) voted with the majority in Stanford to permit juvenile executions — wrote the resulting 2005 decision Roper v. Simmons, barring the execution of juvenile offenders in the United States.†

Scott Hain remains the last person executed in the United States for a crime committed in his childhood.

* The bright-line court ruling was necessary because states had indeed death-sentenced even younger teenagers. For example, Paula Cooper was condemned to death by an Indiana jury for a murder committed at age 15; her sentence was commuted to a prison term, and she was eventually released in 2013. The victim’s grandson, Bill Pelke, notably supported Cooper and has become a leading anti-death penalty activist in the intervening years.

** The notion of age 18 as the age of majority predominates worldwide, but is of course as arbitrary as any other, and has not been the threshold selected in all times and places. The Austrian empire declined to execute Gavrilo Princip for assassinating Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 and precipitating World War I because it could not establish that he had reached the age of 20 when he did so.

† Among the notable cases affected was that of Lee Boyd Malvo, the underaged collaborator of Beltway sniper John Muhammad. Malvo was being considered for capital charges in Virginia at the time Roper came down.

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2001: Willie ‘Ervin’ Fisher, traveling man

4 comments March 9th, 2014 Headsman

(Thanks to John S. Carbone of Alienists Compendium. Dr. Carbone is also the Director of Mental Health Services and Chief of Forensic Psychiatry for the North Carolina prison system.)

On this date in 2001, Willie ‘Ervin’ Fisher, aged 39, was put to death by lethal injection at North Carolina’s Central Prison in Raleigh.

His was a forgettable if lamentable crime were it not for the changes to the state’s administrative code that his passing — nay, his post-mortem travels — effected.

Fisher at first invoked that time-tested excuse of addling by drugs and alcohol as exculpation for the slaying of April 2nd 1992.

He admitted from the time of arrest to the murder of Angela Johnson, his on-again, off-again girlfriend, during a domestic altercation that was witnessed by many as it spilled outside to a parking lot for its finale by knife and broken broomstick.

Interestingly, Fisher had no prior felony arrests, and when he was deemed able to have formed the specific intent necessary for first-degree murder, that other time-tested excuse — ineffective counsel — was raised with equal futility. Throughout, however, prison officials described him as a ‘model prisoner’ on death row, one who received nary a single disciplinary charge in the decade he was incarcerated. And though he later abandoned the pretense of chemical sway and accepted full personal responsibility in a videotaped appeal for clemency to the governor, his pleas fell on deaf ears.

Fisher gave a brief last statement on the evening of his demise, and was pronounced dead after 9:00 p.m. His earthly remains were then transported across town to the medical examiners’ office.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

The decedent’s sister, Sally Fisher, was at that time the deputy registrar of vital records for the Forsyth County (NC) Health Department, and as such was familiar with then-existing rules pertaining to the handling and transportation of dead bodies. Ms Fisher later recounted that “I just got up that [next] morning and said, ‘we might as well [bring] Ervin home’…. I just wanted to be close to him for a while.”

So Ms Fisher, her sister, and her niece piled in the latter’s SUV and drove to Raleigh at 6:00 a.m. on the 10th to claim the corpse. At first, the medical examiner balked at releasing the body thusly, but Ms. Fisher was versed in statute and code, and after a number of frantic phone calls for guidance, the ME had no choice but to turn Fisher’s remains over to his family.

Then, with the help of an employee of the ME’s office, the four struggled to wedge Fisher’s by-then-stiff corpus into the back of the SUV. Fisher had to be placed recumbent as he wouldn’t sit up straight. Ms. Fisher and her sister got in the back seat and talked with the departed while the niece drove the 100 miles west on Interstate 40 to Winston-Salem and the family residence.

Though it was only early March, Fisher’s family turned on the air conditioning inside the SUV — to the highest setting.

En route, they stopped at least once for sodas and to make phone calls to family and friends to let them know that Fisher was headed home, and that everyone should come to visit upon his arrival. There was a brief and impromptu reunion of sorts held in the front yard when the travelers reached the family’s residence. This was followed by a meandering drive around town to visit old haunts (pun fully intended) before eventually reaching the funeral parlor.

Word traveled fast, and it wasn’t many hours before a local television station in Winston-Salem had called the warden at Central Prison for comment regarding the inmate of whom he had overseen the execution mere hours before who was nevertheless now cruising out west with crowds forming to wave at him.

Some said that the family fetched Fisher to save expenses. The Department of Correction, though, was authorized to provide up to $300 to indigents for burial costs if a letter were received from a funeral home … and no such letter had been received. Ms. Fisher herself later said that money had nothing to do with the decision. “To me, it was … closure. For ten years, I was talking to him through glass and couldn’t touch him. That was my brother. He was the baby…. Bringing him back home helped me out.”

And in what may be Ervin Fisher’s lasting legacy, it is now mandated by amended state administrative code that only a hearse from a licensed funeral home can take possession of the dead at the medical examiner’s office.

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2009: Abdullah Saleh Al-Kohali

Add comment March 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 2009, Yemen police executed Abdullah Saleh Al-Kohali for machine-gunning a mosque at Bait al-Aqari village.

Despite what one might assume, Al-Kohali wasn’t a terrorist.

No, he was after a fellow clan member named Belal Al-Kohali over an affair of honor.

“He got my sister pregnant three times,” the killer complained to the court.

He did indeed manage to kill Belal Al-Kohali during weekly prayers … along with five other people who died on the spot, and four more besides them mortally wounded who later succumbed to their injuries.

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2004: Yang Xinhai, Monster Killer

1 comment February 14th, 2014 Headsman

When I killed people I had a desire. This inspired me to kill more. I don’t care whether they deserve to live or not. It is none of my concern…I have no desire to be part of society. Society is not my concern.

-Yang Xinhai

On this date in 2004, China executed one of its most prolific serial killers ever.

Yang Xinhai was an impoverished migrant worker with previous theft and rape convictions already to his name when he commenced his infamous spree in 1999.

Over the ensuing four years the so-called “Monster Killer” amassed 67 murders and 23 rapes via terrifyingly bold home invasions: he would break into rural occupied rural dwellings under cover of darkness wielding a heavy iron hammer or similar slasher-villain melee weapon, and then just go to town.

“He didn’t leave survivors, and more than a few families were exterminated by his hand,” one newspaper report described. (In fact, about five people are known to have survived Yang’s various attacks.)

The last of his slayings — eight people in two different attacks in Hebei Province villages — occurred a bare six months before Yang himself caught a bullet to the back of his end. A routine police stop in November 2003 made him a little too shifty and prompted beat cops to detain him. Almost immediately the diabolical character of their new capture spilled out.

Yang himself didn’t see the point in resisting the inevitable. He provided a full confession, didn’t bother to defend himself in an hour-long trial on February 1, 2004, and declined to mount any sort of appeal to prevent his swift execution 13 days after that.

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2000: Spencer Corey Goodman

Add comment January 18th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 2000, music producer Bill Ham — noted as the manager of ZZ Top — settled into the witness booth at Huntsville to watch Spencer Corey Goodman suffer lethal injection for the murder of Ham’s wife.

“Minutes before the execution, a witness turned to” Ham, one paper reported, “and asked how he was doing. ‘Great,’ Ham replied.

Ham’s wife Cecile, 48, left her Houston residence on July 2, 1991, and never returned. Five weeks later, her red Cadillac led Eagle County, Colo. deputies on a 32-mile high-speed chase until it plunged over a cliff. The driver survived: he was Spencer Goodman, a repeat felon who had just been paroled.

According to the statement he gave in custody — a statement that helpfully ticks every box a state’s attorney would need for a capital conviction — he’d been very busy during his brief liberty.

On July 1, 1991, I was released from the old Bexar County Jail … I was given a bus ride back to Houston, Texas by Wackenhut [a private prison company -ed.] and dropped off on the east side of town at 9:30 a.m. I was given my papers to report to Texas House at 5:30 p.m. that night. Instead of going to the halfway house I started walking west. I walked most of the night. … During the day on Tuesday, July 2, 1991, I started walking out Memorial Drive. During the mid-afternoon it started raining. I walked up into a Walgreens parking lot maybe about 4:00 p.m. and just hung around the parking lot for about 20 to 30 minutes. I saw a white female drive up in a 1991 red Cadillac. She pulled up in the firelane along the blind side of the parking lot and then went into the Walgreens store. At that time I was not really watching her, but I don’t think that she stayed inside the drug store very long. When the lady came out of the store she opened the driver’s door and started getting into the car. I decided at that point that I wanted to take her car from her. I had been walking for a long time and my feet hurt and I wanted some transportation. I ran up behind her while the driver’s door was still open. She was sitting behind the wheel, and I shoved her over with one hand and punched her just under the left ear, to knock her out. She fell over to the passenger’s side and was knocked unconscious. I got into the driver’s seat. I think that I may have hit her in the back of the neck to make sure that she was unconscious. I think that the keys to the car were in her hand because they fell to the floor. I picked them up and started the car and then looked around to see if anyone had seen what happened. It was raining, and there was nobody around the parking lot. I first pulled out of the parking lot and turned right on Memorial going west, but there was a subdivision down that way, so I turned around and went to the Dairy Ashford for a ways and then turned off towards the west. I know that I was near a high school off of Dairy Ashford. I pulled off the main road and parked on a side road off behind this little building. I then used martial arts and broke the lady’s neck. I don’t know why I did it, but I know that I was lost. I then put her in the trunk of the car. I did not have on a shirt because my shirt was wet from the rain. I was also wearing jogging pants. After I put her in the trunk, I drove down this road. I was right by this high school when I saw this guy in a truck. I then asked him how to get to I-10. . . . I followed the guy’s direction. As I was driving I went through the lady’s purse and got out her wallet. I found about $20.00 and some change in her purse and some credit cards. I saw an Exxon gas station at HWY 6 and Westheimer so I stopped and filled up with gas. I used the Exxon gas card and signed the name on the card. I then got on I-10 and headed west. . . . . . . I knew that she was dead when I put her in the trunk because I felt on her pulse.

The killer’s niece, Megan Goodman, posted a sad memorial to a man who became in his last months “like my older brother”. Though the original host site appears to be several years gone, archive.org preserves it here.

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2000: Kiyotaka Katsuta, Japan’s “most evil” killer

Add comment November 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2000, Japan hanged three fifty-something murderers.

While Takashi Miyawaki and Kunikatsu Oishi were rather garden-variety criminals who killed family members over private vendettas, Kiyotaka Katsuta had been impressively dignified by one of his judges as the “most maliciously evil criminal in Japanese history.”

The former firefighter was convicted of eight murders but twice or even thrice that number might lie upon his soul.

He got started in 1972, strangling and robbing a Kyoto bar hostess.

Having found a workable m.o., Katsuta murdered and stole from (police suspected rapes, too, but couldn’t prove it) another four women over the 1970s. Then he moved on to armed robbery of men, stealing a gun from a policeman and killing at least three (with others wounded) in his various stickups — deeply shocking in Japan where guns are hard to own and firearm crime vanishingly rare.

Katsuta was so notorious after his 1983 arrest that a movie came out based on his crime spree.

In the will scribbled out during the few minutes he had left after being informed of his imminent execution, Katsuta professed that he had “managed to lead myself to a spiritual state of resignation.”

One of his victims’ family expressed a different form of closure — that Katsuta’s hanging “has made us feel we at long last have become able to close a chapter in our anguish, although we still feel never able to forgive the perpetrator.”

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2008: Wo Weihan, spy?

Add comment November 28th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2008, Chinese biochemist and businessman Wo Weihan was shot for espionage along with his alleged co-conspirator Guo Wanjun.

Wo had been resident in Austria since 1990, and his daughters Chen Ran and Chen Di were Austrian citizens. In 2004, he returned to his native soil to launch a medical equipment firm in Beijing.

Wo was arrested in China in January 2005 and accused of passing “state secrets” to Taiwan and the U.S. He didn’t have a lawyer until 2006 — by which time he had produced a coerced confession that he tried in vain to retract — and the 2007 trial took place in secret, so the case against him was troublingly opaque at the time of his execution. The verdict publicly released in March 2008 even included such trifles as “discussing the health of senior Chinese leaders” — an actual crime in China but awfully difficult to accept as a factor in a capital case.

“The lack of transparency does nothing to reassure us that the court’s conclusion was the right one,” said a Dui Hua Foundation spokesman.

Allegedly, Wo got information about Chinese ICBMs from missile expert Guo Wanjun, and passed drawings to Taiwanese and American intelligence. Chinese state media have claimed that Wo’s wife was able to open a restaurant in Austria with the payoffs.

His daughters mounted a last-ditch clemency campaign involving European Union officials, Austrian President Heinz Fischer, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, all to no avail.

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2005: Hastings Arthur Wise, workplace shooter

Add comment November 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Hastings Arthur Wise was executed in South Carolina for a shooting rampage at his workplace.

Or rather — and this was the problem — his former workplace.

Canned from his machine-operator job of four years at the Aiken County R.E. Phelon engine manufacturing plant that July, Wise warned that he’d be back.

On September 15, 1997, he turned up packing a 9 mm pistol and exacted his revenge — just another of America’s endless cavalcade of mass shootings.

He shot a guard to get into the plant. The guard survived, but four others were not so fortunate as Wise stalked through his former employer’s halls screaming and firing. Police later recovered four empty eight-round magazines.

The human resources director who had fired him was the first Wise killed.

Two men in the tool and die area who had jobs that Wise had once sought unsuccessfully were the next.

A young woman in a job Wise had sought promotion to was wounded with shots to the back and leg, then finished off execution-style.

Wise took to firing almost indiscriminately and wounded a few others, but the body count still might have been higher. Some others Wise saw and could have murdered, but did not — some possibly saved by happenstance, others whom Wise said in court that he declined to shoot because he used to get along with them as coworkers. The whole rampage was calculated to such an extent that Wise took a 9,000-mile road trip to California and Texas to tick a few items off his bucket list first.

Wise always intended to check out at the end of his spree; the SWAT team found him on the floor suffering from a swallow of insecticide that turned out to be non-fatal. The judicial process was the slow train, but the destination remained the same.

“I don’t have much to say except that I did not wish to take advantage of the court as far as asking mercy,” Wise said to the court at his sentencing. “It’s a fair trial. I committed the crimes.”

As good as his word, Wise voluntarily dropped his appeals and went quickly from his 2001 conviction to execution, declining to make any final statement.

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2009: Behnoud Shojaee, Mohammad Mostafaei client

Add comment October 11th, 2013 Headsman

At dawn this date in 2009, Iran hanged Behnoud Shojaee in Tehran’s Evan Prison for a murder committed while he was still a juvenile.

His attorney, Mohammad Mostafaei, later had to flee Iran in the face of persecution over his own activism against the death penalty, and the juvenile death penalty in particular.

Mostafaei wrote a Farsi post detailing the harrowing moments leading up to the Shojaee’s hanging, complete with the young offender kneeling in front of the parents of his victim imploring them to exercise their power to spare his life. That post, excerpted below, was translated to English by the site Persian2English.com.

The plan was to get the parents of the victim to drop the case so he would be spared from execution. We could hear the prayers of the activists from outside the prison. After a few minutes we were admitted into another salon. Behnoud was there along with a few of the prison guards. When the parents of the victim entered the room, Behnoud kneeled in front of them and begged them to not execute him. The head of convictions prepared the conviction papers. A few of the prison guards, Mr. Oliyaifard, and I went to the parents of the victim and begged them to not go through with the execution. The mother of the victim replied, “I cannot think right now. I have to put the rope around his neck.” After a few minutes we heard the Call for Prayer. Behnoud walked to another room to say his last prayers. He went to ask God for forgiveness.

After the prayer we all went to the prison grounds. My entire body was shaking and I didn’t know what would become of this boy without a mother. When Behnoud kneeled in front of the parents of the victim, he told the mother, “I don’t have a mother. Please act as a mother and tell them to not execute me.” We all went to another room. In that room there was a metal stool and a blue plastic hanging rope suspended above it. The parents of the victim entered that room. Then they brought Behnoud into that horrible room where they carried out the executions. I had never heard of sole executions in Evin prison. I thought it strange that only Behnoud was being executed that night.

Maybe this was his unfortunate fate that took him to die all alone. The people present in the room asked the parents to forgive and to stop the execution. The mother said you have to put the rope around his neck. Behnoud stood on top of the stool and they put the rope around his neck. After only a few seconds the mother and father of the victim ran toward the stool and pulled it away.

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2007: John Joe “Ash” Amador

3 comments August 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2007, John Joe “Ash” Amador died of lethal injection in Texas.

Amador, age 18, and a 16-year-old cousin, hailed a taxi in San Antonio in the dark predawn hours of January 4, 1994, directed it on a long drive to a dark street in Poteet, Texas, and abruptly shot the cabbie in the head with a .25 caliber handgun. Amador’s cousin shot the cab driver’s ride-along companion.

It’s possible to get unusually up close and personal with Amador — both the man himself, and the gears of the death penalty process at the anticlimax of 13 long years.

To begin with, journalist Dave Maass interviewed Ash Amador a month before the latter’s execution, and posted 52 minutes of audio on Archive.org.

And in a more outre vein, a team of British filmmakers crafted a surreal and digressive but frequently touching documentary of Amador’s end, most especially through the eyes of the condemned man’s wife and family. As Maass put it, they’ve “given the man one wicked afterlife.”

If that teaser intrigues, the entire documentary is freely available online here — complete with an amazing scene of a death mask being cast from the freshly-executed, just-body-bagged Ash.

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