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.

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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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Feast Day of St. Cassian of Tangier

Add comment December 3rd, 2017 Headsman

December 3 is the feast date of the minor and perhaps fictional martyr Cassian of Tangier.

Not to be confused with the later Julian the Apostate-era martyr Cassian of Imola, our African Cassian was a court scribe who wound up riding sidecar to the legend of pacifistic centurion Marcellus of Tangier.

The latter is described in a Passion as having incurred the Roman governor’s wrath by adhering to Christ’s pacifistic teachings.

Agricolanus said, “What madness possessed you to cast aside aside your oath and say such things?”

Marcellus said, “No madness possesses him who fears God.” …

Agricolanus said, “Did you hurl down your weapons?”

Marcellus said, “I did. It is not proper for a Christian man, one who fears the Lord Christ, to engage in earthly military service.”

Agricolanus said, “Marcellus’ actions are such that they ought to be disciplined.” And so he stated, “It pleases (the court) that Marcellus, who defiled the office of centurion which he held by his public rejection of the oath and, furthermore, according to the praeses’ records, gave in testimony words full of madness, should be executed by the sword.”

So that’s Marcellus’s martyrdom. (His feast date is October 30.)

Cassian gets in on the act by allegedly refusing to fulfill his judicial duty to record the verdict, out of sympathy for the godly ex-warrior, a professional dereliction of his own that has paradoxically made him the patron saint of stenographers. There’s a very good chance that his is a legendary just-so story.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Martyrs,Morocco,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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1678: Edward Colman, Popish Plot victim

Add comment December 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1678, Catholic courtier Edward Col(e)man was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn — the second victim of Titus Oates’s “Popish Plot” concotion.

Colman was a Catholic convert whose zeal for the old faith led him into a variety of treacherous intrigues with the French court — although Colman’s eager and fruitless offices more annoyed than profited his allies.

His behavior was sufficiently indiscreet that fabulist Titus Oates had Colman queued up by name* as a Catholic plotter in the first round of 1678 Catholic terrorism allegations that would roil the realm for the next three years.

That indiscretion was very real, however, and extended to a careless presumption of his own safety. He seems to have been tipped to his danger by the judge who first took Oates’s evidence, a friend named Sir Edmund Godfrey, but he failed to use this advance intelligence to destroy his own correspondence. Godfrey in his own turn went on to a starring role in the Popish Plot debacle when he turned up murdered in October of 1678, a crime whose immediate attribution to the Catholic conspiracy that Oates had unfolded for him sent England clear round the bend.**

Colman’s case had already begun and half-fizzled by that point but with the apparent assassination of the judge a cry for his own blood now shook Parliament — “Colman’s letters!” alluding to that correspondence he surely wished he had burned: its volumes unfolded intelligence leaks, offers to exert French influence in the government even so far as dissolving Parliament, and applications for King Louis’s gold.

There are some incriminating examples in the trial transcript that, Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs charged, show “That your Design was to bring in Popery into England, and to promote the interest of the French King in this place, for which you hoped to have a Pension.” While Oates was a legendary perjurer and his fables destined to take the lives of 20-odd innocent souls in the months to come, the fact was that Colman really was caught out. His scheming ought not have merited such spectacular punishment under less extraordinary circumstances, but the things Colman really did do made it easy for Oates to position him as a paymaster in the fictitious regicidal conspiracy. “Mr. Colman, your own papers are enough to condemn you,” Scroggs said when his prisoner asserted innocence.

Nor could he protect himself with position. (Men even higher than Colman would succumb to the panic in time.) As detestably elevated as Colman looked to the average commoner, he was not himself a lord and was already (pre-Oates) regarded by King Charles II and many members of the court as a loose cannon. Everything pointed to sacrificing him … and they did. But as events would prove, the popular rage was not quenched on Colman’s bones alone.

The always-recommended BBC In Our Time podcast covers the Popish Plot in its May 12, 2016 episode.

* By name — not by face: Oates would be embarrassed at Colman’s eventual trial by the prisoner pointing out that Oates, who now claimed to have been personally paid out by Colman for various seditious errands, had utterly failed to recognize his “conspirator” when Oates appeared before the Privy Council to lay his charges in September.

** Godfrey’s murder has never been satisfactorily explained. There’s a good chance that it was a wholly unrelated affair with amazing bad timing; the revenge of the truculent Earl of Pembroke, whom Godfrey had prosecuted for murder a few months previous, is one leading possibility.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Spies,Terrorists,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1948: Sam Shockley and Miran Thompson, for the Battle of Alcatraz

1 comment December 3rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1948, Sam Shockley and Miran Edgar Thompson were gassed at San Quentin Prison for the failed prison break that led to the Battle of Alcatraz.

One of the bloodiest events to mar the history of that storied penal island, the “battle” began as an attempt by prisoners to break out of C and D Blocks and seize an an imminent afternoon prison ferry.

And like many prison breaks, preparations at once diligent, desperate, and ingenious were foiled by mischance … leaving only a hopeless, deadly shootout.

The revolt, which is narrated blow by blow here, began on May 2, 1946 in C Block, when two prisoners overpowered a guard. One of them, Bernard Coy — destined to die in the following days’ siege — had spent his last weeks on this earth fasting for this very moment: now, he disrobed and, with the help of a contraband bar-spreading gadget, squeezed his emaciated frame through some bars to gain access to a gallery connecting to D Block. The prisoners had the patrol patterns of the guards in the vicinity down to a “T”; the man walking this gallery was in his turn surprised and disarmed by Bernard Coy, who proceeded to lower the guard’s keys and a number of weapons to his accomplices.

Now armed, Coy was able to force his way into D Block where he released more prisoners from locked cells, including accomplices — and the eventual subjects of this day’s post — Shockley and Thompson.

So far, things couldn’t have gone much better. Only one obstacle remained: a locked door to access the yard that would take them to the Alcatraz launch and a rendezvous with their unsuspecting ride to freedom. And this, of course, is where it all went wrong.

Despite capturing a number of guards during the course of their progress, the aspiring escapees realized that they didn’t have the key for the cell house door. The escape siren went up while they were still stuck.

Having taken the trouble to come this far, the inmates did not abandon the enterprise but devolved it into futile violence, firing out of their locked-up redoubt for no better reason than that they had the guns. Patrol boats began to arrive; word soon got around the city — the gunfire was audible to Golden Gate Bridge motorists — and ordinary San Franciscans congregated near the shore to watch while “thousands of rounds of ammunition and tracer bullets split the night sky as thousands watched from hilltops and piers on both sides of the bay.” (From the San Francisco Chronicle‘s coverage; after an initial fusillade, prison officials waited until dark fell on the evening of May 2 to resume the attack.)


Press get as close as they can to the riots.

For Thompson, at least, this was familiar territory: he’d wound up in Alcatraz because, while being transported to jail on a federal kidnapping charge, he had slain an Amarillo, Texas officer making an unsuccessful bid for freedom.

Marines recently hardened in the Pacific theater helped orchestrate the plan of attack: after re-taking the cell blocks — which were found, contrary to worst fears — in relative calm, the trapped escapees were driven by grenades into a corridor where troopers could fire at them. By the morning of May 4, the lifeless bodies of Coy and two others were stretched out in that hall.


From left: Clarence Carnes, Sam Shockley, and Miran Thompson.

Shockley, Thompson, and a 19-year-old Choctaw named Clarence Carnes survived to face capital charges for the two guards killed in the fray. Carnes, already serving a life sentence for murder, enjoyed the mercy of an additional life sentence in this case, owing to his youth, and to testimony that he had disobeyed the orders of his confederates to execute captured guards.* Shockley and Thompson were not so fortunate.

This affair is dramatized in the 1987 TV movie Six Against the Rock.

* Carnes’s burial on Choctaw land after he died in Massachusetts of AIDS in 1988 was financed by crime lord Whitey Bulger, who served time in Alcatraz from 1959 and grew close to Carnes.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,History,Murder,U.S. Federal,USA

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1556: Beatrice, a servant

2 comments December 3rd, 2014 Headsman

An everyday execution in 16th century Montpellier, from the diary of Swiss medical student Felix Platter — whom we have already had cause to notice in these pages:

Beatrice, Catalan’s former servant girl, who had drawn off my boots when I had first arrived in Montpellier, was executed on the 3rd of December. She was hanged in the square, on a little gibbet that had only one arm. She had left us a year before to go into service in the house of a priest. She became pregnant, and when her child was born, she threw it into the latrine, where it was found dead. Beatrice’s body was taken to the anatomy theatre, and it remained several days in the College. The womb was still swollen, for the birth of the child had occurred no more than eight days before. Afterwards the hangman came to collect the pieces, wrapped them in a sheet, and hung them on a gibbet outside the town.

Part of the Themed Set: Filicide.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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1864: Bill Sketoe, hole haunt

Add comment December 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1864, a hulking Methodist minister by the name of Bill Sketoe was hanged in Newton, Alabama … but his ghost story was only just beginning.

Sketoe’s life is nearly as spectral as his death, but he is known to have been a longtime denizen of Newton’s Dale County where he preached the gospel and fathered a biblically-appropriate brood of seven children.

The easiest version says that Sketoe deserted the Confederate army to care for his sick wife. However, there’s no documentary evidence that Sketoe actually served under arms in the Civil War, although two of his sons did. He might actually have been suspected of aiding Unionist raiders haunting the forests — men like John Ward, a local pro-Union guerrilla with whom Confederate guards had just days before fought a skirmish.*

For whatever reason, a local Confederate cavalry militia under one Captain Joseph Breare seized the preacher near the Choctawhatchee River on December 3, 1864, and hanged him to a convenient tree.

Now, Bill Sketoe was a large man, and the bough of the Post Oak that supported his noose bent to his weight until Sketoe’s toes touched the ground. For an ad hoc execution, an ad hoc solution: one of Breare’s so-called “Buttermilk Rangers” simply dug out the ground around Sketoe’s feet until they dangled free in the hole and their owner could strangle to death properly.

Beloved Alabama storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham immortalized “The Hole That Will Not Stay Filled”, one of the chapters of her 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. Local legend, it seems, held that whenever someone later filled in Sketoe’s dangling-pit — with dirt, rubbish, or anything else — it would be mysteriously un-filled within hours.

Unfortunately the present-day skeptic will not be able to put geist to test because “Sketoe’s Hole” was destroyed in a 1990 flood, and is today covered over with tons of rocks supporting a bridge strut — too much infill even for spooks. (Though not enough to deter visitors.)

Sketoe’s executioner Joseph Breare resumed his law practice after the war … until a falling tree killed him during a storm in 1866.

* David Williams develops the John Ward connection in Rich Man’s War: Caste, Class, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley. A few months later an incursion of different irregulars led by a Dale County Confederate officer who deserted to the Union, Joseph Sanders, precipitated the Battle of Newton.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Popular Culture,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,USA,Wartime Executions

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1920: Tom Johnson and Jim McDonald, criminal assailants

Add comment December 3rd, 2011 Headsman

Charlotte Observer, Nov. 27, 1920 (Nov. 26 dateline)

Govenror Bickett today signed the death warrants of Tom Johnson and Jim McDonald, negroes convicted of criminal assault and whose appeal to the Supreme Court had been dismissed. Johnson, a native of Guilford county, and McDonald, of Davidson, will die in the electric chair at the state prison on December 3.


Charlotte Observer, Dec. 4, 1920 (Dec. 3 dateline)

Tom Johnson and Jim McDonald, Guilford and Davidson county negroes, died in the electric chair at the state prison here today for criminal assault, Johnson preceding McDonald to death by only a few minutes. The killing today was the fourth double electrocution by the state since the electric chair was substituted for the hangman’s noose. Both the prisoners appealed to the supreme court for new trials but their cases were dismissed two weeks ago.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,North Carolina,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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1849: Anna Koch of Appenzell

1 comment December 3rd, 2010 Headsman

This date’s pastoral story of adolescent avarice — and impressive disobedience at the scaffold — comes to us from the tiniest of Swiss cantons,* as related in this public-domain text


Anna Maria Koch and Magdalene Fessler were girls — each about seventeen years of age — living in Gonten in the year 1849. On June 12 of that year the dead body of the latter was found lying in a ditch in one of the village pastures. There were upon it no marks of violence, and a coroner’s jury was led to conclude that the girl had come to her death by falling into the ditch in the dark. A little later, the discovery was made that on June 10 Anna Koch had sold to a silversmith in Gonten a chain, a locket, and a rosary. These articles on examination were proved to have belonged to Magdalene Fessler. Anna Koch was placed under arrest and asked to make explanation. The story related by her is as follows: –On the Sunday following Frohnleichnamsfest she met Jean-Baptiste Matezenauer, a young man of the village, and he gave her the articles of jewellery, saying that he had found them. He told her that she must sell the things and put the money in a bag which she was to hide in a field. She must then take with her a friend, stroll through the field and, as though by chance, spy the bag, pick it up and say, “Oh! I have found something!” With the money she was to buy a wedding dress, Matzenauer promising in a short time to marry her. Matzenauer was arrested and confronted with his accuser. He protested innocence, but the girl adhered to her story. She did even more, she enlarged upon it. She said that on the morning of Frohnleichnamsfest she had been in Matzenauer’s company; that he had then told her he meant to kill Magdalene Fessler in the afternoon, and had asked her to station herself in the field where the ditch was. This, she said, she had done, and that while there she saw Matzenauer drag thither the body of his victim. Despite the inherent improbability of her whole account, the girl vehemently reiterated it, each time challenging Matzenauer to a denial. At last the bewildered inquisitorial fathers before whom the examination was being conducted — perhaps with some recollection of the efficacy of torture in eliciting actionable testimony in the case of Landamman Suter — ordered Matzenauer to be brought under the lash. This was done, but without the hoped-for result. Matzenauer remained obdurate.

The case dragged on till November 13. It was then suddenly terminated by the confession of Anna Koch that she alone had planned and committed the murder. The details of the confession were substantially these: –She, a poor girl, had for a long time felt hurt in pride that she had not the money with which to provide herself the chains and trinkets commonly worn by the girls of her acquaintance. So keen was this feeling that finally she resolved to purchase a chain from one of the silversmiths of Gonten and trust to fortune to enable her to pay for it. She obtained the chain, but failing to pay for it by the time agreed on with the silversmith, was asked to return it. The necessity of doing so was fully impending when, on Frohnleichnamsfest, she met Magdalena Fessler in the churchyard, at the beginning of afternoon service. The latter had about her neck a beautiful chain, and Anna Koch, seeing it, was prompted to kill her, take the ornament, sell it, and with the money realised meet her own debt to the silversmith. She told her friend that she had lost her rosary, and asked her to go with her to find it. The two girls walked on together, soon passing into the field containing the ditch. As they were crossing the latter on a plank Anna Koch pushed Magdalene Fessler, causing her to lose her footing and fall into the water. She then jumped into the ditch herself, seized the head of her victim and, holding the mouth open with her fingers, kept the head under water until death ensued from strangulation. Having made her confession, Anna Koch asked that she might suffer the extreme penalty for her crime. Young people of her acquaintance petitioned the Great Council for a pardon. This was refused, the vote standing only six for pardon and ninety-six for punishment. Decree was then entered that the guilty one be beheaded on the block.

The day before that fixed for the execution (the latter being December 3) the condemned girl spent quietly in prayer and in communion with her confessor. She expressed herself as being entirely reconciled to her fate and, in fact, as anxious to meet it. But when led forth on the day of execution, her manner changed. The wild instincts of her Appenzell nature reasserted themselves. She declared that she could not and would not die, and with fierce cries drowned the voice of the officer who read her death-warrant before the people. The reading finished, four strong men seized the girl and bound her on a sled. Thus secured she was dragged to the headsman’s block in the market-place. But here a fresh difficulty was encountered. On being released from the sled her struggles were so frantic and determined that the executioner could not perform his task. After several vain attempts he sent the Reichsvogt (the same mediaeval official personage that had figured at the execution of Dr. Anton Leu and Landamman Suter) to report the situation of affairs to the Great Council and ask advice. The reply returned was that the headsman must do his duty. After an hour and a half of cries and resistance on the part of the condemned, her head was firmly secured to the block by the braids of her hair, and the fatal stroke given.


Gonten (it’s the long collection of buildings along the valley road, at the base of the slope) and environs. (cc) image from Michael Beat.

* Appenzell Innerrhoden is the smallest canton by population, and is larger by area only than the urban canton of Basel-City.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Switzerland,Women

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1876: The samurai leaders of the Hagi and Akizuki rebellions

4 comments December 3rd, 2009 Headsman

Unless you’re a Jedi knight, feudal warrior castes and industrial civilization go together like sashimi and fries. So, when the Meiji Restoration made its choice for Japanese modernization, it gained the enmity of the samurai it necessarily dispossessed.

A news nishiki-e woodblock depicting the defeat of the Hagi Rebellion, with the conquering Miura Goro on horseback. (Click for a wider, three-panel image.) From here.

In many cases, said samurai were especially burned at having initially backed the restoration’s restoration of the emperor and attendant jingoistic sloganeering, only to find themselves on the outs as soon as the new government got its feet under it.

Over the 1870’s, the samurai caste was essentially abolished, and it lost its sword-toting privileges along with (come the advent of a new conscript army) its military import.

Small wonder that once-haughty military folk fought this unwelcome progress katana and wakizashi.

In 1876, the Shimpuren Rebellion helped spark sympathetic retrograde uprisings both named for their locations, Akizuki and Hagi. In all of these, the aggrieved samurai made desperate bids to reassert their lost position and reverse Japan’s westernization.

In all of these, they failed.

Leaders of both the Akizuki and Hagi Rebellions — Wikipedia gives it as two from the former (Masuda Shizukata and Imamura Hyakuhachiro) and seven from the latter (notably Maebara Issei) — were beheaded together this date in Fukuoka.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Mass Executions,Power,Soldiers

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1990: Pastor Hossein Soodmand, apostate

6 comments December 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1990, Hossein Soodmand, a Muslim who had converted to Christianity in the 1960’s, was hanged for apostasy under the sentence of a sharia court in Mashad, Iran — the last known apostasy execution in the Islamic Republic.

Soodmand’s post-conversion ministry in the Assembles of God church was not the sort of thing to endanger life and limb under the westward-looking Shah. But after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, there was a new sheriff in town.

Soodmand was not the last convicted or condemned for the crime — and converting to Christianity is still a crime — and his story has been back in the news of late because he may be in danger of losing his generation-long grip on the milestone.

In fact, he could lose the distinction to the next generation of his own flesh and blood.

The hanged pastor’s son, Ramtin Soodmand, was arrested in August, ostensibly for anti-government propaganda. But having followed his father’s evangelical footsteps, there was considerable fear — only slightly abated by his subsequent release on bail — that he could be put on trial for his life.

Amnesty International even put out an action alert for him during his detention, as a prisoner of conscience.

Around the same time, the Iranian legislature voted overwhelmingly for a measure to codify apostasy as a capital crime: confusingly, apostasy isn’t yet among the state’s statutes, but can be referred to sharia courts empowered to levy verdicts out of the Islamic religious tradition. (Besides Christians, Iran’s Baha’i are the other most likely defendants.)

The fact that these courts’ occasional death sentences since Soodmand have not been carried out is itself a telling indicator that the juridical disposition of apostasy cases in Iran is very sensitive to political pressure.

Small comfort to Ramtin’s sister Rashin Soodmand, who lives in London, and gave this moving interview to the Telegraph while her brother was still in a Mashad prison. In it, she describes her father spurning a bargain to abandon his illicit denomination in exchange for his life.

Of course, my father refused to give up his faith … He could not renounce his God. His belief in Christ was his life — it was his deepest conviction.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Hanged,Iran,Martyrs,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Notably Survived By,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines

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