1705: Edward Flood and Hugh Caffery

1 comment December 5th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1705, Edward Flood and Hugh Caffery hanged at Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green for robbing one “Mr. Casey.”

Both men were impugned by a witness who subsequently recanted — at which point the victim’s mother-in-law, Elizabeth Price, stepped in to denounce them instead. In their dying statements (republished in James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches: From Eighteenth-Century Ireland) both men insist upon their innocence of the robbery.

It’s unclear to this reader all these centuries later whether we are meant by these doomed “robbers” to understand something unstated between the lines about Elizabeth Price’s animosity towards them, or whether we simply have a case of unreliable witness testimony and tunnel vision. (Obviously we also can’t know whether Flood’s and Caffery’s protestations are reliable.) Judge for yourself, gentle reader:


THE LAST SPEECHES AND DYING WORDS OF

EDWARD FLOOD AND HUGH CAFFERY

Who was Executed at St. Stephen’s-Green, On Friday the 5th of December, 1707 for Robbing of Mr. Casey, at Cabbra?

Good Christians,

Now that I am brought to so scandalous an End, and within a few Minuts of my last Breathing; I here declare before God and the World, that I was not Guilty of this Fact for which I am now to Dye for; neither was I privy thereto, nor to any other Robbery all my Life-time.

One of the same Company that I belong’d to being Confined in the Castle Guard, and transmitted to New-Gate for stealing Cloaths, was in a starving Condition; and that Mr. Casey, who was Robbed, hearing there was some of the Regiment in New Gate, and being Robb’d by some of the same Regiment, as they suppos’d, came to New Gate, to see if he cou’d hear any thing of this Robbery among them.

Then this Man who belong’d to the same Company that I was in, by name Bryan Mac Couly, being in a starving Condition, and Casey making him Drink, and Bribed him, Swore against Four of the same Company; for which we were Apprehended.

In a considerable time after, his Conscience prick’d him; and sent for the Reverend Mr. Jones, who examin’d Mac Couley, who Declared he Wrong’d us Four … That Elizabeth Price, Mother-in-law to the said Casey, hearing that Bryan Mac Couly had made the second Examination, came to him, and said; If he would not Swear against us, she would swear against Caffery and I; so she desired him to Swear, and that he shou’d have for his Reward two Guineas, but he wou’d not.

Then Mrs. Price Swore against Caffery and I, and said she knew us Both well enough … [and] Mrs. Price pitch’d upon one of Man of the Battallion, and said, that was one of the Men, and would have had him confined only he had good proof to the contrary; and made out where he was that Night.

Likewise I declare once more before God and the World, I know nothing of this Robbery that I am to Die for; altho’ I deserved Death before now, but I thank my God not for Robbing or Stealing, but for keeping Company with Women, and I was much given to that Crime, and do trust that God of his great Mercy will forgive me …

Edward Flood

Christians,

Since it has pleased Almight God, that I should Dye this most unfortunate Death; these few minutes that I have to live, shall be to satisfy the World of what was laid to my Charge. And now that I am to dye, I hope all Good Christians do believe that I have a tender regard for my poor soul, (which I hope God will be Merciful to,) and not think that I will dissemble with the World so as to deprive my self of Eternal happiness.

Dear Christians, these being my last Words, I do declare I never was Guilty of this Crime that I now suffer for, nor was I ever Guilty of so hainous a Crime as Stealing or Robbing; but all other small Vices I have been Guilty of, (and hope my Heavenly Father will pardon the same) Cursing, Swearing, and Women was the only Vice I was Guilty of; And that I do heartily forgive the Persons that hath occasion’d this my untimely End. And do further declare, that I never before knew any that was privy to the fact I suffer for; not did I see Mrs Price for 3 Years to my knowledge, ’till she came to New Gate.

I lived with one Ignatius Taffe, at the sign of the Black Swan in Smite-Field; during which service, I have been often in her House, yet never did her any wrong. I Confess I deserv’d Death long ago for the matter of keeping Company with Lewd Women, and I was as much given to that, which is all that troubles my Conscience.

I never wrong’d any living Soul, except I did my Master when I was sent to Buy small Conveniences for the House, then some small thing or other I often kept for my own use: Which is all I shall answer at the Tribunal. And pray God that all Christians may eschew those Vices of Lewd Women, Cursing and Swearing; God will one time or other revenged on ’em that Practice ’em. I desire the prayers of all that sees my untimely End. So fare well.

Hugh Caffery

These are the true Copies of the Dying Persons as delivered by ’em.
Printed by E. Waters in School-House Lane.

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1797: Martin Clinch and Samuel Mackley

Add comment June 5th, 2017 Headsman

Say’s Weekly Journal, May 13, 1797:

On Sunday evening, between eight and nine o’clock, as Mr. Fryer, of Southampton Buildings, Holborn, was returning home, accompanied by a young Lady, in passing through the fields near White Conduit-house, he heard the screams of a woman in distress. He hastened to her assistance, and perceived her in the hands of three footpads, who, on seeing him approach, shot him through the head.

Some of the Bow-street patrols, who go that road, hearing the report of the pistol, made up to the place, where they found Mr. F. lying, not quite dead, but who expired in a few minutes afterwards; he appeared to have been robbed of his watch and money, and near the spot lay a stick with a sword in it.

The young Lady, who was in company with him, it is supposed, ran away on the villains first attacking him.

Three men were last night taken up on suspicion of the above murder.

General Evening Post, May 11-13, 1797:

Mr. Fryer, who was murdered on Sunday evening last, in Islington fields, was a young man of some property, and had been brought up to the law.

The young Lady, who accompanied him at the time, was his intended bride. They had been to spend the day at the house of a Mrs. P. in Paradise-row, Islington, and were returning home when the murder took place.

Mrs. P. had come a short distance from her own house with them, and after they had bid her good night, and had got about 100 yards from her, she was attacked by three villains, who robbed her of her cloak and money.

Her cries alarming Mr. F. he ran back to her assistance, which being perceived by the robbers, one of them advanced and shot him through the head, and then robbed him.

The young Lady was a distant spectator of this shocking scene.

London Evening Post, May 16-18, 1797:

Yesterday evening three men were examined at Bow-street, for the murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington Fields, but, after a long investigation, they were discharged.

London Star, May 25, 1797:

Tuesday Martyn Clynch and James Mackley were committed to Newgate by John Floud and William Brodie, Esqs. charged with the oath of Ann Fryer and others, on suspicion of being the persons guilty of the wilful murder of Sydney Fryer on Sunday the 7th inst. in the fields near the Work-house, in the black road, Islington.

London Chronicle, June 1-3, 1797:

OLD BAILEY.

Yesterday, 14 prisoners were tried at the Old Bailey, two of whom were capitally convicted, viz. Samuel Mackley and Martin Clinch, for the wilful murder of Mr. Fryer in the parish of St. Mary, Islington.

It appeared by the evidence, that the deceased and his cousin, Miss Fryer, were walking across the fields in their way from Southampton Buildings, Holborn, towards Islington: that when they arrived at the field called the Cricket field, near White Conduit House, they heard a noise as of some person in distress; this induced the deceased to go to the spot.

At this time, Miss Fryer, the principal witness on this occasion, was at some distance from him. By the time she came to the stile, which he had crossed in his way to the place, she saw Clinch fire, when the deceased fell into a small pond. Clinch then took his watch out of his fob, and a sum of money out of his pocket.

By this time Miss Frye [sic] had got on the other side of the stile, when the prisoner, Mackley, held a pistol to her head, and took her cloak from her. They then went away, and Mr. Fryer was taken to a house at a short distance from the spot, where he died at eleven o’clock the same evening.

The evidence in support of the above statement, as given by Miss Fryer, was clear, artless, and unembarrassed. When asked if she really believed Clinch to be the man who shot Mr. Fryer, she said she believed from her soul he was; with respect to Mackley she seemed not quite so positive; several witnesses, however, proved his being seen in the same field within a few minutes of the time the murder happened, who all had noticed him on account of his having red hair.

The prisoners being called on for their defence, they only said they were innocent, but could give no account where they were at the time the murder was committed.

The jury went out for about half an hour, and returned with a verdict — Guilty. They were both ordered for execution on Monday next.

Five were convicted of felony, and seven acquitted.

Hereford Journal, June 7, 1797:

This morning were executed at the front of Newgate, Clinch and Mackley, for the robbery and murder of Mr. Frye, in Islington Fields.

An extremely disagreeable circumstance happened. The floor of the scaffold, from some previous misarrangement gave way, and precipitated into the area of the apparatus, Messrs. Vilette and Gaffy, the latter a Catholic Priest, who attended Clinch, and the two executioners. Mr. Sheriff Staines had a very narrow escape.

Mr. Gaffy was very severely hurt, as were both the executioners; Mr. Villette escaped with a slight bruise.

The two malefactors swung off with their distorted features exposed to the view of the distressed spectators. Their bodies were removed for the purposes of dissection and exposure.

Lloyd’s Evening Post, September 11-13, 1797:

Burton Wood and William Harlington, the two persons executed a few days ago on Kennington Common, for highway-robbery and sheep-stealing, made voluntary confessions of the various depredations in which they had been concerned.

Burton Wood positively declared, that Clinch and Mackley, who were hanged for the murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington Fields, were totally innocent of that crime, it having been committed by himself and two others.

Harling made a similar confession respecting the murder of Mrs. Gray at Waltham-Abbey, for which two men, of the names of Harold and Upsham, were taken up; but who, he averred, had no connection in that shocking transaction. The robberies mentioned in their confessions were very numerous.

Whitehall Evening Post, September 12-14, 1797:

The following is a copy of a Letter sent from Burton Wood (who was hanged a short time since on Kennington Common, for a footpad robbery) to Mr. Carpenter Smith, in the Borough, from which it appears that he was the person concerned in the murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington-fields, and that Clinch and Mackley, who were hanged for that murder, died innocent; also the copy of another letter which was sent from William Harling, a person that was hanged with Wood for sheep-stealing, to a friend of his, in which it appears is a confession of the robberies that he has been guilty of.

Honoured Sir,

I confess to robbing Mr. Francis, near Dulwich; I was mounted a grey horse. To stopping the Chatham coach the other side of Shooter’s-hill: I was dressed in a blue great-coat: I was mounted on a brown crop mare; it was between four and five in the afternoon; and to the robbing and murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington-fields; the two men, Clinch and Mackley, was innocent of it; and to breaking open the house of Mr. Emery, brass-founder, in Shoe-lane, Fleet-street, and taking away Bank notes, cash, and other articles to the amount of 130 l.: and to robbing the waggon of Mr. Newport and Sons, of Crayford, in Kent, on Blackheath, last Easter Wednesday night, about ten o’clock — the man that was tried at Maidstone for it in the name of George Rhodes, was innocent of it; and I was the person that stopped and robbed the carriage on the night of Thursday the 25th of May last near Ball’s Pond turnpike; and to breaking open the house of Mr. Parkes, the brewer, in Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s-inn-lane, Holborn; I was the person that broke open the iron chest in Mr. Parke’s Counting-house; and to breaking open the house of Mr. Sewell, Seward-street, Goswell-street, St. Lukes, and taking away two Bank-notes, one of 5 l. and one of 10 l. and cash to the amount of 15 l. on Sunday night the 14th of last February; I as by myself; and to robbing a Mr. Robert Morris, belonging to the Custom-house, of his watch and fourteen shillings in Locks Field’s; and to the robbery that I now suffer for; and to robbing the Fishman near Sutton, when I robbed George May, of Banstead, in Surrey, of 2 l. 16 s. 6 d. for which I now suffer.

The Lord have mercy upon my sinful soul!

Honoured Sir, I hope the robberies that I have confessed I hope will be the means of many innocent men’s escaping to be brought to justice for the same, for I am the transgressor thereof. It would have been a good thing if I had suffered while Clinch and Mackley were under confinement in Newgate, for the robbery and murder of Mr. Fryer, in Islington-fields; for they died innocent. I confess to being one of the party, but they was not with me; I might have been the saving of their two lives had I have suffered sooner, but now it is too late; but I hope they are happy, I hope my soul will meet them in Heaven.

These are the confessions of your long-lost and unfortunate

Humble servant,
Burton Wood
August 21, 1797


Dear Charles,

The following names are them that I have robbed, and therefore I hope that nobody else may be brought to justice when I am dead and gone concerning them, for nobody but me did them, except Alderson, that suffered last Thursday at Maidstone, rob robbing Mr. Robinson, at Sydenham.

1st. Mr. Polton, of his horse.

2nd. Mr. Spinks, the bricklayer, of his horse.

3rd. And broke open the house of Mr. Mason.

4. Mr. John Hudson, the shopkeeper; Mr. Pinner, butcher, of nine sheep and two beasts; to taking the eleven sheep off Mitcham Common; Mr. Mills, of Mordon, of eleven fat weathers; breaking open the house of Mr. Marriot, of Mitcham; Newton and Leache’s callico-grounds twice; Mr. John Waggoner’s callico-grounds once; Mr. Groves, of his ten hogs; Mr. Blink, last Easter Monday; the Epsom Fisherman, Easter Tuesday; the two Gentlemen that had been to Ewill with their children to a boarding-school, near the turnpike, in a single-horse chaise: and Mr. Robinson, at Sydenham; a Gentleman in a single-horse chaise, on Mordon Common, going to Ewill.

I am sorry that Robert Harrold and Frederick Upham was taken up for the murder of Mrs. Gray, at Waltham Abbey, for they were innocent: I was one that was concerned in it, and these sheep that I now suffer for; therefore I wish to let you know, that they may not give themselves any more trouble to take any body else into custody, for it was only me and Alderson, for that robbery at Mr. Robinson’s at Sydenham, which robbery I was concerned with.

Give my remembrance to Mason, and ask him if he has hanged that great black dog of his, that laid upon the basket of clothes; if not, it is high time he had, for he was a very neglectful servant, for he lay as still as a mouse while I and my Pall drank a bottle of peppermint over his head. But now they have got what they longed for, and it is to be hoped they will sleep in peace when I am dead.

William Harling.

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1957: Jorge Villanueva Torres, Monstruo de Armendáriz

Add comment December 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Jorge Villanueva Torres was shot in Lima, Peru as the notorious “Monstruo de Armendáriz”.

Except Jorge Villanueva Torres wasn’t actually the monster. His case is well-known in Peru but less so beyond, and all links in this post are to Spanish pages.

Villanueva’s hasty transmogrification began on the ninth of September 1954, when headlines announcing the discovery of a dead three-year-old child near Lima commenced a national crime hysteria. Authorities surmised that the little boy had been raped, too.

Vague eyewitness fixing on the suspect’s height and dark skin* brought many arrests of people fitting these loose criteria. Villanueva, a career petty criminal, fit that bill; when police announced him as the suspect, he became the object of his countrymen’s hatred.

Convicted in an atmosphere of prejudicial hysteria on the strength of eyewitness testimony loosely matching him to someone who might have given the victim a sweet to lure him off, Villanueva exploded with rage, even attempting to attack the judge. Naturally this only served to further implicate him as an uncontrollable beast — not as a falsely accused man pitiably near the breaking-point after two years as a nation’s scapegoat.

Villanueva asserted his innocence all the way to the fatal stake.

Those futile protestations are today widely accepted as true. There was little firm evidence against him and even the contemporary autopsy ruled against the incendiary child-rape allegation. Later forensic investigations have suggested that the poor child might simply have been the victim of a hit-and-run car accident. The mingled torments of guilt and relief in such a motorist as the matter played out must have been profound.

This case remains in present-day Peru a standing warning against occasional attempts to reintroduce the death penalty in response to the outrageous crime du jour. (Peru abolished the death penalty for all peacetime offenses in 1979.)

The Peruvian band Nosequien and Nosecuantos muses on the injustice in a single that shares its title with Villanueva — “Monstruo de Armendáriz”.

Whomever was the true “monster” — and whatever that person’s true measure of monstrosity — has never been known.

* Racism in Peru against black skin was then and remains today endemic.

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

1 comment 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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1962: James Hanratty, the killer all along

9 comments April 4th, 2012 Headsman

Fifty years ago today, still insisting that he had “a clean conscience,” James Hanratty was hanged at Bedford Prison for the murder of Michael Gregsten and the rape-shooting of his mistress Valerie Storie.

Hanratty, a petty criminal with no history of violence — “I try to live a respectable life, except for my housebreaking” he testified* — fell into a web of questionable circumstantial evidence, plus the (also questionable**) eyewitness identification of the surviving Ms. Storie.

It was called the “A6 murder” because a stickup man had forced the lovers at gunpoint to drive him along that road, until pulling them over at the aptly-named Deadman’s Hill where he did the vicious deeds and left his victims for dead.

This was a bizarre and shocking crime, and the investigation led back to Hanratty only via a winding, almost accidental trail.

The murder weapon materialized on a bus, wiped clean of fingerprints; later, cartridges to match it materialized at a boarding house, and a confused reconstruction of whose aliases were occupying which rooms there uncertainly suggested Hanratty as a suspect.

The case, checking in at a then-record 21 trial days, featured 70 witnesses battling over inconclusive data points like the doubtful relationship between autobiographical remarks made by the killer and Hanratty’s actual biography, and Hanratty’s want of an apparent motive for an act so foreign to his previous m.o. On the other hand, some witnesses put him in incriminating places, and Hanratty damningly lied about and changed his alibi.

What to do? A jury mired in hours of inconclusive deliberation at one point sent back to the court to clarify the concept of “reasonable doubt.” In the end, it decided its doubts weren’t reasonable enough to spare James Hanratty the noose.

Meanwhile, another suspect from the same boarding-house, Peter Alphon, behaved extremely erratically in the run-up to Hanratty’s hanging, hounded Hanratty’s friend until the latter committed suicide, and then eventually (after the hanging) confessed outright. For Hanratty’s many advocates, Alphon looked an awful lot like reasonable doubt … or more.

This case was long a cause celebre for death penalty foes in the U.K. owing to its evidentiary shakiness; none of the other seven put to death in Great Britain after Hanratty were plausible innocents.


John Lennon and Yoko Ono commiserate with James Hanratty’s parents in 1969. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images, via here.)

In 2000, DNA tests conducted on Valerie Storie’s underwear and the handkerchief which wrapped the recovered gun finally offered the prospect of more certain forensic identification than had been available at the time of the trial. Those tests matched (pdf) James Hanratty’s DNA … and nobody else’s.

While this result has not resolved all controversy about the A6 murder case — witness this book-length forum discussion — nor ended the Hanratty family’s campaign for exoneration, it’s pretty well cut the legs from Hanratty’s actual-innocence argument. Whatever one can say about the original trial, it sure looks like Hanratty was the killer all along.

A few books about James Hanratty and the A6 case

* Feb. 8, 1962 testimony, as reported in the next day’s London Times.

** Aside from the inherent unreliability eyewitness testimony, Valerie Storie at one point picked an airman stand-in in a lineup; when she later identified Hanratty, it was not by his appearance but by his cockney accent.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Wrongful Executions

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2011: Troy Davis, doubts aside

11 comments September 21st, 2011 Headsman

The reader is likely aware that as of 7 p.m. this evening, Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison local time, a man named Troy Anthony Davis will die by lethal injection — barring some sort of intervention that by this point would rate just this side of the miraculous.

Since Davis already had one of those, an extraordinary 11th-hour Supreme Court intervention the last time he was up for death, you’d have to guess he’s over quota as it is.

The controversial particulars of this case are too voluminously available for this space to hope to contribute much. As Scott Lemieux observes, the affirmative case for Troy Davis’s innocence is not a slam dunk: but the evidence as it exists, of unreliable eyewitness accounts from a nighttime scene, supplied under police pressure and later largely retracted, could today hardly approach the threshold of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. I don’t know if Troy Davis shot Mark MacPhail, and neither do you. Davis dies for it tonight just the same: all the paperwork is in order.

The “demon of error,” Illinois Gov. George Ryan called it, as he emptied that state’s death row. This unsettling matter demands one play bookmaker with a man’s life. Are you as much as 80% sure? Would that be sure enough? Maybe the uncertainties are unusually large here, but at some level this is the calculus for most criminal adjudications, death or otherwise.

“If a case like this doesn’t result in clemency, which is a discretionary process that calls a halt to an execution based on doubt surrounding the integrity of the verdict, then it suggests that clemency as a traditional fail-safe is not adequate,” criminologist James Acker told the Christian Science Monitor. “The Davis case raises doubts about the discretionary clemency process and ultimately raises doubts about whether the legal system can tolerate this potential error in allowing a person to be executed.”

Clemency as an inadequate, dead-letter procedure (Gov. Ryan aside) is familiar to any observer of the American capital punishment scene; Rick Perry thinks he can disdain it all the way to the presidency.

Perry’s state of Texas has something in common with Georgia: the clemency decisions are not directly in the hands of the governor. It’s an interesting arrangement that helps to scatter responsibility for that weightiest of decisions; every actor in the apparatus is in a position to say, “I alone did not have power of life and death.”

Georgia is one of just five states (not including Texas, where the governor has final say and exercises significant behind-the-scenes power over his advisors) where the clemency process is entirely vested in a committee.* The Georgia Governor is a fellow named Nathan Deal, and his autopen will spill much ink in the hours ahead signing form response letters explaining that he doesn’t have anything to do with pardons or clemencies in his state and thanks for writing.

It wasn’t always this way.

A predecessor of Deal’s in that mansion, one with a promising political career ahead, was bayed out of politics for exercising his prerogative to spare Leo Frank because “I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience.” The modern office-seeker typically comes with this accusatory module helpfully un-installed, but one can see how there’d be advantages to removing from the office anything to invite experimentation with self-destructive scruples.

The roots of Georgia’s current system go back to the 1930s, when the notoriously corrupt Eurith Rivers held the governorship and used the solemn power of pardons like merchants in the temple — and every bit as lucratively.

The “pardons racket” continued under Rivers’s successor, until a young reformist captured the office and dramatically rewrote the way Georgia did business.

Among those reforms was the progressive concept of rooting out the pardons racket by removing the authority from the governor’s hands. No pardon power, no embarrassing Marc Rich cases. As Gov. Arnall himself explained,

There were those who used to say facetiously, “If you bring the governor a cow, he’ll get you a pardon for your kinfolks, or if you get him a bale of cotton if you do this, or if you get the right lawyer or if you get the right set-up, you can get pardons, pardons, pardons.” So they had gotten a lot of pardons, and the newspapers were after them day in and day out for granting these pardons.

Pardons, pardons, pardons. You can’t get hold of them for a bale of cotton any longer.

These institutions naturally have a life of their own, and what was forward-looking under Georgia’s 1943 constitution seems anything but to Troy Davis’s supporters this day. In the end, the board is still appointed by governors, and it predictably skews towards prosecutors and police — the latter of whom are out for Davis’s blood since Mark MacPhail wore a badge for his day job. It deliberates behind closed doors, and need not record or account for its considerations.

But this is really the lament against the decision itself more so than the process: individual governors are no more bound to broadcast their decision-making process, although some choose to do so. The rules of the game matter, but whatever they might be, it is humans who apply them — human judgment that makes the choices, whether as the first officers on the scene, as jurors, or as a panel of inscrutable bureaucrats with power over life and death.

* Here’s an example of a similar committee in Nebraska granting a pardon, in the relatively less-fraught circumstance of a man 100 years dead.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.


Update: After a last-second reprieve that extended into a four-hour execution-night drama, the U.S. Supreme Court denied (pdf) Davis’s last appeal. He was executed at 11:08 p.m.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Wrongful Executions

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