2009: Bobby Wayne Woods

1 comment December 3rd, 2018 Headsman

Bobby Wayne Woods was executed by lethal injection in Texas on this date in 2009.

A proud bearer of the classic middle name, Woods in 1997 broke into his ex-girlfriend’s home and kidnapped her two children, both of whom he did to what he thought was death. (11-year-old daughter Sarah Patterson, whom Woods also raped, did die; nine-year-old son Cody Patterson survived a savage beating, barely.)*

What distinguished Woods from a run-of-the-mill capital murder was his disputed competency — a product of what Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald aptly termed a “legal grey area.” A landmark 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case, Atkins v. Virginia, bars the execution of mentally disabled prisoners … but punts the definition of this protected class to the very states that are trying to execute them. Ah, federalism.

Woods was a barely-literate middle school dropout with I.Q. test scores ranging from 68 to 80; the commonplace threshold for mental disability is about I.Q. 70. He definitely did the crime, but was he entitled to protection under Atkins?

The case stuck in the judicial craw, scratching a scheduled 2008 execution and resulting in appeals that resolved only half an hour before Woods received the needle. The whole thing was essentially stalemated by dueling experts on retainer who made the arguments you’d expect them to make for their sides. And since the legal standard is whatever Texas feels like enforcing, that means the guy is not disabled.

* The victims’ mother, Schwana Patterson, was convicted of felony child neglect for failing to intervene in the abduction, out of fear of the assailant; she served eight years in prison for this.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Kidnapping,Lethal Injection,Murder,Rape,Texas,USA

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1986: Jerome Bowden

4 comments June 24th, 2011 Headsman

A quarter-century ago this date, a “scared” mentally disabled prisoner named Jerome Bowden was electrocuted in Georgia for a crime many think he did not commit.

Bowden drew a death sentence for a robbery-murder on the strength of two very suspect pieces of evidence:

  • the accusation of a juvenile co-defendant who might well have been the real murderer; and
  • a signed confession Bowden could barely understand

While present-day DNA exonerations are fortunately forcing reconsideration of the ubiquitous problem of false confessions, Bowden’s was understandably doubted even before his execution.

Asked to explain his signature on a document obviously beyond his capacity to compose himself, he gave a confused answer that seemed to indicate he’d been led to sign it by a suggestion that it would keep him out of the electric chair.

“Detective Myles had told me this here … Had told me about could help me, that he could, you know, which I knew that confessing to something you didn’t take part in was-if you confess to something that you didn’t do, as if you did it, because you are saying that you did.”

(This remark inspires us to re-issue our occasional reminder: do not talk to the police.)

Bowden’s assent to this fatal “admission” sadly evokes the characteristic eagerness to please one often encounters in the developmentally disabled — sometimes, as with Joe Arridy, to their own destruction.

It’s noticeable, too, in Bowden’s incongruously ingratiating last statements, recordings of which were taken and subsequently leaked publicly. This and others are available at SoundPortraits.org.*

[audio:Jerome_Bowden_last_statement.mp3] [audio:Jerome_Bowden_last_statement_addendum.mp3]

Bowden had been evaluated with an I.Q. of 59 at the age of 14, the examiner reporting him “functioning at the lower limits of mild retardation. He has little or no insight into his situation … He is easily distracted and has a tendency to act on impulse regardless of the consequences.”

And even though the authorities hustled through a test the day before his execution that reckoned Bowden with an I.Q. of 65 — still solidly below the conventional threshold for mental disability, but good enough for the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles — the whole affair shook the state. It “unsettled more than a few persons in government and law enforcement,” the Atlanta Constitution later editorialized.

Its [the state’s] reasoning was grievously faulty. Whether Bowden understood his fate or not, whether he knew right from wrong — he was indisputably handicapped …

Most states have progressed beyond the dated right-wrong standard in weighing such cases … and ask: Could the defendant help himself? There is compelling evidence that Bowden could not …

brute whimsy was given full sway. For the state of Georgia, it was a willful lapse of decency.

Atlanta Constitution, July 1, 1986 editorial**

This lapse of decency rippled over the months ahead until Georgia in 1988 became the first state to enact a law barring the execution of the mentally disabled.

Maryland followed suit the next year, but the U.S. Supreme Court held in the 1989 decision Penry v. Lynaugh that executing such prisoners did not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment”.

While that decision was reversed in 2002, the putative ban on executing the mentally disabled in the United States remains very far from a bright line. It’s up to the states themselves to decide who falls under that definition,† and at least some have given ample indication that they’re prepared to exploit any expediency necessary to get a fellow onto death row, or keep him there. Earlier this very week, Texas (of course) put to death a man of dubious competence, Milton Mathis, essentially by cherry-picking its data and having federal appellate review barred on a technicality.

A quarter-century on, those ripples started by Jerome Bowden still have a way to go.

* We’ve previously featured another recording in this set of a particularly frightful botched electrocution.

** Both Constitution quotes, and the childhood IQ examiner quote, as cited in Robert Perske’s Unequal Justice?.

† As an irony of its early adoption, Georgia later found itself with an unusually stingy legal standard for protecting disabled defendants from the death penalty.

On this day..

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

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1989: Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr., “just hope that he was not conscious”

29 comments July 14th, 2008 Headsman

Minutes after midnight this date in 1989, Alabama’s executioners electrocuted a developmentally disabled murderer. Nine minutes later, after rewiring the chair, they finally managed to kill him.

Alabama’s fifth execution of the “modern” era initially made the headlines as the nation’s first execution of a mentally impaired prisoner after the Supreme Court’s controversial Penry v. Lynaugh decision (since overturned) green-lighted the death penalty for developmentally disabled defendants.

Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr. and an accomplice had raped a mother of four, tied her to a tree, and stabbed her to death, an unquestionably horrific crime. A black man with a white victim deep in Dixie … well, his IQ in the high sixties wasn’t going to help him do anything but waive his right to remain silent. The jury at his trial didn’t hear about his borderline mental retardation — Penry would require that juries get that information in the future — and at least one juror later said that little tidbit would have made the difference in Dunkins’s case.

At any rate, the buzz in this morning’s papers wasn’t about the circumstances of Dunkins’s entry into the criminal justice system, but his clumsy exit from it into the great hereafter.

According to the account of a Dr. John Vanlandingham:*

I saw Dunkins in the electric chair and I heard the generator start…. After a short period of time the other doctor … and I were called into the execution chamber. I could see that Dunkins was breathing…. I checked his peripheral pulse, in his wrist, and it was normal. I listened to his heart and his heartbeat was strong with little irregularity…. I told an official that Dunkins was not dead. Dr. – and I returned to the witness room…. I again heard the generator begin.

“I believe we’ve got the jacks on wrong,” the prison guard captain called out. It was flatly not enough current to kill, although it apparently did the killer the favor of knocking him out.

From 12:08 to 12:17, Dunkins sat motionless and seemingly unconscious while the execution team went all MacGyver on Yellow Mama. Once they’d fit Tab A into Slot B into Lethal Electrode C, they were finally able to try again. The doctors pronounced death 19 minutes after the switch had first been thrown.

”I regret very very much what happened,” the Alabama Prison Commissioner, Morris Thigpen, said at a news conference after the execution. ”It was human error. I just hope that he was not conscious and did not suffer.” (The New York Times)

* Dr. Vanlandingham was participating in the execution despite an injunction by the American Medical Association, which considers it a violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Physicians’ involvement (or not) in executions is a thorny ethical issue of its own; Vanlandingham, however, is not the only doctor to break the taboo.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,Milestones,Murder,USA

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