1984: Elmo Patrick Sonnier, Dead Man Walking

32 comments April 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1984, Elmo Patrick Sonnier was electrocuted in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for abducting and murdering two teens in St. Martin Parish.*

Elmo and his brother Eddie posed as police officers and handcuffed two high schoolers parked at a local makeout point. Then they raped the girl, and shot both of them dead.

Both were given death sentences for the crime.

Eddie managed, as he said, to “give it back” on the grounds that Patrick was the one who did the shooting.

Once Eddie was clear of the death penalty, he tried to cop to the shooting after all, in order to save his little brother.

The appellate life of this case involved unedifying revisions of the “who shot whom” story. Ultimately, Eddie’s later claim to have been the triggerman, though quite possibly true, is not likely to win very much sympathy for his brother. It didn’t help him in the courts, either.

Just the 17th person executed since reinstatement of the death penalty, Sonnier learned that his longshot bid for clemency had been denied straight from the man who denied it — colorful, corrupt Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who personally phoned Sonnier to give him the bad news.

Little did Sonnier know that he had equally famous company meeting him in his cell.

Sonnier was the first condemned inmate to receive the spiritual ministration of Sister Helen Prejean.

The then-obscure Louisiana nun would later write the bestseller Dead Man Walking about her experiences with Sonnier and a second death row prisoner, Robert Lee Willie. Prejean remains among the most well-known death penalty opponents in the world today.

While the book Dead Man Walking treats Sonnier and Willie in a nonfiction vein, the film adaptation (review) amalgamated those people into a single character, the fictional “Matthew Poncelet”. It’s apparent from the flashbacks in Dead Man Walking‘s execution scene, however, that Sonnier is the predominant influence on “Poncelet”.

Dead Man Walking is an interesting movie. Though its principals were all vocal death penalty opponents, the film itself is much better art than propaganda. Arguably, the doomed criminal attains a sort of personal redemption — finally admitting responsibility for a crime he had denied for much of the film; seeking the forgiveness of his victims’ surviving family — only because the death penalty awaits him.

The real-life Sister Helen. Her most recent book is The Death of Innocents:An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for Best Actress for her turn as Sister Helen. Note that while Sonnier was in fact put to death in the electric chair (as was Robert Lee Willie), director Tim Robbins opted to portray a lethal injection because, as Helen Prejean herself put it,

we don’t want to give people the moral out whereby people could say ‘oh well, we used to do electrocution but that’s too barbaric so now we are humane and inject them’

* The murder that led to this date’s execution took place in the same area where Willie Francis survived a trip to the electric chair: the very chair that killed Patrick Sonnier.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Louisiana,Murder,Notable Participants,Rape,USA

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1722: Arundel Cooke and John Woodburne, despite a novel defense

1 comment April 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1722, Arundel Cooke and John Woodburne were hanged at Bury St. Edmunds, curiously becoming the first victims [edit: or maybe not] of a law of unintended consequences.

This duo’s path to the gallows begins years before their births, when Stuart Restoration parliamentarian John Coventry trod on the royal toes and was in consequence beaten up by some of Monmouth‘s goons.

Incensed, parliament passed the Coventry Act.

By this statute it is enacted that if any person shall of malice aforethought, and by laying in wait, unlawfully cut or disable the tongue, put out an eye, slit the nose, cut off the nose or lip, or cut off or disable any limb or member of any other person, with intent to maim or disfigure him, such person, his counsellors, aiders and abettors, shall be guilty of felony, without benefit of clergy.

“Previous to the passing,” claims The Newgate Calendar, “it was customary for revengeful men to waylay another and cut and maim him, so that though he did not die of such wounds he might remain a cripple during the remainder of life, and such case was not then a capital offence. It was also a dangerous practice resorted to by thieves, who would often cut the sinews of men’s legs, called ham-stringing, in order to prevent their escape from being robbed.”

Sounds like an interesting time. One may well wonder how very customary this practice was, with the half-century lapse before the law found its first prey.

Cooke and Woodburne, for that matter, did not commit the sort of crime that long-ago parliament had had in mind.

Cooke, a well-off barrister, desired to secure for himself the sizable estate to which he was married, and hired working stiff John Woodburne to bump off his brother-in-law, on Christmas evening no less. The would-be assassin jumped him in a churchyard and

knocked down the unhappy man, and cut and maimed him in a terrible manner, in which he was abetted by the counsellor [Cooke].

Imagining they had dispatched him, Mr Cooke rewarded Woodburne with a few shillings and instantly went home; but he had not arrived more than a quarter of an hour before [the victim] knocked at the door, and entered, covered with wounds, and almost dead through loss of blood. He was unable to speak, but by his looks seemed to accuse Cooke with the intended murder, and was then put to bed and his wounds dressed by a surgeon. At the end of about a week he was so much mended that he was removed to his own house.

The perps were easily discovered, and having maimed the intended victim, appeared to fall within the compass of the Coventry Act.

But had they really committed a hanging offense? The defendant put his professional legal training to use.

[Cooke] urged that judgment could not pass on the verdict, because the Act of Parliament simply mentions an intention to maim or deface, whereas he was firmly resolved to have committed murder.

That’s a defense you don’t hear every day. Evidently, the court wanted to keep it that way.

Lord Chief Justice King, who presided on this occasion, declared he could not admit the force of Mr Cooke’s plea, consistent with his own oath as a judge — “For,” said he, “it would establish a principle in the law inconsistent with the first dictates of natural reason, as the greatest villain might, when convicted of a smaller offence, plead that the judgment must be arrested because he intended to commit a greater. In the present instance judgment cannot be arrested, as the intention is naturally implied when the crime is actually committed.”

Cooke’s university education and oleaginous lawyering did, however, enable him to make a successful request to be hanged before dawn on his scheduled day of execution, so as not to be exposed to the rude opprobrium of the commoners. John Woodburne (whether due to class position or the value he put on his last hours of life, the text does not inform us) was not extended the same courtesy, and swung later that day in full public view.

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Lawyers,Notable Jurisprudence,Pelf,Public Executions

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1794: Georges Danton and his followers

13 comments April 5th, 2008 Headsman

At twilight this date in 1794, the most magnetic and perhaps most statesmanlike politician of the French Revolution mounted the scaffold at the Place de la Revolution in the revolution — as described by the poet Arnault:

In the dying light of day the great leader seemed to be rising out of his tomb as much as preparing to descend into it. Never was anything more bold than that great athlete’s countenance, never anything more formidable than the look of that profile which seemed to defy the knife. That great head, even as it was about to fall, appeared to be in the act of dictating laws.

The famously ugly revolutionary had been the moving spirit overthrowing the monarchy of Louis XVI in 1792; as the firmest public minister holding up against the ensuing military collapse he was for a few weeks something close to the head of the government.

Some credit him with saving Paris from military rout or internal anarchy during this time; some implicate him in the horrific September Massacres — and it may well be that neither view is mistaken.

He was destroyed by his sometime ally Robespierre — Danton had returned from semi-retirement on his farm late in 1793 to engage this losing power struggle — and the two are easily, albeit simplistically, read as yin and yang in the Revolution.

Danton’s earthy, all-too-human joie de vivre — his carnality, profanity, arrogance, venality — opposed to cold-blooded, sexless Robespierre, “the Incorruptible”; Danton’s (arguable) far-seeing vision of Revolutionary France’s place in the wider world opposed to Robespierre’s bloodthirsty peccadilloes of “virtue”. For most observers, though by no means all, the comparison profits Danton. (Just see if France ever names a warship for Robespierre.)

“We must dare, and again dare, and forever dare.”

Like many before him, most especially the Girondins who had (fatally to both parties) scorned an alliance with the Dantonists, Danton sought to arrest the revolution where he stood. The confrontation that finished him was precipitated by Danton’s attempt — with the assistance of his longtime confederate Camille Desmoulins, the most notable of the other men to lose their heads this day — to apply the brake to the excesses of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, that lethal organ he himself established as a pillar of order for a time of peril now abated. With the worst of the very real dangers to the Revolution checked, Danton in the Convention and Desmoulins in his fiery journalistic writings proposed to rein in the bloodbath and overturn the power of the sans-culottes.

The time was not yet ripe for the former, although the far-left Hebertist party preceded Danton to the guillotine by a few weeks. In this clip from the 1983 film Danton (review | another | still another (pdf)), Robespierre — who had long resisted denouncing Danton, but did it with characteristic gusto once he committed to the course — turns the terrified Convention against the title character:

Danton’s action in those last days seems vacillating, uncertain; fate devours him. For Georg Buchner in Danton’s Death (here it is free in the original German), he’s paralyzed by the contradictions and uncertainties of an unknown new world in its birth pangs, despairing as all his good-natured philosophies drench themselves in gore.

He roused himself one last time for a ferocious and hopeless defense before the Revolutionary Tribunal, coming near enough to swinging the mob in his favor that the Convention felt obliged to vote a measure to gag him.*

He went to his death this day in full character, making the most of his last turn on that stage — strutting, jesting,** boastful to the very end, prophesying (accurately) Robespierre’s imminent demise. He was the last to lose his head, having seen Desmoulins and his fellows die before him, “with such coolness as does not belong to man,” the headsman Sanson recalled. His last words were an instruction to the executioner: “Show my head to the people. It will be worth it.”

* Later codified into a regulation preventing any prisoner mounting a defense, the law would boomerang against its authors when Robespierre’s cadre was hailed before the Tribunal and condemned without a hearing.

** Another in the doomed party, Fabre d’Eglantine, was a writer who on the day of the execution complained of the loss of his verses, vers, a French word also meaning “worms.” Danton observed that he’d soon be making plenty more vers.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,France,Gallows Humor,Guillotine,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason,Wartime Executions

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