2010: Gary Johnson

2 comments January 12th, 2011 Headsman

“I never done anything in my life to anybody,” insisted 59-year-old Gary Johnson as he received on this date last year a lethal injection for a 1986 double homicide.

Life may be a journey and not a destination, but Johnson didn’t have far to travel: he was convicted of a murder just 10 miles outside Huntsville, where the state death house resides.

Specifically, he and his brother Terry allegedly burgled a ranch — and then shot dead the two men who responded to a concerned neighbor’s call about the suspicious activity. One of the victims was heard begging for his life before being shot execution-style.

(Terry Johnson copped a plea and is serving a 99-year sentence. Gary Johnson took his chances at trial.)

Without going so far as to advance any particular brief for Johnson’s actual innocence, we’re compelled to retch a little at this footnote to the Associated Press wire story:

[Gary Johnson’s trial prosecutor Frank] Blazek said investigators found the same slogan etched in concrete outside Johnson’s home and on a T-shirt he was wearing in a photograph: ”Kill them all and let God sort them out.”

What … like the everyday Metallica shirt? Or did he mean the Special Forces icon?*

”It indicated a callousness about human life,” he said.

This guy needs to get out more.

Similar fatuous claims about pop-death iconography as indicia of guilt were leveraged in the now-infamous Cameron Willingham case; there’s something rather troubling about the fact that a quarter-century on, and even with the Willingham embarrassment fresh in the headlines, the prosecutor still finds this inconsequential sidelight compelling enough to mention — and an institutional journalist finds it serious enough to print.

* The last link in this sentence was formerly to a Special Forces gear page showing items for sale with this same logo; the link was in no way sponsored (no link on this site will ever be sponsored), and it was completely relevant to the text since it not only displayed the message in question but the fact that that message is a going commercial concern — i.e., that one can easily buy a shirt with the “damning” slogan. Twenty-eight months after that link was posted, a Google bot declared it unnatural and penalized not my site but the recipient of the link. As usual, Google’s error-prone summary judgments come with no channel for appeal. Though I’ve reluctantly altered the link since the other site doesn’t deserve Google’s vindictiveness, I note here, for the record and biliously, the editorial muscle unjustifiably arrogated by Google’s slipshod algorithm police.

Part of the Themed Set: 2010.

On this day..

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

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1995: Girvies Davis, framed?

7 comments May 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1995, Illinois executed Girvies Davis for murdering 89-year-old Charles Biebel in Belleville, Ill.

A small-time African-American hood reared in an alcoholic home, Davis was not linked to the murder by any physical evidence, or even any eyewitnesses. There was only one piece of evidence against him: his signed confession.

Unfortunately, the source lacked all credibility.

Davis copped to some 20 crimes under police interrogation. Officially, he did this when he voluntarily wrote out a list of evildoings and spontaneously passed it to a guard, which would be hard to believe even if the guy weren’t nearly illiterate. (Even the official story later became that Davis must have dictated the confession to someone else, like a cellmate.)

According to Davis’s later account, he signed statements the police had prepared for him … at gunpoint. The police logs say that he was taken out for a drive that night (“for evidence”), and conveniently confessed in the small hours of the morning.

Even though our man’s involvement in most of these “admitted” crimes (anything outstanding in the area that was still unsolved, it seems) was disproven, he couldn’t get traction in the courts once his conviction by an all-white jury was secured. Paradoxically, because there was no other evidence in the case to discredit, that “a-ha!” exoneration moment became all but impossible to secure despite the other holes in the case.

More action was had in the court of public opinion, where the usual suspects enlisted any number of pro-death penalty prosecutors and Republicans with serious misgivings about the case.

Time magazine lodged a naive early entrant in the “wait, wrongful confessions happen?” genre. The New York Times also covered the Davis clemency campaign:*

“The public sees the Bundys and the Gacys executed and they cheer,” said Gary V. Johnson, a former Kane County, Ill., prosecutor, who sought the death penalty in the past but opposes the execution of Mr. Davis. “The public doesn’t see the Girvies Davises.”

What savvy pols like Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar could see was that in the 1990s, all the political upside was in denying clemencies. So that’s what he did.

Years later, Davis’s last appellate attorney still believes “that the State of Illinois executed Girvies Davis for a crime I am sure he didn’t commit.”

Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess was also convinced of Girvies Davis’s innocence, and led a team of students researching the case back before he was famous for doing exactly that sort of thing. His work did not yield success on this occasion, but to judge by his account (pdf) of a last conversation he and his students had hours before Davis was put to death, it helped lead to the school’s later headline-grabbing wrongful conviction exposes.

Protess put [Davis] on the speakerphone, and the group gathered around. “Try not to mourn for me,” Davis said. “Move on with your lives. Just try to help people like me who get caught up in the system.” …

Davis had a final request: He wanted Protess and the students to promise that this wouldn’t be their last crusade in a capital case.

The room fell silent. “Of all the guys you know on the Row, who do you think most deserves help?” Protess asked.

Buck Williams,” Davis answered without hesitation. “I’m certain he’s innocent.”

Protess … vowed that he and his next group of students would leave no stone unturned for Williams.

Protess was as good as his word.

In less than a year, Williams along with Verneal Jimerson, Willie Rainge and Kenneth Adams were free men after a generation in prison.** These men, known as the “Ford Heights Four”, would win the largest civil rights lawsuit payment in U.S. history for their wrongful imprisonment.

* Davis may also have been the first death-row prisoner in the U.S. with his own Internet site and online clemency petition, although these interesting artifcats have long since vanished into the digital oubliette. Gov. Edgar reportedly received 1,200 emails asking him to spare his prisoner’s life … testament even then to elected officials’ disregard for online advocacy.

** Williams and Jimerson were on death row; Rainge and Adams were serving life sentences.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Illinois,Lethal Injection,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Wrongful Executions

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