2012: Richard Stokley, while his accomplice goes free

8 comments December 5th, 2012 Headsman

On a summer’s day in 1991, Richard Stokley and Randy Brazeal picked up two 13-year-old girls from a fair in Cochise County, Arizona and drove them to the desert. There they raped them, then stomped, strangled and stabbed the two to death and dumped their naked bodies in a flooded mineshaft.

Today, Richard Stokley is set to bewas executed for that double homicide.

His accomplice Randy Brazeal is a free man living in Arkansas.

And little but the chance progress of justice and the human judgment calls that officers of the court make every day will distinguish the fate of two men, even though their trial judge has said that he “didn’t have a feeling that one was less culpable than the other.”

Brazeal, a 19-year-old troublemaker new to the area, and Stokley, a local brute twice his age, would spin different stories about exactly what happened in the desert that night to Mandy Meyers and Mary Snyder: about how the attacks began, and who particpated in what.

Long story short: Stokley’s version had both men as full participants, raping at least one girl apiece and each strangling a different victim. Brazeal’s version had him basically just giving people a ride and Stokley committing the crimes. (It’s not clear whether the victims were abducted from the fair, or went along willingly only to be attacked later.)

Forensic DNA testing was only just emerging in 1991, and it required months to process … months that the state did not have before Brazeal’s murder trial was set to begin. Even then, the state’s attorney worried that “the status of the law is in some question as to whether the DNA evidence would be admissible.”

This uncertainty set the parameters for a plea deal in which prosecutors took the guaranteed conviction and Brazeal dodged the needle. He was released in 2011 after serving concurrent 20-year sentences for second-degree murder.

But weeks after that deal was sealed (and before Stokley’s trial) DNA tests on semen retrieved from Mandy Meyers showed that both men had indeed raped her.

The DNA evidence helped seal Stokley’s conviction, even though it and other forensic evidence around the scene also tended to buttress Stokley’s “equal partners in the crime” story to the detriment of Brazeal’s version.

The net outcome* doesn’t necessarily look like justice. Mandy’s devastated mother, Patty Hancock, has been vocal in the run-up to Stokley’s execution about her disgust with the sentencing disproportion.

“With the evidence that they did have, Randy Brazeal should be sitting right next to Richard Dale Stokley,” she told one reporter. “And I will say that until the day I die.”

Stokley, for his part, filed a similar appeal in the courts as grounds for reducing his own sentence. But even though he’s availed every legal avenue possible, he didn’t bother trying the long odds at a gubernatorial reprieve — instead writing the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency:

I am also sorry I was mixed up in those awful events that brought me to this. I have been sorry for the victims and the victims’ families. But no one wants to hear of my miserable sorrow, they just want for me to get dead, which is vengeance. They think it will bring ‘closure.’ But there is no healing in that. Ever.

I have decided to decline a clemency hearing. I don’t want to put anyone through that, especially since I’m convinced that, as things stand now, it’s pointless. I reckon I know how to die, and if it’s my time, I’ll go without fanfare. And if it ain’t, I won’t. God’s will be done.

God’s will is scheduled for 10 a.m. Mountain time today. (Update: Stokley was executed as scheduled.)

* It’s particularly striking that the man who was more forthcoming and cooperative with investigators ended up with the heavier sentence.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arizona,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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2008: Michitoshi Kuma, “It can’t be undone now”

1 comment October 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 2008, during a record-setting year for executions, Japan hanged Michitoshi Kuma, 70, and Masahiro Takashio, 55.

Michitoshi Kuma attracts our notice in particular not simply because he insisted throughout his trial and appeal that he was innocent of abducting and murdering two seven-year-olds in 1992 … but because the circumstantial evidence that convicted him was buttressed by a DNA testing regime that has fallen into disrepute.

One crucial piece of evidence against Kuma was the DNA samples taken from blood near the victims’ bodies. The samples were tested with DNA typing of the MCT118 locus.

The same method of testing was used in the case of the murder of a young girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, in 1990, known as the Ashikaga case. The test result was seen as crucial evidence in supporting the life sentence handed down to the accused, Toshikazu Sugaya.

However, the result was overturned when the DNA was tested again as part of the immediate appeal filed by Sugaya’s defense counsel after his request for a retrial was dismissed.

Sugaya, 62, was freed from prison on June 4, 17 years after police had arrested him.

“At first glance, DNA tests look scientific. That’s why it’s dangerous to have complete faith in them,” Iwata said.

“The tests were carried out in a particularly sloppy way in the early 1990s, when the Iizuka and Ashikaga cases occurred,” he said, adding that the Iizuka case likely was another example of a wrongful conviction.

“It can’t be undone now,” one of the defense lawyers lamented upon hearing of the hanging — conducted, as per usual in Japan, in secret and without prior notice to either the inmate or his attorneys.

The Ashikaga case, in which another prisoner convicted about the same time as Kuma and with the same DNA technology was exonerated and released a few months after Kuma’s hanging, embarrassingly reversed what had once been a signal judicial triumph for early DNA testing.

“The media treated the science as if it were invincible, like Atom Boy,” [one of Toshikazu Sugaya’s attorneys] said sarcastically. “They just kept admiring the DNA judgment without reservations.”

The objections Sugaya’s exoneration prompted about Kuma’s conviction, of course, arrived a bit too late.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Japan,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Wrongful Executions

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1910: Hawley Harvey Crippen

7 comments November 23rd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1910, the notorious wife-murdering doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged at London’s Pentonville Prison.

The sensational trial, which saw the American-born homeopath convicted for dismembering his shrewish and unfaithful wife Cora in an attempt to take up with his young mistress, fitted Crippen for both a noose and a likeness at Madame Tussaud’s. (More trial background here.) It has also made his case twice a landmark in the history of crime and technology: once at the time of his arrest, and again just last month as of this writing.

The core of a case a jury found so open-and-shut as to require just 27 minutes to convict was the poorly explained disappearance of Crippen’s wife, followed by the discovery of a considerably mutilated female corpse under the Crippens’ home.

Although much of the crown’s evidence was speculative and circumstantial — to say nothing of the bodice-ripping gossip of nymphomania and infidelity — a corpse under the floorboards tends to be a compelling circumstance to a jury.

Presumably that anticipation prompted Crippen to flee the Scotland Yard investigation with his mistress Ethel le Neve under assumed names on an ocean liner bound for Canada. The case made criminological history as the first use of wireless communication to apprehend a suspect when the ship’s alert captain telegraphed Crippen’s presence to land as the ship steamed away — enabling a policeman to board a faster boat and arrest the pair as they docked in Quebec.

In the century since Crippen went to the gallows still maintaining his innocence, the case has endured in popular notoriety. The killer’s life has been novelized, meditated upon and borrowed for fiction, offering a draught of inspiration to Alfred Hitchcock along the way.

Books inspired by the Crippen case …

Given his suspicious behavior, scant had been the credence given Crippen’s protestation of innocence.

Until now.

In a meeting of Edwardian crime and cutting-edge technology, two scientists from Crippen’s home state of Michigan stunningly announced in October that DNA testing proves the body was not Cora Crippen after all.

If true, it would appear to void Crippen’s conviction in its particulars without quite exonerating the hanged man from the natural question: whose was the corpse? The manufacture of clothes on the body dated it to the Crippens’ occupancy of the house.

One of Crippen’s modern sleuths, in a wholly speculative vein, thinks it might harken to an altogether different sort of crime: a botched back-alley abortion, just the sort of thing a financially struggling physician might have been involved in.

Maybe.

But if the test invites a modern investigator to look 97 years backwards, it also suggests a posture of epistemological humility. It’s just possible that the light this test casts on our own time is as searching as that it shines on 1910.

The Prejudice of Science

The Crippen case was a classic 19th century-style detective job — the inspector who made the arrest cut his teeth as a younger man on a Jack the Ripper murder — but it took place on the brink of a revolution in forensic science.

Just a few years before, fingerprinting had been embraced by British and American law enforcement and begun its march towards total institutionalization. On the heels of fingerprinting came a multiplicity of biometric approaches to crime scenes — hair and fiber analysis, blood typology, and most recently and dramatically, DNA.

And they, in turn, have brought a rising faith in science to adjudicate the law.

While the “CSI Effect” — jurors’ expectation of case-breaking scientific evidence — conventionally plays as a hindrance for prosecutors who usually have no such thing, the excess deference given to less-than-conclusive forensic evidence can likewise cut against the defense. Evidence mishandled at crime labs, even cooked outright, factors into numerous recent post-conviction exonerations. The once ironclad credibility of fingerprint evidence has itself been undermined by subsequent forensic advances.

In short, for all its undoubted contributions to criminal justice, forensic science packs along its own set of pitfalls, caveats and blinders reflexively privileging evidence of the laboratory.

This is not a reflex to indulge uncritically. History grants the benefit of hindsight, but rarely the luxury of certitude.

A waxwork Dr. Crippen at Madame Tussaud’s. Image used with permission.

So if the prospect of Crippen’s innocence intrigues, that unexplained body — that sudden flight for Canada — that (permanent) failure of Cora Crippen to resurface — nevertheless remain. They might lead us to question our implicit faith in the finality of DNA’s verdict on history rather than the other way around.

Are we certain that an unbroken line of blood relations really connects Cora Crippen to the modern DNA donors of her “family”?

Are we certain that a reliable chain of custody has preserved the original tissue samples unsullied across a century?

And if we are certain, what do we make of that body after all?

It is humans who must ultimately interpret and contextualize even the firmest forensic science. Whatever we might believe of Dr. Crippen we retain the burden of that belief, with all its intrinsic potential for grievous wrong.

The tales Hawley Crippen has yet to unfold from the grave might or might not shed still another different light on our understanding of what happened at 39 Hilldrop Crescent a century ago.

The gentleman’s place as a continuing attraction at Madame Tussaud’s, however, seems assured.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Common Criminals,Doctors,England,Hanged,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Wrongful Executions

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