2000: Brian Roberson, “Y’all kiss my black ass”

Add comment August 9th, 2015 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“To all of the racist white folks in America that hate black folks and to all of the black folks in America that hate themselves: in the infamous words of my famous legendary brother, Nat Turner, ‘Y’all kiss my black ass.’ Let’s do it.”

—Brian Roberson, convicted of murder, lethal injection, Texas.
Executed August 9, 2000

Roberson was convicted in the stabbing death of James Boots, seventy-nine, and his wife, Lillian, seventy-five, who lived across the street from him in Dallas. Roberson was African-American and his victims were Caucasian. Amnesty International issued a memo before the execution urging action and “expressing concern at the prosecutor’s systematic exclusion of African-Americans from the trial jury.” Roberson claimed he was “juiced up” on PCP and liquor during the crime. His last words were alternately recorded as “You ain’t got what you want.”

Later that same year, Roberson’s twin brother, Bruce, was arrested for allegedly threatening then President-elect George W. Bush. In a New York Times article, officers reported that Bruce wanted “to take him down.” The piece continued: “Mr. Roberson told them that Mr. Bush ‘stole the election and he’s not going to get away with it.'” Bush had been governor at the time of Brian’s execution.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Lethal Injection,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,USA

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2008: Jose Medellin, precedent

4 comments August 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 2008, Mexican national Jose Medellin was executed by Texas, pleasurably sticking its thumb in the eye of the International Court of Justice.

U.S. state and local officials have often displayed the ugly-American tendency to view binding treaty obligations as a Washington thing of no moment to the likes of a Harris County prosecutor. So when Medellin was arrested for the 1993 rape-murder of two teenage girls in a Houston park, the idea of putting him right in touch with Mexican diplomats to assist his defense was, we may safely suppose, the very farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Yet under the Vienna Convention, that is exactly what ought to have occurred. The idea is that consular officials can help a fellow on foreign soil to understand his unfamiliar legal circumstances and assist with any measures for his defense — and by common reciprocity, every state is enabled to look after the interests of its nationals abroad.

A widespread failure to do this, in death cases and others, has involved the United States in a number of international spats over the years.

Jose Medellin was among more than 50 Mexican prisoners named in one of the most noteworthy of these: the Avena case, a suit by Mexico* against the United States in the International Court of Justice.

In its March 31, 2004 Avena decision, the ICJ found that U.S. authorities had “breached the obligations incumbent upon” them by failing in these instances to advise the Mexican nationals it arrested of their Vienna Convention rights, and of failing in almost all those cases likewise to advise Mexican representatives that a Mexican citizen had been taken into custody.

“The appropriate reparation in this case,” the 15-judge panel directed, “consists in the obligation of the United States of America to provide, by means of its own choosing, review and reconsideration of the convictions and sentences of the Mexican nationals.”

If you think the Lone Star State’s duly constituted authorities jumped right on that “obligation,” you must be new around here.

Several years before, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions visited the United States and filed a report complaining “that there is a generalized perception that human rights are a prerogative of international affairs, and not a domestic issue.”

“Domestic laws appear de facto to prevail over international law, even if they could contradict the international obligations of the United States,” the Special Rapporteur noted.

Texas, famed for not being messed with, took a dim view indeed to being bossed about from The Hague. Indeed, the very concept of foreign law and international courts is a gleefully-thrashed political pinata among that state’s predominant conservative electorate.

U.S. President George W. Bush — a former Texas governor who in his day had no time at all for appeals based on consular notification snafus — in this instance appealed to Texas to enact the ICJ’s proposed review.† In fact, he asserted the authority to order Texas to do so.

Texas scoffed.

“The World Court has no standing in Texas and Texas is not bound by a ruling or edict from a foreign court,” a spokesman of Gov. Rick Perry retorted.

This notion that America’s federalist governance structure could insulate each of her constituent jurisdictions from treaty obligations undertaken by the nation as a whole naturally seems preposterous from the outside. But in the U.S., this dispute between Washington and Austin was resolved by the Supreme Court — and the vehicle for doing so was an appeal lodged by our man, Medellin v. Texas.

The question at stake in Medellin was whether the treaty obligation was binding domestic law on its own — or if, by contrast, such a treaty required American legislative bodies to enact corresponding domestic statutes before it could be enforced. The high court ruled for the latter interpretation, effectively striking down Avena since there was zero chance of either Texas or the U.S. Congress enacting such a statute.

Medellin, the decision, spelled the end for Medellin, the man — and, at least for now, the end of any prospect of effectual intervention in American death penalty cases by international tribunals.

* Mexico, which no longer has the death penalty itself, has the heavy preponderance of foreign nationals on United States death rows at any given time.

** The Texas Attorney General’s press release announcing Medellin’s execution included a detailed appellate history of the case which pointedly excluded anything that happened in the ICJ.

† The Bush administration did take one effective step to avoid a similarly embarrassing situation in the future: it withdrew the U.S. from the consular notification convention.

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

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Which U.S. Governors have overseen the most executions?

2 comments November 3rd, 2012 Headsman

This past week, Texas Governor Rick Perry notched his 250th execution. Writers, movie stars, guys who didn’t do it … Perry has executed them all.

That’s far and away the most for governors under the modern US death penalty regime. But is it an all-time record?

Rick Perry is number one.

The answer appears to be “yes”: a review of state execution data reveals no other governor throughout the U.S. constitutional era who even approaches Perry’s body count, at least not when it comes to peacetime civilian cases. Only two other men — Perry’s predecessor George W. Bush, and Depression-era New York chief executive Herbert Lehman* — appear to have signed off on as many as one hundred executions.

In attempting to explore this question, I compiled this rough list of the U.S. governors who have overseen a large number (35+) of executions. Emphasis on rough. The method I’ve used here is just a quick manual comparison of the historical U.S. executions recorded in the Espy file to U.S. governor terms as reported on Wikipedia. Then, I backed out known federal executions, which for most of U.S. history took place in various state prisons. (For instance, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were electrocuted at Sing Sing in New York … but not by authorities of the Empire State.)

I would not suggest sourcing anything one depends on to the figures in this chart without further investigation and qualification; the list is certain to contain errors, including:

  • Omissions or mistakes by the Espy file itself.
  • Miscalculations or misdating on my part.
  • Governors who served non-consecutive terms who I’ve failed to identify.
  • Any consideration of governors who might have been temporarily incapacitated or absent during their term with another party exercising the relevant powers in their stead
  • Civil War executions, which I simply steered around

Beyond attributing numerical counts to date ranges, this list reflects essentially no state- or period-specific research: it’s worth bearing in mind that the legal context and gubernatorial authority relative to the death penalty vary over time and between states. A name and a number on this list is not the same as judging a governor personally “responsible” for all or any of those executions, not even necessarily to the extent of having signed off on a death warrant. It’s only in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century that states centralized all executions away from localities and into state penitentiaries, with the familiar appeal-for-clemency ritual. A given governor’s personal involvement in a given local execution prior to that (and particularly in antebellum America) is not to be assumed. Even now, some states (present-day Texas included) limit the ability of the governor to extend clemency, or vest that power in an agency.

Caveats aside, here’s that rough (rough!) list:

The large numbers here predictably map to large states (with lots of people to commit lots of crime and generate lots of death cases) and/or long-serving governors. Rick Perry is about to start his 13th year as Texas governor, and this is actually a remarkably long tenure. Most governors in U.S. history have held the office for surprisingly brief periods, just 2-4 years.

For example, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow Georgia executed at a terrific pace (routinely ten or more executions per year, for decades on end) and several of its governors therefore appear on this list … but those governors had what you might call limited upside, as they were term-limited to two consecutive two-year terms. Had Georgia ever put an executive kingpin in the governor’s mansion for a decade or more, that person would easily rank up there with Bush and Lehman. (Not with Perry, though.)

Typical office tenures have somewhat lengthened into the 20th and 21st centuries, but this is just when the execution rate itself has fallen off. Many of the larger (50+) execution totals come from the period when those two trends crossed in the first half of the 20th century, with men (Ann Richards, George W. Bush’s predecessor, is the only woman to show) running large states for five-plus years.

This confluence also leads to the interesting appearance of liberal lions among the 20th century’s most prolific American executioners:

  • Liberal “Rockefeller Republican” Thomas Dewey, with 95 executions as New York’s governor.
  • Dewey’s running mate in the “Dewey Defeats Truman” presidential election, Earl Warren: he sent 82 to the gas chamber in a decade as California governor before he was appointed to leave his lasting legacy heading a left-leaning Supreme Court
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who okayed 51 executions as governor of New York (and then 16 more federal executions as president)
  • Gifford Pinchot, who’s best known as the progressive-era father of the Forest Service, but also spent eight years as Pennsylvania’s governor and oversaw 81 executions.

Feel free to chime in with corrections, data points, musings, and bootless speculations in the comments.

* Herbert Lehman was the son of one of the founders of Lehman Bothers investment bank. Bush was the son of the founder of the inexplicable Bush political dynasty. We’re guessing nobody thought of their prolific-executioner connection when the Bush administration let Lehman Brothers go bankrupt in 2008.

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Entry Filed under: USA

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1961: John A. Bennett, the last American military execution (so far)

14 comments April 13th, 2009 Headsman

As of this date, it’s been 48 years since the United States military last carried out an execution — the Fort Leavenworth hanging* of John Arthur Bennett for rape.

An epileptic black soldier with a family history of mental illness, Bennett had enlisted to find a way up out of sharecropping. Instead, on Christmas Eve 1954, he drunkenly raped a 12-year-old girl near his base in Austria.

He spent six years awaiting execution — “six years,” observed the Los Angeles Times, “in which six other black soldiers were hanged while all four of the white men — many of them multiple murderers — were saved.”

Bennett dodged two execution dates, once receiving his stay during his last meal, but a seemingly compelling plea for clemency — the victim herself, and her parents, asked for mercy — availed Bennett nothing. His last frantic plea to the new president, John F. Kennedy, was dispatched with only hours yet to live.

I beg in the name of God … Will you please in the name of God and mercy spare my life?”

No dice. Kennedy was preoccupied.

Coincidentally, but poignantly for this case, the Kirk Douglas vehicle A Town Without Pity opened a month before Bennett’s execution. In that film (trailer here), four American servicemen face capital trial for the rape of a German girl — and Douglas, as their lawyer, struggles to talk pity into someone so he won’t be obliged to humiliate the victim in court in order to save his clients from the noose.

The victim’s father in that movie is so blinded by his lust for vengeance that he forces Douglas to destroy his own daughter: striking contrast with the real-life father of Bennett’s flesh-and-blood victim, who wrote in support of clemency for his daughter’s assailant, “I know how hard it is for the parents when their own child is so close to the verge of death.”

Bennett’s milestone, however, is hardly assured of lasting much beyond this 49th year.

In 2008, President George W. Bush affirmed the death sentence of condemned Army cook Ronald Gray, the first such action by any U.S. president since Bennett’s day. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Death Row USA most current as of this writing,** Gray is one of nine prisoners currently on the U.S. military’s death row.

* Curious to know about the procedure? The Library of Congress has that period’s Procedure for Military Executions — complete with exact diagrams — online in pdf form.

** Death Row USA, Summer 2008 (direct pdf link)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Kansas,Milestones,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA

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