1996: Antonio James, final judgment

Add comment March 1st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1996, Antonio James downed a last meal of fried oysters and crab gumbo, then went to the death chamber of Angola Prison to suffer lethal injection for the murder of Henry Silver.

Silver was a 70-year-old fellow whom James shot dead in a New Orleans robbery way back in 1979. (Net return: $35.) A few weeks later, he bungled another robbery and ended up shot with his own gun … and under arrest. It was his second murder conviction. Although James dodged 13 death dates and was the senior figure on the state’s death row when his time came, his was pretty unremarkable as death penalty cases go.

This did chance to be the first execution in Louisiana after the film Dead Man Walking (which is set in that state) was released, and it got a bit of additional media coverage as a consequence.

James’s last hours became the subject of the ABC Primetime Live documentary Final Judgment (or Judgment at Midnight). It’s a little hard to come by clips of this program online, but here’s one review, and here’s another. In it, the warden Burl Cain* described James’s execution.

Well, he was laying there, and then he kind of grabbed my hand, so I held his hand, and then I told him, ‘He’s waiting for us. Get ready, we’re going for the ride.’ And I said, ‘The angels are here.’ He kind of smiled, and he said, ‘Bless you.’ That’s the last words he said. And then I nodded my head to go ahead. He was holding my hand real tight. And then after a couple of minutes, he took about three or four deep breaths, and then he relaxed my hand. I do believe right now his soul is in heaven, and he’s OK. And since I believe that, it makes it easier.

* In the Angola memoir In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance by onetime Louisiana death row habitue turned prison journalist Wilbert Rideau, Cain comes off as a real camera-hound.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Theft,USA

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2007: Daryl Holton, wanted dead

Add comment September 12th, 2014 Headsman

Daryl Holton went to the Tennessee electric chair.

Holton was an depressive Gulf War veteran with an acrid relationship with his ex-wife Crystle.

Bitter at being kept from his children for weeks on end, Holton picked up his three kids and their half-sister on November 30, 1997 and told them they’d be going Christmas shopping.

According to the confession that he gave when he turned himself in later that night, he instead drove them to an auto repair shop in Shelbyville, where he shot them in two pairs by having first Stephen and Brent (aged 12 and 10) and then Eric and Kayla (aged 6 and 4) stand front-to-back facing away from him, then efficiently shot them unawares through the back with an SKS. (Eric and Kayla played elsewhere while the older boys were murdered. Eric was hearing-impaired.)

“They didn’t suffer,” Holton would tell his shocked interrogators that night. “There was no enjoyment to it at all.”

The original plan was to complete a family hecatomb by proceeding to murder Crystle and her boyfriend, and then commit suicide. But on the drive over, Holton lost his zest for the enterprise, smoked a joint, and just went straight to the police where he announced that he was there to report “homicide times four.”

Holton had a light trial defense focused on disputing his rationality and competence at the time of the murders — a theme that appellate lawyers would attempt to return to, hindered significantly by Holton’s refusal to aid them or to participate in legal maneuvers that would prevent his execution. A spiritual advisor reported him at peace with his impending death: “He’s very clear, very focused.”

Holton is met in depth in the 2008 documentary Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead, detailing his remarkable relationship — even friendship — with vociferous death penalty proponent Robert Blecker.

Holton’s was Tennesee’s first electrocution in 47 years and, as of this writing, its last. The Volunteer State subsequently removed electrocution from its statutes altogether — but in 2014 it re-adopted the electric chair as a backup option in view of the nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,Tennessee,USA,Volunteers

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1992: Johnny Frank Garrett, “kiss my ass because I’m innocent”

12 comments February 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1992, Johnny Frank Garrett was executed by lethal injection, with the tart last words,

“I’d like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me. And the rest of the world can kiss my everloving ass, because I’m innocent.”

Although Garrett was only 17 at the time a nun from a neighboring Amarillo convent was raped and murdered, and he may have qualified as developmentally disabled to boot — both factors that today would exclude him from execution — that whole innocence story didn’t have much public traction.

“No, no, not at all,” New Mexico attorney Jesse Quackenbush told this site in an interview. “He was villainized from day one: he was a nun-murderer who needed to be executed. The only sympathy really came from the Pope.”

But two decades on, Garrett’s dying profession is one of the more troublesome skeletons in the Texas execution machine’s closet, thanks in no small part to Quackenbush himself.

Quackenbush directed the documentary The Last Word (viewable free on Netflix), a powerful brief not only for Garrett’s innocence* but against the comprehensive rot of the system that shunted hm off this mortal coil — from the front-line investigators all the way through the Lone Star State’s intentionally broken executive clemency farce.

“It was a system-wide failure that caused this kid to die. It wasn’t just the legal system,” Quackenbush said. “The media played a part. The governor was looking more to her own re-election hopes.* There was a dysfunctional family. The Supreme Court wasn’t morally deep enough to realize that executing 17-year-olds and ‘mentally retarded’ prisoners was wrong. There’s the system in Texas that allowed the prosecutors to hand-pick the pathologists to provide junk science.

“It’s a multifaceted failure, and no one facet is more to blame than the others.”

Garrett, a white teenager, disappeared into a Kafkaesque legal labyrinth, after the alleged supernatural vision of a local soothsayer acclaimed him the culprit in the murder of a nun named Tadea Benz. Corporeal indicia of guilt falls somewhere between circumstantial and laughable: fingerprints in a convent he had visited many times, the inevitable jailhouse snitch, and an unrecorded supposed “confession” that Garrett refused to sign.

As in a preponderance of death cases, especially in Texas (pdf), a meek and all-but-unfunded defense team offered scant resistance as prosecutors made the most of this eminently disputable evidence: once the one-sided trial was in the books and the crucial direct appeals likewise slipped past, the proceedings lay beyond the reach of judicial review.

This novel is inspired by the Garrett case.

For all that, there yet remains one un-litigated piece of evidence.

Around the time of Sister Benz’s death, there was another rape-murder of another elderly Amarillo woman, a crime that authorities publicly described as “too similar” to the Benz case not to be part of the same crime spree.

That case went unsolved … but years after Garrett’s execution, DNA databases matched an old semen sample from that second crime to a Cuban rapist (he was among the criminals and undesirables that Castro expelled to the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift) named Leoncio Perez Rueda.

Suggestive.

More dispositive evidence in the form of still-testable crime scene samples may yet reside in Amarillo’s evidence lockers — semen and blood samples that, in the era of DNA, Quackenbush thinks would exonerate Johnny Frank Garrett.

If testing this sort of thing sounds like a no-brainer, you don’t work for Amarillo.

“The [Garrett] family offered the city of Amarillo complete civic immunity and they still refused to run a DNA test, and threatened to countersue** if the family tried to pursue it,” Quackenbush says. “In the state of Texas there are still only laws protecting DNA access for living people: if you’re already executed, you have no rights.”

Which is a particular pity — since “the chances of executing innocent people are still really high.”

* Quackenbush’s case for Garrett’s innocence is outlined in this legal memo (pdf). This site maintains an extensive archive of resources about the case.

** In this, it’s not unlike the Ruben Cantu case, where post-execution evidence of innocence has also been met with legal threats by the state.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Interviews,Lethal Injection,Murder,Other Voices,Political Expedience,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Texas,The Supernatural,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1975: The Balibo Five, before the invasion of East Timor

4 comments October 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1975, five Australia-based journalists were slain in East Timor: executed (ahem, “allegedly”) by Indonesian security forces preparing to invade the former Portuguese colony.

The Balibo Five — Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart; Britons Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie; and New Zealander Gary Cunningham — worked for two different Australian networks, but were together filing reports from the village of Balibo during the tense run-up to the December 1975 Indonesian invasion.

Just weeks before this date, the more Indonesian-friendly faction in the newly-independent statelet had been routed into Indonesian West Timor by the revolutionary Fretilin. Indonesian security forces were “covertly” probing into East Timor; to those on the ground, it was obvious that an attack was imminent.

Just three days after Greg Shackleton filed that broadcast, he was dead, along with all those colleagues who had been so moved by their Timorese hosts.

The Anglo journos had counted on their passports to protect them, and prominently advertised their Australian affiliations, believing that Indonesia’s western-backed dictatorship would not risk alienating its Cold War allies. By the official story — it’s still Indonesia’s official story — the Balibo Five nevertheless managed to all find their way into the crossfire when Indonesian troops overran Balibo on October 16.

But western sponsorship of this impending incursion went much deeper than the reporters imagined.

Much to the dismay of the men’s families, Canberra proved quite amenable to burying the matter rather than create a diplomatic incident. It even took a pass on the subsequent execution of another Australian who came to Timor Leste to investigate what happened to the Balibo Five — and was himself killed during Indonesia’s full-scale invasion.

Nevertheless, a considerable body of evidence has accumulated to the effect that the journalists’ death was the cold-blooded elimination of eyewitnesses who “could have testified that there was indeed an invasion by Indonesian troops.”

Australian filmmaker Robert Connolly last year fired new interest in the case by releasing Balibo, a dramatic feature film (shot on location in Balibo with Timorese extras) based on Jill Jolliffe’s book about the journalists.

Balibo is endorsed by East Timor’s president, and banned in Indonesia.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Australia,Borderline "Executions",East Timor,Execution,History,Indonesia,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal,Shot,Wartime Executions

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2007: Ajmal Naqshbandi, Fixer

4 comments April 8th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 2007, the Taliban beheaded hostage Ajmal Naqshbandi, an Afghan “fixer” who arranged local contacts for foreign journalists.

Naqshbandi had been pinched on March 6 with La Repubblica writer Daniele Mastrogiacomo while both were out on a story together, even though Naqshbandi himself had set up Taliban interviews before.*

Quiet negotiations over several weeks produced a swap that would free the scribes, but a last-minute breach by the authorities — who decided not to return one of the agreed-upon prisoners — caused the Taliban to hang onto the Fixer. (Mastrogiacomo was set free. The man who was driving these two had been beheaded at the outset to prove the captors meant business.)

The story wasn’t quiet any longer, and as it mushroomed into a worldwide cause celebre with a scramble to save Ajmal, the Taliban evidently perceived a political advantage in butchering its hostage.

Success! Afghan President Hamid Karzai looked like a total stooge, willing to ransom a foreigner but not an Afghan.

So, for that matter, did the Italian government, which got it from both sides for being abject enough to deal with terrorists in the first place, and then ignoble enough once it did so to bail out its own national while letting his local partner die.

Naqshbandi is the subject of the (aptly titled) documentary Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi (review).

Fellow-hostage Daniele Mastrogiacomo wrote this book about the ordeal.

The film follows Ajmal’s work with journalist Christian Parenti.

Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer interviewed Christian Parenti in the second half of this August 2009 episode from his (highly recommended, though rarely death penalty-related) WBAI radio program/podcast Behind the News, with intriguing coverage of the political context and the role of Pakistani intelligence:

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(Another leftist outlet, Democracy Now!, interviewed Parenti here.)

Pretty brutal.

But then, war is hell for journalists.

* “This work is very dangerous,” Naqshbandi said a few months before his death. “I bring one enemy to meet another.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Afghanistan,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal,Wartime Executions

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