1982: Charles Brooks, Jr., the first by lethal injection

Add comment December 7th, 2018 Headsman

Besides being Pearl Harbor Day and Noam Chomsky Day, December 7 is a black-letter anniversary for capital punishment as the date in 1982 when the United States first executed a prisoner by means of lethal injection.

Charles Brooks, Jr. — who had by the time of his death converted to Islam and started going by Shareef Ahmad Abdul-Rahim — suffered the punishment in Texas for abducting and murdering a car lot mechanic. With an accomplice,* he had feigned interest in a test drive in order to steal the car, stuffing the mechanic in the trunk and then shooting him dead in a hotel room.

The “modern” U.S. death penalty era had just dawned with 1976’s Gregg v. Georgia decision affirming new procedures meant to reduce systemic arbitrariness — and the machinery was reawakening after a decade’s abeyance.

In the wake of the circus atmosphere surrounding the January 1977 firing squad execution of Gary Gilmore, the laboratories of democracy started casting about for killing technologies that were a little bit less … appalling.

“We had discussed what happened to Gary Gilmore,” former Oklahoma chief medical examiner Jay Chapman later recalled. “At that time we put animals to death more humanely than we did human beings — so the idea of using medical drugs seemed a much better alternative.”

This was not actually a new idea: proposals for a medicalized execution process had been floated as far back as the 1880s, when New York instead opted for a more Frankenstein vibe by inventing the electric chair. And the Third Reich ran a wholesale euthanasia program based on lethal injections.

But 1977 was the year that lethal injection was officially adopted as the lynchpin method for regular judicial executions. It happened in Oklahoma, and Chapman’s three-drug protocol — sodium thiopental (an anaesthetic), followed by pancuronium bromide (to stop breathing) and potassium chloride (to stop the heart) — became the standard execution procedure swiftly taken up by numerous other U.S. states in the ensuing years. As years have gone by, Chapman’s procedure has come under fire and supply bottlenecks have led various states to experiment with different drug cocktails; all the same, nearly 90% of modern U.S. executions have run through the needle.*

Texas was one early adopter, rolling in the gurney to displace its half-century-old electric chair. Its debut with Charlie Brooks was also Texas’s debut on the modern execution scene, and both novelties have had a lot of staying power since: every one of Texas’s many executions in the years since — 557 executions over 36 years as of this writing — has employed lethal injection.

* For up-to-date figures, check the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

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1905: Mary Rogers, chloroformer

Add comment December 8th, 2017 Headsman

From the Wilkes-Barre (Penn.) Times, Dec. 8, 1905.

Mary Rogers Died on the Scaffold

Paid the Last Penalty of the Law After a Legal Fight of Two Years — Was Guilty of a Cruel and Diabolical Murder — Lured a Loving Husband to Destruction for the Sake of His Insurance and for the Love of Another.

WINDSOR, Vt., Dec. 8. — Mary Mabel Rogers* was hanged by the neck until she was dead in the Windsor prison this afternoon for the murder of her husband, Marcus Rogers, in 1902. The woman was pronounced dead at 1:28 o’clock, just fourteen minutes after the trap was sprung.

Without a trace of fear or a show of any emotion, Mrs. Rogers went to her death quietly and calmly, as she had told Mrs. Durkee she would last night. She made no statement or confession, when given an opportunity before the signal of death. She merely nodded her head, indicating that she was quite ready.

She Spent a Sleeples[s] Night.

Racked by her own contending emotions, Mary Rogers arose from her sleepless cot this morning to live [through the few wretched hours of her life and meet her death before the day is near done on the gallows in Windsor prison. Pallid from fear, which clutches at her heart at last, she left her cot and half reeled to the cell door, where she watched the first gray tints of morn creep through the barred window at the end of the corridor, and as the shadows fell more lightly on the whitened walls and the corridor began**] to fill with light the woman knew the final day had come. A half sob, a catch of breath that might have escaped from her and she turned and placed her hands in those of Matron Durkee, who had come to the cell early to be with her when roused from a troubled sleep.

South Consolation in Prayer.

No tears filled her eyes. She had wept early in the night, but the truth of her hopeless end had come to her at last and burnt itself deep into her soul, leaving her but a poor miserable thing for the execution of the law. Long into the night she had prayed with Father Delaney, who had gone to her when she called. Then physical exhaustion, from the silent struggle in her being came and she fell into an uncertain sleep robbing her mercifully of the horrible thoughts of the violent end by the noose.

Her First Emotion.

The sun had fallen below the gray [†] and cheerless hills to the west last night and the departing shadows within the prison walls had fled to inky darkness when Mary Rogers, standing at the grated cell door watching the fading light die out for the last time in her life, turned to Mrs. Loukes, the guard, and began to sob.

It was the first emotion she had shown since she bade her mother farewell last Saturday. Father Delaney was sent for, as Supt. Lovell feared there might be a sudden collapse. The priest came and went to the woman’s cell. Mary Rogers brushed the tears from her eyes and spoke a quiet greeting to Father Delaney. The good priest spoke kind words of comfort to her and she made a reply, but her words could not be heard as the woman had retired to a far corner of the cell. The priest and the woman sank to their knees and prayed. The usual night sounds in the prison corridors were hushed for the convicts knew it was Mary Rogers’ last night on earth.

Feared Physical Pain.

Mrs. Rogers grew calmer and Father Delaney left the cell and went to the guard room, where he was within call. The woman spoke to Mrs. Durkee, the prison matron of the coming day and told her that she was ready to meet her death.

“I know it must be and I am prepared to die,” she said, and added plaintively: “You don’t think they will hurt me?”

“No, Mary, they will not hurt and it will not be long,” replied Mrs. Durkee. “I will go with you as far as the guard room door.”

The Procession to the Scaffold.

Shortly before 1 o’clock the guards went to Mrs. Rogers’ cell and dressed her for the execution. The woman wore the customary black dress and shirtwaist that was made for her first execution. She wore no corset or collar.

With the six deputy sheriffs leading the death procession, she left her cell with Matron Durkee, who accompanied her down the three flights of stairs to the guard room. As Mrs. Rogers left the guard roo to walk down the short flight of steps leading to the enclosed court, she saw for the first time the instrument of her death. It was a walk of forty feet to the gallows’ steps. When the woman reached the gallows’ floor, a deputy tied her hands, the black cap and sack were drawn about her and the drop fell.

The Final Scenes.

The march from the death cell began at six minutes past one o’clock. Mrs. Rogers had just concluded a short religious service with Father Delaney and when the tall forms of three deputy sheriffs appeared at the cell door, she turned to Mrs. Durkee and said simply: “I am ready to go, Mrs. Durkee, and I thank you for what you have done.”

Showed No Fear.

Mrs. Durkee had dressed the woman in a combination black skirt and waist, which had been made for the execution last June. In the face of death, the vanity of the woman asserted itself and she called for a gold chain and locket, which she carefully put about her neck which was bare, the matron having previously removed the collar. She wore no corsets. The cell door creaked and Mrs. Rogers stepped out in the corridor and took her place between the deputy sheriffs. Mrs. Durkee walked by her side. Down the three long flights of steps the woman walked without a sign of fear or collapse.

She reached the guard room and stepped across the ro[o]m and down into the enclosed court. Inside in one corner was the instrument of death, while ranged around the court were the prison officials and the State’s witnesses. Mrs. Rogers looked at the scaffold as she walked to the steps, but turned away and looked dully at the spectators. A deputy sheriff preceded her up the steps of the gallows and another walked by her side in case she should g[i]ve way. The courage of the woman was magnificent. She reached the scaffold floor without a falter, though the face showed the prison pallor usual in prisoners of long confinement.

Sat While Being Pinioned.

Deputy Sheriff Kiniry motioned Mrs. Rogers to a seat on the scaffold and the woman sat down and gazed about as if she was a spectator to an event in which she had no part. Deputy Sheriffs Thomas and McDermott quickly pinioned the woman’s arms behind her and then stepped aside. Deputy Sheriff Kiniry leaned down and asked Mrs. Rogers if she wished to make a statement.

“No,” she said almost inaudibly, and accompanied her answer with a shake of the head.

Stood Up Calmly.

Deputy Sheriff Spofford ordered Mrs. Rogers to stand up and she walked over and stood on the trap. Then a large black sack was drawn over her body and tied at the neck, while Deputy Sheriff Spofford, after the black cap had been adjusted, slipped the noose around her neck. The deputy sheriffs stood back and Spofford gave the signal to Deputy Sheriff McCauley. There was an intense silence in the execution chamber.

Neck Was Broken.

All of the spectators nearly fainted from the sight. No sound came from the black bag other than a half smothered gasp. Dr. Dean Richmond, the prison physician, stepped forward and placing his hand on the woman’s wrist felt for the pulse. The woman’s neck had not been broken by the fall for the pulse beat was still perceptable [sic]. The spectators stodd [sic] still and waited. It seemed an age to them, the fourteen minutes that the black thing hung there on the end of the rope. The doctor pronounced the woman dead at exactly 1:28 o’clock. The witnesses filed slowly back to the guard room and Mary Rogers had paid the penalty of her crime to the State with her life.

Body Taken to Hoosic Falls.

The body was cut down and prepared for bural [sic] by two undertakers from Hoosick Falls, N.Y., where her body will be buried in the family plot. The casket reached the prison an hour before the execution. She told the prison matron that she wanted to be buried in the clothes in which she had been hanged.

History of Mrs. Rogers’ Crime.

Every ingenious device known in law, was used to save Mary Rogers from the gibbet, and it was not until the case was disposed of by the Supreme court of the United States late last month that all hopes was given up [sic] of saving the woman’s life. Had there been one mitigating circumstance; had there been one spark of womanliness in Mary Rogers, had she shown slight possibilities of regeneration, Gov. C.J. Bell, of Vermont, might have interfered. The murder was as brutal as that of Mrs. Martha Place, who hacked her step-daughter to pieces because of jealousy, in Brooklyn. Gov. Roosevelt declined to interfere and save her from electrocution in March, 1899.

Mrs. Rogers killed her husband, Marcus Rogers, in order that she might possess herself of $600, his life insurance, and marry another man. The murder was committed in Bennington, on Aug. 12, 1902, by the administration of chloroform. The circumstances leading up to the murder breathe of foul deceit, cunning and a viciousness inconceivable in a woman.

Mary Rogers was deeply loved by her husband. Tiring of her life with this quiet, unpretentious man, she left him. In her unfortunate life that followed in Bennington she met a youth, barely 17 years old, by the name of Leon Perham, a half breed Indian, who became enamored of her. Perham wanted to marry her. Mrs. Rogers had no mind for that, but kept Perham dangling by her side.

Mrs. Rogers fell in love with a well known citizen of Bennington, who, however, was not aware of her passion for him. As a woman of the street she knew she could not win him, and in her simple way bethought that once in possession of her husband’s $600 life insurance money she would become an object of devotion and attention. With the thought came the plan to do away with Rogers, whom she had left. Rogers, in spite of her life of shame, had oftentimes sent word to his wife to come to him and he would forgive and forget the past. His strong love for her and his willingness to forgive were his undoing. She entered into a conspiracy with Perham, who was her willing tool, being led to believe that she would marry him.

Rogers was a powerful man and his end had to be accomplished by cunning and deceit. She wrote that she was ready to come back; wanted to come back and would he forgive her. Leon Perham turned State’s evidence and on the stand he gave testimony, a recital such as has rarely been heard in the courts of law.

According to Perham, Mrs. Rogers had written to her husband, from whom she was estranged, asking him to meet her at 9:30 at night.

After the meeting and pretended reconciliation Leon led the way into Morgan’s grove, and by a winding path to the river. A great stone wall separated the grove from the river bank. The distance from the wall to the bank was less than half a dozen feet.

“May and I walked along with Rogers until we came to a break in the wall,” said Leon. “She went through and we followed. It was cold and I had on a big overcoat. I spread this out on the ground and all three of us sat down. We were only a few feet from the edge of the river.

“May said she had a new trick with a rope.

“He laughed. May laughed, too, and dew out a piece of clothes-line. Then she said she’d bet she could tie me so that I couldn’t get loose.

“‘I’ll bet you can’t,’ I said.

“She tied my hands loosely and I broke away. She tried it again and I broke away again.

“‘Try it on him,’ I said.

“‘I’ll bet you can’t tie me,’ said Rogers.

“He was as strong as an ox. May tied him and tried to tie him tight, but he just gave a heave and broke away. She tried it a second time, and he broke loose without any trouble. She was getting worried. She tried it a third time, and when he broke loose again I saw that she couldn’t tie him.

“‘Let me do it,’ I told her.

“I took the rope — a piece of clothes line. I said to Rogers:

“‘Kneel down and put your hands behind you.’

“He thought it was fun and knelt down. I tied his hands behind him and he struggled, but could not get loose. His back was towards May.

“I gave her a signal and she drew the vial of chloroform and the handkerchief from her bosom. She poured a few drops on her handkerchief — not very much — and put her arms around his neck. Suddenly she drew his head back in her lap. The move threw him on his hands, which were behind him, so he was doubly helpless. Then she put the handkerchief to his nose. He sputtered. Suddenly she emptied the vial on the handkerchief, completely saturating it. He began to struggle.

“‘May, what does this mean!’ he asked, heaving his body. ‘What does it mean!’

“‘Jump on his legs,’ she said.

“I jumped on his legs to hold him. May had him gripped around the neck and pressed the handkerchief against his nose. His struggles were terrible. He threw me off as if I had been a kitten. He got one hand free and used it to help himself.

“But May clung to him and never once did the handkerchief get away from his nose. She had the grip of a tiger. He struggled and flung himself and her on the ground, and every time I came near him a heave of his legs or his free arm would throw me off.

“While he struggled, his breath was deeper. Suddenly he became more quiet, and in a moment he was limp. May clung to him, even after he was quiet, pressing the chloroform-soaked handkerchief down over his face. When all was over she got up.”

The body was rolled into the river. A note was left, purporting to have been written by Rogers, that he had drowned himself. Mrs. Rogers’ unseemly haste in her efforts to collect the life insurance and other damning circumstances led to her arrest and indictment. Perham confessed and was sent to Windsor prison for life. Mrs. Rogers was found guilty on Dec. 22, 1903, and she was sentenced to be hanged on the first Friday in last February. She was thrice reprieved by Governor Bell, the second reprieve expiring last June, when counsel for the woman made an appeal to the United States Federal court to have certain legal questions reviewed by the Supreme court at Washington. The third reprieve expired to-day.

Mary Rogers was 22 years old and little more than 19 when she killed her husband.

* She’s not even the most famous Mary Rogers of homicide: that distinction goes to a murder victim of that name from earlier in the 19th century … whose never-solved death inspired the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Mystery of Marie Roget”.

** In the original version of this article, the bracketed text appears via an apparent layout error out of order, at the spot denoted by the [†]

† Errant placement position in the published article of the bracketed text as noted in the footnote above.

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1799: Francesco Conforti, regalist and republican

1 comment December 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1799, the subversive priest Francesco Conforti was hanged in the Piazza Mercato for his role in the Naples Parthenopean Republic.

This scholar came on the scene in the 1770s penning apologias for the Enlightenment trend towards the secular authority supplanting the ecclesiastic. For Conforti, Christ had not claimed, and the Vatican ought not wield, civil power.

This was quite an annoyance to the church that had ordained him but Conforti was no red priest. His doctrine was so far from antithetical to sovereigns in the Age of Absolutism that it was known as regalism, and a notable 1771 work was dedicated to the Bourbons’ secular strongman in southern Italy and Sicily.

But clerical reaction after the French Revolution got Conforti run out of his university appointment and even thrown in prison which would drive him into the republican camp — and when those republicans took power in Naples in early 1799 he joined their government as Interior Minister, his duty to shape civil society for “the democratic and republican regime [which] is the most consistent with the Gospel.”

“Democracy is the greatest benefit God has given the human race,” Conforti once intoned. But in 1799 it was a gift to enjoy in small doses: after the Bourbons reconquered Naples that summer, executing 122 republican patriots into the bargain, the human race reverted to the second greatest benefit.

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1683: Algernon Sidney, republican philosopher

Add comment December 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1683 the English politician and philosopher Algernon Sidney (or Sydney) was beheaded to uphold (so he conceived it) “the common rights of mankind, the laws of this land, and the true Protestant religion, against corrupt principles, arbitrary power, and Popery.”

He was one of the 17th century’s great philosophers of republicanism, and his Discourses Concerning Government was more influential in his lifetime than the work of his contemporary (and fellow-Whig*) John Locke.

Although the pen might be mightier than the sword, Sydney himself did not eschew the more literal form of combat and entered a triumphant battlefield for the Roundheads at Marston Moor. But despite penning a strong defense of assassinating despots,** Sidney’s disapproval of the proceedings against King Charles I — a trial at which Sidney, now a parliamentarian, sat as a commissioner — kept him free of the whiff of regicide.

The Republic that prevailed after King Charles’s scaffold, and in which he continued as an MP, was the closest thing Sidney would experience to the political order his writings expounded. When Parliament was forcibly disbanded in 1653 to give over to Cromwell’s rule, Sidney (like his friend and mentor Henry Vane) would not quit the legislature until General Harrison physically seized him. He sorely provoked the interregnum state thereafter by staging a pointed performance of that tyrannicidal play, Julius Caesar … starring himself as Brutus.

Away on the continent when the monarchy was restored in 1660, Sidney would not lay eyes on native soil again until 1677, when he secured a royal mulligan that also spared him the fruits of various plots he had cogitated while in exile to re-depose the Stuarts with the aid of France or the Netherlands. But he returned as one of the leading men of a Whig faction that increasingly courted the ire of the crown and from whose machinations the arch-republican was in no way dissuaded.

Sidney’s prosecution as a party to the Rye House Plot to murder King Charles II helped to earn the new Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys his reputation as a notorious hanging judge: promoted to the post weeks earlier as a reward for his prosecution of Sidney’s alleged conspirator Lord Russell, Jeffreys stacked the trial against the defendant leading Sidney to issue from the scaffold a lengthy disquisition on the iniquities of the court. (Notably, Jeffreys circumvented a standard requiring two witnesses to prove treason by ruling that Jeffreys’ own writings made their author a “second witness”.)

Algernon Sidney is the namesake, along with English parliamentarian John Hampden, of Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College, reflecting Sidney’s importance to the next century’s American revolutionaries. Archive.org has a lengthy public domain compendium (including his discourses on government), The Works of Algernon Sydney.

* Locke had no appetite for the noble martyrdom act pulled by the likes of Sidney and Lord Russell. He fled to the Netherlands during the Rye House Plot crackdown, only returning to England with the Glorious Revolution.

** For example:

Honour and riches are justly heaped upon the heads of those who rightly perform their duty [of tyrannicide], because the difficulty as well as the excellency of the work is great. It requires courage, experience, industry, fidelity, and wisdom. “The good shepherd,” says our Saviour, “lays down his life for his sheep.” The hireling, who flies in time of danger, is represented under an ill character; but he that sets himself to destroy his flock, is a wolf. His authority is incompatible with their subsistence. And whoever disapproves tumults, seditions, or war, by which he may be removed from it, if gentler means are ineffectual, subverts the foundation of all law, exalts the fury of one man to the destruction of a nation, and giving an irresistible power to the most abominable iniquity, exposes all that are good to be destroyed, and virtue to be utterly extinguished.

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1938: Anna Marie Hahn, serial poisoner

1 comment December 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1938, serial poisoner Anna Marie Hahn was electrocuted in Ohio.

The Bavarian-born immigrant had arrived to Cincinnati espoused to a young telegraph operator. Hahn herself tried her hand at a bakery but soon tired of the tedium of honest work and set herself up better in the lucrative business of elder abuse.

Using an ancient ploy still effective to this day, the “plump and pretty” young woman flitted about the German emigre circles of Cincinnati advertising herself as a live-in caretaker for senior citizens. Once retained, she was in a position to price-gouge for her “services”, pilfer from the estate, and even to so insiniuate herself into her clients’ good graces as to enter their wills. Her first victim, Ernest Kohler, actually left her a boarding house: pretty good work compared to rolling out dough before the sun came up.

Using a variety of poisons,** Hahn killed off five known victims during the Great Depression, making off with tens of thousands of dollars in the process that she largely squandered on gambling.*

The first woman to die in Ohio’s electric chair, Hahn was reportedly stoic until her last hours. Then, overcome by desperation, she slid into a state of collapse and even at the last moments of life bawled “incoherent” pleas to a warden who of course had no authority to help her. Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed (both blog and book) — quotes her frightful last words thus:

Good-bye all of you and God bless you … Mr. Woodard [the warden], don’t do this to me. Think of my boy. Can’t you think of my baby? Isn’t there anybody who will help me? Is nobody going to help me?

* One clever fellow, George Heiss, escaped her clutches when he grew suspicious of a mug of beer she presented him; when Hahn refused to sample it herself, he sacked her — but he did not report her.

** Her husband tipped police off by reporting that she had a bottle in the house literally labeled “poison”. (It was croton oil.)

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1323: Jean Persant, a black cat, and the body of Jean Prévost

1 comment December 7th, 2014 Headsman

From the French Grandes Chroniques. The numbered footnotes within the blockquote are verbatim from this text.

Moreover, it befel in this year [1323] that an abbey of the Cistercian Order was robbed of a marvellous great sum of money.

So they managed by the procuration of a man who dwelt at Château-Landon and had been provost there (for which cause he was still called Jean Prévost) that an agreement was made between him and an evil sorcerer, that they should contrive to discover the thieves and compel them to make restitution, in the fashion here following.

First, the sorcerer made a chest, with the help of the said Jean Prévost, wherein they clapped a black cat; and this they buried in a pit in the fields, right at a cross-way, and set three days’ meat for the cat within that chest, to wit bread steeped and softened in chrism and consecrated oils and holy water; and, in order that the cat thus interred might not die, there were two holes in the chest and two long pipes which rose above the earth thrown over that chest, by which pipes the air might enter therein and suffer the cat to breathe in and out.

Now it befel that certain shepherds, leading their flocks afield, passed by this cross-way as had ever been their wont; and their dogs began to scent and get wind of the cat, so that within a brief while they had found the place where she lay. Then began they to scratch and dig with their claws, for all the world as it had been a mole, nor could any man tear them away from that spot.

When the shepherds saw that their dogs would by no means depart thence, then they drew near and heard the cat mew, whereat they were much amazed. And, seeing that the dogs still scratched without ceasing, one who was wiser than the rest sent word of this matter to the justice, who came forthwith to the place and found the cat and the chest, even as it had all been contrived; whereat he was much astonished, and many others who were come with him.

And while this provost of Château-Landon pondered anxiously within himself how he might take or find the author of so horrible a witchcraft, (for he saw well that this had never been done but for some black art; but whereof or by whom he knew not) then it came to pass, as he thought within himself and looked at the chest which was newly-made, that he called all the carpenters of that town, and asked them who had made this chest.

At which demand a carpenter came forward and said that he had made it at the instance of a man named Jean Prévost; “But so help me God,” quoth he, “as I knew not to what purpose he had bidden me make it.”

Then within a brief space this Jean Prévost was taken upon suspicion, and put to the question of the rack: upon which he accused one Jean Persant as the principal author, contriver, and inventor of this cursed witchcraft; and afterwards he accused a monk of Cîteaux, an apostate, as the special disciple of this Jean Persant, and the Abbot of Sarquenciaux [Serquigny?] of the Order of Cîteaux, and certain Canons Regular,(2) who were all abettors of this wickedness. All of whom were taken and bound and brought before the Official of the Archbishop of Sens and the Inquisitor at Paris.

When they were come before them, men enquired of them — and of these more especially of whom they knew by report that they were masters in this devilish art — wherefore they had done this thing. To which they answered that, if the cat had dwelt three days long at those four crossroads, then they would have drawn him forth and flayed him; and from his hide they would have made three thongs, which they would have drawn out to their fullest extent and knotted together, so that they might make a circle within the compass whereof a man might be comprised and contained. Which when they had done, he who was in the midst of the circle would first nourish himself in devilish fashion with the meat wherewith this cat had been fed; without which these invocations would be null and of none effect. After which he would have called upon a devil named Berich, who would presently have come without delay, and would have answered all their questions and discovered the thefts, with all those that had been principal movers therein and all who had set their hands thereunto; and in answer to their questions he would have told them all the evil to be done.

Upon the hearing of these confessions and downright devilries, Jean Prévost and Jean Persant, as authors and principals in this accursed witchcraft, were adjudged to be burned and punished with fire; but while the matter was drawn out and delayed, Jean Prévost chanced to die; whose bones and body were burned to ashes in detestation of so horrible a crime, and the other, to wit Jean Persant, was bound to the stake with the cat around his neck, and burned to ashes on the morrow of St Nicholas’ day; after which the Abbot, and the apostate monk, and the other Canons Regular who had administered the chrism and other matters to this witchcraft, were first degraded and then, by all rules of law, condemned and put into prison for their lives.

(1) In the face of such abuses of things consecrated, the church Councils of the Middle Ages constantly insisted that the Pyx, the Chrismatory, and the Font must be kept under lock and key in all churches. The neglect of these precautions is one of the points most frequently noted by official visitors.

(2) Canons bound to the lifelong observance of a Rule; the best known are the Austin Canons and the Praemonstratensians. They were in fact practically monks, and are often so-called by medieval writers, though modern pedantry sometimes ignores this. Cf. Chaucer, Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.

(3) Quasi-heraldic personal insignia, with motto; cf. Richard II, Act iii, Sc. I. [“From my own windows torn my household coat,/Razed out my imprese”]

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1982: Dos Erres massacre

Add comment December 7th, 2013 Headsman

On December 7, 1982, a unit of army commandos entered the Guatemalan hamlet of Dos Erres.* There it authored one of the signature atrocities of the bloody Guatemalan Civil War.

This was the Guatemala of Efrain Rios Montt, once a junior officer during the CIA-backed 1954 coup that set in motion decades of civil strife.

Relative brutality in that conflict waxed and waned over the years. In 1982, the now-General Efrain Rios Montt overthrew another general and went full werewolf. “A Christian has to walk around with his Bible and his machine gun,” Rios Montt infamously remarked. And more than walk them: the general’s policy was a you’re-either-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists hard line called Frijoles y Fusiles, “beans and shooting.” Campesinos who were with Rios Montt got the beans.

Shortly before this date’s atrocity, a column of Guatemalan soldiers were ambushed by leftist guerrillas, killing 21. Those guys were going to get the fusiles — them, or any convenient peasants who might hypothetically be on friendly terms with them.

Dos Erres, a remote jungle village of 60 families, was the settlement nearest where the rebels were thought to be operating. The little town had already drawn the ire of the army by resisting recruitment to civil defense patrols.

Late on the night of December 6, 1982, 20 members of Guatemala’s Kaibiles commandos set aside their special forces uniforms and disguised themselves as guerrillas, in green t-shirts and civilian trousers and red armbands. Ostensibly their mission was to recapture the rifles the rebels had seized from the ambushed convoy, which were supposed to be stashed in Dos Erres.

Hiking two hours into the jungle to reach their target, the commandos crept into the still-sleeping settlement at 2 in the morning. With the support of a 40-man regular army detachment to seal Dos Erres’s perimeter, the commandos stormed into residences and drug bewildered townspeople out, herding the men into a school and the women and children into a church.

That commenced an all-day litany of horrors for the residents of what was about to become the former village. Dos Erres was wiped off the map by the end of it.

One of the senior lieutenants on the mission raped a woman, and other commandos immediately availed themselves of the implied license to abuse women and girls. By the end of it, the last sobbing women and children were led out to the forest and machine-gunned en masse.

They were by then the last survivors, save for a little boy who managed to escape into the jungle. Throughout the course of the 7th of December, the Kaibiles brought villagers old and young to the edge of the town well. “As they were brought to the well, they were asked, ‘where are the rifles?’,” one of the participants later described. “They said nothing about rifles, and they were hit on the back of the head with a sledgehammer, and thrown in the well.” Every commando had to participate, so that all were implicated.

Commando Gilberto Jordán drew first blood. He carried a baby to the well and hurled it to its death. Jordán wept as he killed the infant. Yet he and another soldier, Manuel Pop Sun, kept throwing children down the well.

The commandos blindfolded the adults and made them kneel, one at a time. They interrogated them about the rifles, aliases, guerrilla leaders. When the villagers protested that they knew nothing, soldiers hit them on the head with a metal sledgehammer. Then they threw them into the well.

“Malditos!” the villagers screamed at their executioners. “Accursed ones.”

“Hijos de la gran puta, van a morir!” the soldiers yelled back. “Sons of the great whore, you are going to die!”

[Commando Cesar] Ibañez dumped a woman in the well. [Favio] Pinzón, the cook, dragged victims there alongside a sub-lieutenant named Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes. When the well was half-filled, a man who was still alive atop the pile of bodies managed to get his blindfold off. He shouted curses up at the commandos.

“Kill me!” the man said.

“Your mother,” Sosa retorted.

“Your mother, you son of the great whore!”

Pinzón watched as the infuriated Sosa shot the man with his rifle and, for good measure, threw a grenade into the pile. By the end of the afternoon, the well overflowed with corpses.

The commandos left town the next morning with six captives: the rebel who had been forced at gunpoint to guide the Kaibiles to Dos Erres in the first place (he would be executed in the field); three teenage girls (the soldiers that night would take turns raping them, then strangled them the next day); and two very small boys (these were returned to the Kaibiles base). A few days later, the army returned and razed the remains of the devastated town to the ground. Only recently has the site been excavated and its many victims’ remains cataloged for proper burial.

The tragedy of Dos Erres became public in the 1990s. Five soldiers who participated in the butchery have each been sentenced to 6,060 years in prison just for this one incident, but there were many more like it in Guatemala in those years — many more people who were put to Frijoles y Fusiles.

A 1990s truth commission after the war pegged the total number of civilians killed during the war above 200,000, mostly indigenous Mayans and (as was the case for most at Dos Erres) mestizos. “State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations documented.”

The truth commission also found that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations.” Indeed, supporting death squads against leftists in Central American dirty wars was overt U.S. policy during the 1980s; just days before Dos Erres, U.S. President Ronald Reagan returned from a Latin American tour and told reporters that Rios Montt, whom he had just met, was “totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala.”

“They’ve been getting a bum rap” from human rights nabobs, Reagan averred.

In the fullness of time that rap would eventually encompass Rios Montt’s own remarkable conviction for crimes against humanity and (since the Mayan population was targeted en masse) genocide in a landmark case that’s still being appealed as of this writing. (The May 2013 verdict against Rios Montt was immediately overturned; the case is obviously extremely politically sensitive.) In a separate case, he’s been charged specifically with responsibility for the Dos Erres massacre.

U.S. President Bill Clinton formally apologized for Washington’s role in Guatemala after the truth commission’s findings were issued in 1999.

The PBS radio program This American Life has an hour-long documentary about Dos Erres here; a companion ProPublica series has even richer (and more horrifying) detail.

* Named for its founders, two men named Ruano and Reyes, the name literally meant “two Rs”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Children,Execution,Guatemala,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women

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1989: Carlos DeLuna, “I didn’t do it. But I know who did.”

2 comments December 7th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1989, with the last words “I want to say I hold no grudges,” Carlos DeLuna died by lethal injection in Texas

At the time, not many people took seriously DeLuna’s claim that a different Hispanic man named Carlos — one Carlos Hernandez — was the man who actually slashed Wanda Lopez to death in a Corpus Christi gas station on February 4, 1983.

“I didn’t do it. But I know who did.” That’s what he’d told a police officer soon after his arrest.

A generation later, it’s increasingly clear that Carlos DeLuna really didn’t do it … and that he knew who did it, knew he was going to the gurney for the crime of a man whom the state claimed was just a “phantom” invented by the defendant. Just a few months before DeLuna went to his death, that “phantom”, still on the streets, had knifed a four-inch gash in another woman’s abdomen. Carlos Hernandez had even bragged to others that his “stupid tocayo” — namesake — “took the blame for” a murder he’d committed. (Hernandez died in 1999.)

Carlos DeLuna might be the most convincingCameron Todd Willingham notwithstanding — instance of wrongful execution in America’s modern death penalty era.

DeLuna was arrested suspiciously hiding under a truck near the scene of a grisly knife slaying at a gas station. A Hispanic man had been reported as the suspect, and the eyewitness was able to identify DeLuna as that man, just moments after his arrest. Case closed.

Except everyone was wrong.

He was hiding because he’d been violating his parole by drinking at a strip club across the street. He chanced to look just like another Hispanic man from the area, a fellow who just happened to be a violent thug. And he didn’t have a spot of blood on him even though the murder scene looked like the set of a slasher film.

“It was an obscure case, the kind that could involve anybody,” Columbia Law Prof. James Liebman said. “Maybe those are the cases where miscarriages of justice happen, the routine everyday cases where nobody thinks enough about the victim, let alone the defendant.”

The facts of the case have been extensively documented elsewhere, including a 2006 Chicago Tribune series* and an entire 2012 issue of the Columbia University Human Rights Law Review, culmination of a years-long project organized by Liebman.

The latter investigation, complete with original source documents, video, and photographs, is preserved for public use at the magnificent Los Tocayos Carlos site. Its intensively-sourced book-length treatment comes highly recommended, but you might need to clear your schedule.

Executed Today is pleased to welcome one of the coauthors of Los Tocayos Carlos, Andrew Markquart — a 2012 graduate of Columbia Law who collaborated with Prof. Liebman on the DeLuna investigation and now practices in New York.

ET: How did you come to focus on this case, and what went into the investigation?

AM: I got involved after my first year at law school. I started out as a research assistant for Prof. Liebman, and he had been working on this project for years in one form or another when I got involved. I had already had quite a bit of interest in death penalty issues, so I jumped on it.

The initial investigation that Prof. Liebman did was back in 2004. He had done a previous study called “A Broken System” in which they found a shockingly high rate of reversals in capital cases. And basically the question that came out of that for him was, what does that mean?

Does that mean that the courts are doing their jobs and there are a lot of reversals because they’re being very diligent?

Or, is that high number indicative of some big systemic problems?

He started out looking at cases in Texas, for obvious reasons, and particularly focused on cases involving single eyewitnesses. This one came out fairly early on, but there wasn’t much about it initially to suggest this was a strong case. But Prof. Liebman was having someone going down to Corpus Christi anyway and had him check it out, and within one day this investigator was able to track down a lead and figure out exactly who this Carlos Hernandez person was who DeLuna claimed was the actual killer. From there the floodgates opened.

This case reads like something out of Dumas … your doppelganger, who looks just like you and also shares your name, commits a crime and you take the rap. Speaking as a layperson, it’s astonishing that Carlos DeLuna explicitly made the very argument you’re making, that this guy Carlos Hernandez was the real killer. But it wasn’t so much that DeLuna’s allegation was considered and rejected as that it was never taken seriously at all, even by his own defense. Why was that?

It’s a good question and it’s one of the major points we tried to make.

At first DeLuna was a little hesitant, with good reason: Hernandez was well-known in Corpus Christi; he was a terror in the town and had been known to use violence against people who threatened to expose him. Eventually the threat of execution overcame that.

His defense team did very little to research what could or would have been his saving argument, and on the flip side the prosecution said Carlos Hernandez didn’t even exist, which is just a mind-blowing claim. This guy had a rap sheet a mile long. He had been a major suspect in 1979 in another murder case involving one of the prosecutors in the DeLuna case.

The defense lawyer in that case did what DeLuna’s lawyer should have done: he called Carlos Hernandez to the stand and basically prosecuted Carlos Hernandez as his defense. He got his client off, and we’re pretty confident from our research that Hernandez was actually guilty of that murder, too.

Hernandez was definitely no “phantom”: he was known to law enforcement, known in the neighborhood. Can you explain why the prosecuting attorneys would make such a claim?

It’s hard to explain. I suspect they probably thought they had the right guy, they probably thought he was making up a bogus story … and they cut a few corners. But that’s speculation.

Your report writes, “Central to DeLuna’s obscurity was the failure of lawyers on the defense as well as the prosecution side to have the curiosity and gumption to look just an inch or two below the surface.” It seems like there just wasn’t much of any work done by any actor to pursue evidence that could defend DeLuna.

Carlos DeLuna’s defense lawyer had trouble getting any kind of funding to do investigation. And this was his first criminal case of any kind, let alone capital case.

The police only investigated for a couple of hours before turning it over to the store manager to clean up to open the next morning. It was a simple case of tunnel vision: they had arrested Carlos DeLuna, they got a quick eyewitness ID, and they thought they were done.

There’s all kinds of evidence at the scene. In the police photos, which are available at our website, there’s a footprint in blood that has to be the culprit’s shoeprint, and they never even saw it. It was that sloppy. You can also see the detective, Olivia Escobedo, literally standing on evidence — a nice metaphor for the investigation.

DeLuna’s lead prosecutor has recently reiterated his confidence in the verdict in the face of your investigation, and said that DeLuna lied about his activities that night. Did he?

Yes, he did. For reasons I can’t make sense of, he either was just severely misremembering, or just made up, some story about hanging out with these girls earlier in the evening that was completely untrue. But the thing about it is that the story as he gave it didn’t even help his case. It didn’t give him an alibi. But it hurt his case, because then they could bring in these girls to testify and destroy his credibility.

It’s hard to figure out what was in his head to say that. DeLuna wasn’t the most intelligent person; his IQ tested just barely above the threshold for cognitive impairment.

The original trial was in 1983, and Carlos was executed in 1989. How representative are the circumstances of this case still, relative to new death penalty trials today or to death row prisoners whose appeals are being handled now?

“[DeLuna]’s lying. He won’t admit it. I hope this is the day he gets it. He’ll lie like he’s been lying and now he’ll have to pay for what he did to my daughter.”
-Wanda Lopez’s mother Mary Vargas, quoted in Dec. 7, 1989 Dallas Morning News

“After carefully reviewing the information recently uncovered and printed by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley in the Chicago Tribune, I am convinced that Carlos DeLuna did not kill my sister and that Carlos Hernandez was the real murderer.”
-Wanda Lopez’s brother Richard Vargas, June 2006

You see these kind of cases and issues come up even today. That’s one point we try to make: yes, this case was from 29 years ago, but a lot of things remain the same.

There was no physical evidence, despite all the blood at the scene: it was just based on eyewitnesses.** And you kind of have a casebook bad eyewitness identification. They didn’t use a lineup; it was nighttime; it was a cross-racial identification, which we know are highly error-prone; he [DeLuna] was in the squad car, at the scene, handcuffed, under a highly stressful environment. You have these kinds of show-up identifications happen all the time, all over the country. They’re rife with error.

I know actually someone in the Texas legislature has introduced a bill to reform the eyewitness identification process.

And there’s a lot of good public defenders out there who really work hard and do good work, but also a lot of underexperienced and overburdened public defenders who are just being crushed. There’s always systemic pressure for cops and prosecutors to cut corners. I certainly don’t think the lessons of Carlos DeLuna’s case have been learned.

In your view, what are the most important of those lessons?

The fallibility of our criminal justice system. Carlos DeLuna wasn’t convicted and executed in some third world country — he was given a trial and a lawyer and appeals and all the other protections and yet he still slipped through the cracks.

And the other lesson is the widespread nature of the factors involved, like the unreliable eyewitness ID. People go to prison on that basis every day. It seems highly likely there are more Carlos DeLunas.

The way that we found this story and developed it was enormously labor-intensive. The number of man-hours that went into this, between authors, investigators, research assistants, and the whole staff of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review … you just can’t do this for every case where there’s some kind of colorable suggestion of the possibility of wrongful execution.

I’d be very surprised if there aren’t more like him.

* The Tribune series on DeLuna began on June 25, 2006 … the day before Supreme Court crank Antonin Scalia taunted in Kansas v. Marsh that there was “not one” case of a “clear” wrongful execution. “The innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby,” Scalia wrote.

** Eyewitness (mis)identification is also at the heart of the Ruben Cantu case, another suspected wrongful execution in Texas.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Interviews,Lethal Injection,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1869: Nicholas Melady, the last public hanging in Canada

2 comments December 7th, 2011 John Melady

Thanks to John Melady, author of Double Trap, for the guest post about his kinsman. -ed.

I was standing with my father, looking at the ruins of an old house. I thought what remained of the brickwork was interesting, until Dad said, rather offhandedly: “And this is where the murder happened.” I was rather shocked, and asked what he meant.

His answer led me to write Double Trap, the story of the last public hanging in Canada.

Briefly, the tale goes something like this.

A man named Nicholas Melady Senior, my great-grandfather’s half brother, amassed substantial landholdings in Huron County, Ontario Canada, prior to 1868. In the years just before that, he played various family members off against each other, and depending on his whim, one or other of them would be promised his inheritance. His son Nicholas Junior was used worst of all. He worked without pay for his father, was promised all or at least some of the lands, but then was told he would get nothing — several times.

One night, Nicholas Senior, who was commonly called The Old Man, was in bed with his new wife, when Nicholas Junior and two of his friends, all of whom were drunk, broke into the Old Man’s house. A terrible fight ensued, and it included a hand gun and an axe, but at the end of the thing, the Old Man and his bride were dead.

After some very shoddy detective work, Nicholas Junior and his two friends were rounded up and lodged in a basement cell of an old house in nearby Seaforth, Ontario. (The local magistrate owned the place.) Part of that cell still exists, including the barred window the culprits would have looked through — at the rest of the cellar. It is rather creepy to visit, and while I researched Double Trap, I did not want to be there for long, and never at night.

In due course, the three desperadoes were sent to an even more chilling old jail in Goderich, Ontario. (It is now a Canadian historic site, and is visited by throngs of people every year.) There, Nicholas Junior’s friends ultimately turned against him.

However, before that happened, local detectives used a unique stratagem to gain evidence against Nicholas. I could never be sure where they got the idea. They hired a beautiful young woman who was born in Michigan, (who was likely a prostitute) and talked her into spending time in a cell in the jail. She was paid to gain the trust of Nicholas, and hopefully a confession.

In that sense, she was the first part of the “double trap,” in the book’s title.

The woman was given the name “Jenny,” and in time, by dropping notes where he would find them, and ultimately putting herself in a position where she could whisper to him through his cell window, (she positioned herself in the women’s exercise yard; he was inside his cell), she caused him to fall in love with her. All of her notes, and his as well, were used in the trial that followed. The two never actually touched each other.

When she walked into the courtroom during the trial and took the stand to describe her job and show the letters Nicholas had written, he was utterly speechless with shock. He had completely trusted her, and to him, her betrayal was total.

The execution of Nicholas Melady was a macabre affair, as were events leading up to it. His death cell was positioned quite close to where he was hanged. He could hear workers building his scaffold, and while I cannot prove it, I believe he would have been able to witness the construction of the thing. The death cell still exists, and in researching this book, I visited it several times. Now that is creepy.

So is the ground where he took his final few steps, out to the scaffold. It was built on top of the prison wall. He went up the steps on the inside, then lurched to his death, down the outside of the wall — where all the spectators waited to see the spectacle. His fall, through the trapdoor in the gallows floor was the second trap of the book’s title.

The execution was the last public one in Canada. Three weeks later the government of the country abolished public executions because they were regarded as too barbaric. There was controversy however, around the one for Nicholas. Many people felt he had been betrayed, by his accomplices, and by “Jenny,” and so lots of talk in the community made the public officials fear that there would be demonstrations the day of the death.

For that reason, they moved the execution time up by about three hours. “Only” about 300 people witnessed it. Several thousand came to see the spectacle later in the day, but by the time they reached the site, the show was over. His body was cut down, and for reasons I could never fathom, was actually waked for two days in the same house where the killings took place. Lots of the curious came to see the corpse of the killer, laid out for display.

The day after the execution, the New York Times was the first newspaper on the street with the story. I could find no trace of “Jenny,” or what became of her after her jailhouse job. Her testimony in court was never really challenged.

I was able to position myself in the cell where Nicholas was when he whispered to “Jenny.” I then went into the women’s exercise yard and by leaning against the jail wall easily understood how the conversations between the two transpired.

The book is Double Trap, by John Melady. Published by Dundurn, and available in the United States at Dundurn Publishing, 2250 Military Road, Tonawanda, New York 14150. In Canada, the pub address is: Dundurn Publishing, 3 Church Street, Suite 500, Toronto, Ontario M5E 1M2 In Britain, the address is: Gazelle Book Services Limited, White Cross Mills, High Town, Lancaster, England LA1 4XS.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Public Executions,Sex

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2008: One man pardoned during hanging

Add comment December 7th, 2010 Headsman

There were two hangings reported this date at the prison in the southern Iranian city of Kazeroun (or Kazerun).

One Kourosh was executed for murdering a 52-year-old in 2004.

And someone named Abolfazl — well, he was much, much luckier. The parents of his victim availed their right to pardon him, although they waited until after the hanging had commenced to do so.

I believe (because how often can this happen in one town?) that this is the failed/survived execution attributed by Amnesty International to 2 December — which Amnesty argues “illustrates the inherent cruelty of the death penalty.”

The original link given by the Amnesty press release is now dead, but this source links the same article and says it cites 7 December; this Persian news story positively attributes the event to dawn on 17 Azar on the Iranian calendar, which corresponds to 7 December.

Not seven seconds had passed when the murder victim’s mother gave her pardon. Moments later, the victim’s father gave consent. Thus, immediately the accused was brought down from the gallows and given CPR while he was transferred to hospital.

Abolfazl survived. This story sported the headline “the sweet end of an execution.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,Iran,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Ripped from the Headlines

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