10 executions that defined the 2000s

22 comments December 14th, 2009 Headsman

With the turn of the tide to the 2010s, we bid farewell to a decade that never did get a consensus moniker.

Like every decade known to the historian’s annals, however, the Aughties found plenty of work for the world’s hangmen.

As we prepare to flip over the calendar, Executed Today remembers ten executions that most palpably captured the decade’s Zeitgeist.

10. Dhananjoy Chatterjee, 2004

Although the world’s second-most populous country retains the death penalty and has dozens of death row denizens, an entire generation of Indians has come of age having never known an actual execution … never, except for the 2004 hanging of Dhananjoy Chatterjee (Update: Not any more). That made this otherwise ordinary criminal a worldwide controversy, and his archaic colonial-era hangman a temporary celebrity.

9. Aileen Wuornos, 2002

Two years after the magnetic prostitute/serial killer was given a lethal injection in Florida, Charlize Theron won an Oscar for portraying her in Monster.

8. Wang Binyu, 2005

This migrant laborer was just grist for the mill of China’s helter-skelter industrialization in the neoliberal economic machine … until, in a fury over wages stolen by his employer, he slew a foreman. Chinese media that picked up his story inadvertently made him an emblematic figure for the untold millions of his countrymen and -women who could sympathize with his sentiment: “I want to die. When I am dead, nobody can exploit me anymore. Right?” Internet buzz about Wang had to be forcibly squelched.

7. Timothy McVeigh, 2001

The Gulf War veteran was the face of terrorism in the U.S. from the time of his arrest for the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City’s Murrah Federal Building, until three months after his June 11, 2001, execution.

6. Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, 2005

Heart-rending photos of these teenagers hanging in Iran were a worldwide Internet sensation and made them an instant symbol of Iranian anti-gay persecution.

5. Mamoru Takuma, 2004

“I want others to know the unreasonableness that high-achieving children could be killed at any time,” said the author of perhaps the most infamous crime spree in modern Japanese history. The usually glacial Japanese capital system got the former janitor into a noose barely three years after he’d knifed eight children to death in the “Osaka school massacre”.

4. Cameron Todd Willingham, 2004

Something tells us that the ornery Texan — he took his leave of the world throwing an obscene gesture at his former wife from his execution gurney — would have been but pleasantly surprised to discover himself a major posthumous headache for Gov. Rick Perry (who signed his death warrant) and like-minded partisans of pseudoscience arson convictions. The sad part is that the evidence of Willingham’s potential innocence in the recent bombshell New Yorker article was basically all available at the time of his execution.

Rediscovery (with touching, or feigned, naivete) of the timeless problematic of executing innocents has characterized the 2000s not only in the U.S. but around the world.

3. The Bali Bombers, 2008

These grinning Islamic militants orchestrated the 2002 coordinated triple bombing on the Indonesian resort island of Bali that killed 202, most of them western tourists. (88 were Australians, the predominant nationality affected, as against only 38 Indonesians.) Then they spent six years gleefully milking their notoriety.

2. Zheng Xiaoyu, 2007

Zheng Xiaoyu hears his death sentence.

While proletarians like Wang Binyu died for pennies and many like Fu Xinrong died for their organs, the more privileged in China’s gangster capitalism played for higher stakes. For a decade the state’s Food and Drugs Minister, Zheng Xiaoyu took payola to rubber-stamp products that turned out to be dangerous to man and beast. His high-profile execution was Beijing’s response to a wave of concern about the safety of Chinese exports abroad … and a pledge, one year in advance of the 2008 Olympics, of China’s readiness for the world stage.

Zheng aside, elites behaving as gangsters (and vice versa) have been a recurring phenomenon on China’s execution grounds of late.

1. Saddam Hussein, 2006

Undoubtedly the decade’s signature execution, the 2006 hanging by America’s Iraqi puppet government of America’s longtime foreign policy bete noir was purchased for trillions that would have been better spent just buying the guy off … especially since cell phone video soon to circle the globe revealed the old rattlesnake taking command of a distinctly undignified scene.


Honorable Mentions

Some other notable executions to remember the 2000s by:

  • Creepy Malaysian pop singer Mona Fandey
  • Anti-abortion terrorist/martyr Paul Hill
  • Dmitry Chikunov, whose secret execution launched his mother on the crusade that would abolish Uzbekistan’s death penalty
  • Draconian anti-drug laws ensnaring foreign drug mules, like Australian national Nguyen Van Van and Nigerian footballer Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi in Singapore, and mentally ill Briton Akmal Shaikh in China
  • Vietnamese crime lord Nam Cam
  • Han Bok-nam, whose public shooting in North Korea was filmed and smuggled out of the country
  • The filmed stoning of Du’a Khalil Aswad in Iraq
  • Many people, such as Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, taken hostage in Iraq and demonstratively “executed”

On this day..

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1882: Thomas Egan: 3 tries, 2 ropes, 1 innocent man

3 comments July 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1882, Thomas Egan was hanged in Sioux Falls in the Dakota Territories (present-day South Dakota) for strangling his wife, Mary.

It took three tries to get the hanging right … and it still turned out they got it wrong: years later, Egan’s stepdaughter copped to the crime on her deathbed.

Egan was the first man hanged (.doc) by state officers in the Dakota Territory; earlier, Jack McCall had been executed there by the feds.

Let’s start with the twice-botched hanging, whose can’t-look-away horror can hardly be improved from its original coverage by The Chicago Tribune (picked up elsewhere as well — such as The Alexandria Post of Douglas County, Minnesota):

A HORRIBLE AFFAIR.

The Execution of Thomas Egan, the Wife Murderer, at Sioux Falls, Dak — The Drop Fails Three Times Before the Culprit is Deprived of Life, Owing to Rotten Ropes.

On Thursday, July 13, occurred at Sioux Falls the first judicial hanging ever done in the territory of Dakota. Nearly two years ago Thomas Egan, who suffered the death penalty, most foully and cruelly murdered his wife, with whom he had lived for nearly a quarter of a century. From evidence produced at the trial it would appear that they had frequent quarrels which at length culminated on this fatal morning in her death. He deliberately sent the children away, and while she was washing dishes at the table came behind her, and after throwing a rope around her neck and strangling her, pounded the life out of her with a club. The body was then thrown through a trap door into the cellar, where it was found three days after, horribly mutilated. The skull was fractured and the head was covered with frightful gashes made by the club. It appeared also as if she were not dead when thrown down, as she was discovered partly reclining against the call [sic] of the cellar, which added to the horribleness of the crime. Eagen [sic] was arrested and tried, and although there was every effort made by his attorneys to save him; he was convicted and sentenced to be hanged at Sioux Falls by Judge Kidder of the Fourth judicial district of the territory.

On Thursday, 13th, after eating a hearty breakfast, hearing the sentence read, and some religious exercises by a Catholic priest, Eagan [sic] was taken to the gallows. All eyes were intently fixed on the prisoner. His face was somewhat pale, but his lips were firm and he seemed to exhibit no sign of fear. He was a straight, heavy-set man, weighing 180 lbs., with a retreating forehead, heavy projecting eyebrows and an ugly looking eye. His general appearance was far from prepossessing. He was dressed in a plain black suit, with clean white shirt, collar and tie, and low shoes. He walked straight up to the platform to the scaffold, taking his place on the fatal trap, turned around and faced the crowd below. The sheriff now asked him if he had any thing to day [sic], but his lips still were kept sealed to his secret, and he shook his head and answered in a low voice, “No.” His legs were now tied, he himself assisting the officer by placing his feet close together. The black cap was put on his head, but not a limb quivered. The noose was adjusted and the fatal moment had come. While the priests were chanting their solemn service, and while the attending officers and crowd were holding their breath in silence, the sheriff touched the trigger which alone kept Thomas Egan from his death. There was a crash as the door flew back against the boards and body, deprived of its footing, shot through the door, and now, horror or horrors!

The rope snaps like a piece of thread, the body drops to the earth with a dull thud, partly on its back, and rebounding rolls over on its face. The crowd are paralyzed with astonishment and fear. An unearthly gurgling sound now breaks forth from the prisoner. His neck is not broken, but the cord is wound tightly about it and he is strangling. A half a dozen men now rush forward, one seizes him by the arm, another by the leg, another by the waist, another by the head. It is seventy-five feet from the ground, where he has fallen, back to the jail-door, and around to the platform of the scaffold he is hurriedly conveyed through the crowd, the broken rope in the meanwhile dangling from his neck, while his horrible groaning strikes terror to the bystanders. Once more on the scaffold, another rope is adjusted and the sickening details once more gone through with, the trap falls again and the half dead man drops once more; but worse. The rope was not fully adjusted before the excited sheriff again touched the trigger and down the body goes a second time but not with sufficient force to accomplish the desired result.

His neck is still unbroken, and the slow process of suffocation is all this time going on. The attendants seize him by the arms and again pull him on the scaffold while the death struggle continues. The first rope is flopping from his neck and he still has life enough, so one says who was on the scaffold, to brace his feet for the third and last fall. If at this juncture some one had mercifully stepped up and put a bullet through his head, it would have been an act which would have certainly been appreciated by the crowd. The rope is finally fixed, the door drops once again, the man shoots down, and there is a snap which is heard all around the yard and outside. There is a shrugging of the shoulders, a twitching of the legs a convulsive shudder and all is still. The body swings slowly around. There is no motion of leg or arm or muscle, and in eight and one half minutes the doctors pronounced him dead, and shortly after the body was taken down. Yes, he is dead at last, and the sightseers heave a genuine sigh of relief. The corpse is now cut down and the pinioned arms and legs released. The dirt was brushed from the clothing and body laid in a coffin, where it was afterwards viewed by the crowd, both outside and inside the jail. The effects of the strangulation were fearfully evidence about the neck. The first cord had embedded itself, but the action of the heart had forced the blood under it and the flesh was swollen, purpled and discolored. There was a sightless stare to the eyes and blood was flowing out of the corners of his mouth. After all those desiring had seen the corpse it was boxed up, and early in the afternoon it was taken to the Catholic burying-ground where it was buried, and with it the club and cord with which he killed his wife.

Nobody in a position to help Egan knew he hadn’t “most foully and cruelly murdered his wife” or that “the horribleness of the crime” stained some other’s soul, of course … but one wonders how the writer thinks he did know it. The obscure considerations of jurymen might well be the most virtuous structural safeguard of the Republic, but as a dependable compass of fact, one might as well scry the entrails of a sacred ox.

It has always seemed misfortunate to the Headsman that journalists prone to the most tedious wheedling over the use of the qualifier “allegedly” to uphold the principle of innocent before proven guilty consider the epistemological certitude of a juridical conviction sufficient to abandon full stop the (admittedly inelegant) qualifier and speak of Revealed Truth. The New York Times would hardly think to make apology for flatly calling Egan — who did keep his peace about the verdict — “the wife murderer”:


… any more than the San Antonio Express-News would regret the assertive headline “Father who killed 3 is executed” mounted atop an article reporting the executed man’s continued insistence upon his innocence. Any good scribe frets more readily about column-inches and legal ass-covering than bickering and arguing over who killed who. But shame if not stylistics merits less awe before the particular sausage-making of the judiciary when such modern cases too turn out to have been cock-ups from start to finish.

In 1993, South Dakota Governor Walter Miller apologized (.pdf) for Egan’s execution. A descendant of Egan’s has written a book about the case, Drop Him Till He Dies: The Twisted Tragedy of Immigrant Homesteader Thomas Egan.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,South Dakota,USA,Wrongful Executions

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2004: Cameron Willingham, for an accidental fire?

37 comments February 17th, 2008 David Elliot

(Thanks to David Elliot at Abolish the Death Penalty for the guest post -ed.)

Update: Heartbreaking New Yorker article shreds the state’s case.

Polling data reveals interesting things about U.S. public opinion and the death penalty. If you ask an open-ended question about the death penalty –- for example, “Do you feel the death penalty is appropriate for certain egregious crimes?” –- then you usually see somewhere around a 65 to 35 percent split in favor. On the other hand, if you ask which is preferred – the death penalty or life in prison without parole, the results tend to be closer to 50-50.

Upon occasion, another question is asked: Do you feel an innocent person has been put to death in the U.S.? The results are pretty emphatic: Americans don’t trust their government to get it right, and they do believe innocent people have been executed, by a ratio of about three to one.

So the question fairly arises: Have innocent people been executed in the U.S. in what we sometimes refer to as the “modern era,” i.e., since executions were allowed to resume in 1976?

Enter Cameron Todd Willingham.

On Feb. 17, 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was strapped to a gurney in a Texas death chamber as he declared his innocence for the last time. Minutes later, he was executed by lethal injection. In December of the same year, the Chicago Tribune uncovered secrets behind the Willingham case, addressing questions left unanswered and raising doubts left unacknowledged.

The Fatal Fire

Cameron Todd Willingham with one of his purported victims — his daughter, Amber.

On Dec. 23, 1991, Willingham was at home with his three daughters. His wife, Stacy, left their home in the morning to pay the bills and shop for Christmas gifts at a Salvation Army store. The family had been struggling that year; Todd, as everyone called him, had recently been laid off, and Stacy was supporting the family with her wages from a bar. The Willinghams were two months behind on rent, and they had even stopped paying some bills in order to save money for Christmas.

Willingham recalled waking up briefly as his wife was leaving the home around 9 a.m. When he heard their one-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron, crying, he woke up to feed them and went back to sleep. About an hour later, his two-year-old daughter Amber woke him with her cries, and the house was already full of smoke. Willingham remembers not being able to see “anything but black” toward the front of the house.

The circuits were popping throughout the home as Willingham frantically went to his daughters’ bedroom. At this point, his hair caught on fire, and he was able to see little more than the glowing of the ceiling. Willingham called out for his children and felt along the floor and bed for them, but he could not find them. This is when debris began falling from the ceiling, causing him to burn his shoulder. He fled the home through the front door.

After fleeing his house, he asked his neighbors to call the fire department and screamed to them, “My babies is in there and I can’t get them out.” A neighbor, Mary Barbee, then asked other neighbors to place the call because her own telephone was disconnected. Willingham reported that, while this was happening, he tried to re-enter his home, but it was too hot. Then, he knocked out two bedroom windows with a pool cue, but could not get into the bedroom.

Buvin Smith arrived on the scene after hearing the neighbor’s call over a radio scanner. Smith remembered restraining Willingham from going onto the porch, and heard him yelling that his “babies were in the house” and noticed that he was “acting real hysterical.”

A Circumstantial Case

Almost immediately, Willingham became a suspect. According to the Chicago Tribune, prosecutors often are able to rely on circumstantial evidence in cases when a child dies and the parent survives. In this case, the prosecution convinced the jury that Willingham killed his children because they interfered with his beer-drinking, dart-throwing lifestyle. The jury believed it.

Neighbors told investigators that they did not believe Willingham tried hard enough to save his children. In fact, Barbee said that she saw Willingham standing by the fence as heavy smoke came out of the windows. Also, she told investigators that Willingham seemed more concerned with moving his car away from the burning house as the windows blew out than with saving his children.

Willingham’s wounds were treated shortly after the fire. Firefighters did not think that his burns were severe enough had he indeed searched for his daughters in the manner he described. His shoulder, back, and hair were burned, but his bare feet were not burned at the bottom.

Police stated that, the day after the fire, Willingham complained about not being able to find a dartboard in the wreckage of his home. Others mentioned hearing loud music and laughter in the following days as the couple attempted to salvage their belongings.

A police chaplain grew suspicious that Willingham’s hysterics during the fire were not genuine. The chaplain, George Monaghan, noted that Willingham seemed “too distraught.”

In addition to these evaluations of Willingham’s behavior, fire investigators reported over 20 indicators of arson. These include the “crazed glass,” or the web-like cracks in the glass. Until more recent research was completed, arson specialists believed this to be a clear indication that an accelerant had been used in the fire. The fire experts also noted that the fire had reached a stage known as flashover, when a fire reaches such a high temperature that an explosion results. This further supported their reasoning that an accelerant had been used.

Willingham was charged with murder on Jan. 8, 1992, just two weeks after the fire. In August of the same year, his trial began, after Willingham turned down a deal from the prosecution and insisted that he was innocent. During the trial prosecutors presented inmate Johnny E. Webb as a witness. He testified that Willingham confessed at the county jail to killing his children in order to cover up the fact that his wife, Stacy, had been physically abusing them. Webb, a recovering drug addict, was taking psychiatric medication to relieve post-traumatic stress syndrome. The prosecution also presented as witnesses the neighbors who claimed that Willingham should have done more. Fire investigators Doug Fogg and Manuel Vasquez also testified at Willingham’s trial. Both of these investigators testified in court that the fire was caused by arson.

Both of these investigators testified to assumptions about fire that have been scientifically proven to be wrong.

Forensic Evidence Reconsidered

When the Chicago Tribune investigated the case, several experts reviewed documents, trial testimony, and video documentation of the fire scene and concluded that the original investigation was terribly flawed. Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge University-educated chemist, and John Lentini, John DeHaan, both private consultants specializing in fire investigation, along with Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland, examined the materials. They suggest that this fire may have been simply accidental.

After the Chicago Tribune investigation, Lentini worked with the Innocence Project to assemble an independent, peer-review panel of arson experts. The five-member panel –- with a combined 138 years in high-level fire investigation experience –- issued a 44-page report (.pdf) on the case.

They determined that “each and every one” of the forensic interpretations made by the state’s experts at Willingham’s trial was not scientifically valid. For example, the original investigators determined that an accelerant was used because wood cannot burn hot enough to melt aluminum. In fact, according to these leading experts, it can.

The 1991 investigators also claimed that the brown rings on the Willingham’s front porch indicated accelerant usage. Experts called this “baseless speculation,” explaining that fire-hose water often leaves brown rings on surfaces after evaporation.

Was it Known Before the Execution?

This information didn’t only come to light recently. Shortly before Willingham was executed, Hurst reviewed the case and issued a report that dismissed every single indicator of arson Fogg and Vasquez had originally cited. What was done with this report? Texas judges and Gov. Rick Perry turned it aside, confident of Willingham’s guilt.

Jury members are less confident now. One jury member asked, “Did anybody know about this prior to his execution? Now I will have to live with this for the rest of my life. Maybe this man was innocent.”

In fact, a similar debunking of arson forensics by the same expert resulted in another Texas death row inmate’s exoneration and release — just seven months after Willingham was put to death.

Have innocent people been executed in the U.S.? Indeed they have. You can read more about other cases at www.InnocentAndExecuted.org


Update: After a 2009 New Yorker expose made Cameron Todd Willingham a byword for wrongful executions, our guest author’s former shop, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, took a cue from Justice Antonin Scalia‘s scornful dismissal of the prospect.

There has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Posthumous Exonerations,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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