1871: John Hanlon, guilty but framed

Add comment February 1st, 2016 Headsman


Harrisburg Patriot, Feb. 2, 1871

On this date in 1871, John Hanlon expiated a cold-case Philadelphia murder.

Back in September of 1868, a young girl named Mary Mohrmann vanished while playing outside — her outraged corpse to be discovered days later dumped on a vacant lot a few blocks away at Sixth and Susquehanna.

The crime had every hallmark of a neighborhood perpetrator, someone who would have had the ability to hide away the kidnapped or dead girl in his own home before disposing of her body nearby.

John Hanlon, a nearby barber who knew Mary’s mother, numbered among the several men suspected of the crime and even detained for it. But it was frustratingly impossible to pin a solid accusation on him or anyone else. There were a few witnesses who had seen Mary led off, and a few others who saw someone abandon a bulky encumbrance where Mary was found, but among them all nobody was prepared to venture an identification.

So there the matter rested, and little Mary Mohrmann’s file might to this day reside in the dusty back rooms of the Philadelphia police cold case lockers had Hanlon restraint enough to lay off the predation following his lucky escape.

He did have the wisdom to move (within Philadelphia), and even to change his name to “Charles Harris”, but some detectives who investigated the original case still had him in view. In December 1869, “Harris” caught a fire-year sentence for attempting to molest a 10-year-old girl — and this naturally strengthened the suspicion against him in the Mohrmann case to (as the Cincinnati Enquirer put it on Dec. 30, 1869) “morally certain” despite the “lack of legal evidence to place him on trial.”

Now sure of their mark — indeed, seemingly tunnel-visioned in a fashion highly conducive to a wrongful conviction — police resumed their efforts to remedy that want of legal evidence.

To this end, they provided the suspect a cellmate in the person of a thief named Michael Dunn, whose detail was to elicit from “Harris” particulars of his criminal career. Sure enough, this stool pigeon soon had a self-reported confession in hand.

This distasteful strategem made possible the case that hanged John Hanlon: with it, the state could situate its moral certainty in a coherent narrative of the crime that Dunn read into the court transcripts as issuing straight from the mouth of the accused.

While Hanlon denied to the last that he ever confessed anything to the convenient jailhouse snitch, posterity might comfort itself (as did contemporaries)* by the culprit’s conspicuous caginess when it came to his actual culpability. His refusal even to remark on his own guilt or innocence appeared to speak volumes.

So it is hardly a surprise that few other Philadelphians besides Hanlon’s own mother, sisters, and 16-year-old wife** were at all troubled by the cheat necessary to noose the man. The New York Herald, whose bulletins on the case ran towards sensationalism, reported “a general sense of relief” in the City of Brotherly love post-execution.

When it was found that … Hanlon had really been hung people began to breathe freer — they feel that now their innocents are safe. The influence exerted by Hanlon’s deeds on the minds of every one having helpless children in their family has been something wonderful … no sympathy has been manifested for the guilty wretch.†

He died firmly, having immersed himself in prayer in his last days, and pronounced himself at peace with the world and with his mortal fate.


Editorial from the Feb. 3, 1871 New York Tribune.

* Hanlon, understandably, did not share this equanimity and at sentencing subjected the court to a bitter rant against the prosecutors who stitched him up. “I will die by murder!” he cried. “If ever another such case should come to light, lay before the jury John Hanlon’s last words, and let no more blood be spilled by perjury.” (Harrisburg Patriot, Dec. 12, 1870) Towards the end, in an interview with one of the detectives responsible, a more resigned Hanlon peacably reproached the lawman, “You and I know how it was done, and I don’t want to talk about it.” (New York Tribune, Feb. 2, 1871) By this time, Hanlon had a dying man’s thirst for reconciliation, and he apologized to the detective for the sharp tone he had taken in court.

In his last statement on the gallows, he generically sought forgiveness from “all whom I have injured in any way whatsoever.” (Harrisburg Patriot, Feb. 2, 1871)

** She was 13 when they married.

† New York Herald, Feb. 2, 1871. This author admitted that “it was necessary to use Dunn as a witness … the end will justify the means; yet it is a bad precedent to establish.”

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1922: Colin Campbell Ross, for the Gun Alley Murder

2 comments April 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Colin Campbell Ross was hanged for the rape-murder of a little girl, still on the scaffold vainly protesting his innocence.

I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.

Ninety-odd years later, folks finally believe him.

Ross had a couple of brushes with the law already to his rap sheet when 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke went missing in the vicinity of Ross’s Melbourne dive bar on December 30, 1921.

In a classic instance of police tunnel vision, the proximity of a violent felon to the murdered girl — for Alma’s body was found the next morning in nearby Gun Alley, which bestowed a popular moniker upon the case — soon formed the theory of the crime, the predetermined conclusion into which incoming evidence was read.

(It certainly catalyzed the investigation that the case became a media sensation. Rupert Murdoch’s father through the Melbourne Herald shamelessly hounded the Crown for each day’s delay, and jacked up the reward purse.)

Witnesses established that Ross had been tending bar all that afternoon; to account for that, it was necessary to posit that Ross had plied his prey with wine for several hours until he could finish her off after his shift.

Once arrested, despite continuing to assert his innocence to all and sundry, Ross proved to suffer from that universal tendency accused men have to senselessly unburden themselves to a random cellmate. The Crown could scarce shirk its public duty by omitting the incriminating evidence merely because it was related by a convicted perjurer. Ross, his accuser claimed, “said he was simply burning to tell someone.”

Still more damningly, a blanket from Ross’s home proved to have some strands of auburn hair glancingly similar to Alma Tirtschke’s — or possibly Ross’s girlfriend.

A Crown analyst from ventured to compare these under a microscope, and would later put it to the court that they looked like Alma’s. This would be the first time hair forensics were deployed in an Australian courtroom.

Was it not possible, asked Ross’s counsel — who genuinely believed his client’s innocence and fought the corner until the very last — that it might be almost literally anyone else’s auburn hair?

“Yes; quite possible, but not probable,” was the reply from the witness. “Because of the general similarity of hair.” Oh.

Even decades later this gotcha was being celebrated as a triumph of forensic science, for the blanket’s locks “corresponded exactly” with those of the victim.

But they didn’t correspond.

“The day is coming when my innocence will be proved,” Ross wrote in a farewell letter to his family.

That day took 85 years in coming.

In the 1990s, author Kevin Morgan stumbled somewhat miraculously upon preserved hair samples from the case and began an odyssey that would see him to officially exonerating Colin Campbell Ross.

Tests Morgan was able to arrange with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and then with police both agreed that under modern microscopic examination the hairs in question did not bear even a surface resemblance. With the support of the Victorian Attorney General and the Australian Supreme Court, Ross was granted a posthumous pardon on May 27, 2008 — the first person ever so distinguished in Victoria’s history.

Tirtschke’s own family, too, supported this result: they had long harbored their own doubts about the verdict. “She didn’t say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung,”* one descendant said of her grandmother’s recollections.

* Though a lesser horror compared to being railroaded in the first place, Ross’s hanging was also badly botched. An experimental four-strand rope failed to sever his spinal cord, leaving his dangling body to convulse as Ross wheezed his last breaths through a torn windpipe.

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1820: Not Stephen Boorn, saved by newsprint

1 comment January 28th, 2014 Headsman

January 28, 1820 was the scheduled hanging-date for Stephen Boorn in Vermont, who was spared by the stroke of luck in one of the Republic’s seminal wrongful conviction cases. For all its vintage, it has a disturbingly current feel.

Stephen Boorn and his brother Jesse were farmers in Manchester living with their possibly feebleminded brother-in-law Russell Colvin when Colvin suddenly vanished in May 1812. Vanishing unexplained for weeks on end was actually an established behavior for this peculiar gentleman, so it was only gradually that suspicion of foul play accumulated. There was some bad blood known to exist between Colvin and his brothers-in-law; they had even been seen in a violent quarrel just before Russell Colvin disappeared (pdf). There were whispers, but never any real evidence.

And so weeks stretched into months, and then to years. Many years. Was it possible two neighbors of the good people of Manchester, Vt., had gotten away with murder plain as day and gone about bringing in their crops just like nothing happened?

The break arrived in 1819 courtesy of the brothers’ aged uncle Amos Boorn. Amos reported that Russell Colvin had appeared to him in a dream and accused his former in-laws of murder. Now a dream couldn’t be read in evidence, but it proved sufficient to re-open a cold case and endow the investigation with official “tunnel vision” so familiar to the staging of a wrongful conviction.

The other classic trappings of that scene followed anon: shoddy evidence, a jailhouse snitch, and even a false confession.

Once under the pall of suspicion, random events around the Boorns began to seem sinister. The dream-Russell’s accusation led to a cellar-hole being excavated, which turned up some random junk (a penknife, a button); was it Colvin’s random junk? A barn on the Boorn farm burned down; had it been torched to conceal evidence? A boy found bones at a stump on the property; were they human remains? (They turned out to be animal remains.)

Stephen Boorn had moved to Denmark, New York, but Jesse Boorn was taken into custody for interrogation. There he was parked in a jail cell with a forger named Silas Merrill.

Lo and behold, Jesse Boorn immediately spewed to his bunkmate the awful secret of the murder. Yup, after keeping it quiet for seven years he detailed it all to Silas Merrill one “night, when he and Jesse had waked from their sleep, and without any previous persuasion or advice on the subject” and also just happened to tie in all that random sinister stuff from the investigation like the barn and the bonestump. Naturally, Merrill was released for relaying to his jailers this valuable and in no way impeachable information.

Now cornered, Jesse confessed to the murder. The causes of false confessions are complex, but the advent of DNA exonerations has underscored the alarming frequency of this phenomenon. A strictly rationalist explanation might postulate that Jesse thought he could avoid hanging by taking responsibility for a crime he was now certain to be convicted of, and framing it in the least culpable possible light; the murkier fathoms of human psychology might suggest a desire to please his captors or a conscience conforming itself to the conviction of his neighbors. Whatever the case, the confession got Stephen extradited from New York, and under interrogation Stephen too confessed. Stop confessing to things, people! (In fact, best say nothing at all.)

Despite retracting the confession, the brothers were convicted with ease in a trial held at the town’s church, the better to accommodate huge crowds that would have overflowed the courtroom. They were both slated to hang on January 28.*

While Jesse Boorn won a commutation his brother appeared doomed.

As an almost literal last gasp, Stephen took out newspaper advertisements searching for Russell Colvin. And they worked. At least, this is the version of the story as it is commonly recounted, dating I believe to this 1932 volume on wrongful convictions. The primary sources referenced there actually appear to me to indicate that the Boorn-saver, a New Jersey gentleman named Taber Chadwick, responded with a letter to the editor to a simple news report of the case, which report naively credited the dream-driven conviction as “divine providence”.


From the New York Evening Post, Nov. 26, 1819.

Luckily, Mr. Chadwick realized that he knew a Russell Colvin from Manchester whose mental state was thoroughly addled.


New York Evening Post, Dec. 10, 1819.

A fortnight after this letter hit the press, Colvin was back in Manchester … and this time, it was not in a dream.

Colvin confirmed that his brothers-in-law hadn’t hurt him at all and both Boorns — who, we remind you, had each previously confessed to killing a man who was now here in the flesh and blood to exonerate them — both these Boorns walked free.

Update: Embarrassingly not noticed by my own self in researching this post, a comment from the outstanding 19th century crime blog Murder By Gaslight flags the hypothesis that the entire exoneration was staged using an imposter to weasel the Boorns out of prison.

* According to this biography of the African-American divine Thomas Lemuel Haynes, Haynes was the Boorns’ confessor while they awaited execution, and one of the only people to believe the brothers’ protestations of innocence. Haynes was eventually moved to spend his own money on the famous advertisement hoping that “any person who can give information of the said Colvin may save the life of an innocent man.” If there’s one Vermonter who comes out of this astonishing story smelling like a rose, it’s Reverend Haynes.

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1776: Thomas Hickey, plotting against George Washington

3 comments June 28th, 2013 Headsman

“A most infernal plot has lately been discovered here, which, had it been put into execution, would have made America tremble, and been as fatal a stroke to us, this Country, as Gun Powder Treason would to England, had it succeeded.”

Continental Army surgeon Solomon Drowne, July 13, 1776

On this date in 1776, Continental Army soldier Thomas Hickey was hanged before “a vast concourse of people” for a plot that might have strangled the American Revolution in its crib.

That revolution was a highly uncertain venture at this moment, and in a different timeline Thomas Hickey might have been a British hero for squelching it. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine wrote late in 1776. Hickey had to face his trial in the flesh.

George Washington had holed up in New York City in the spring to fortify it against an expected British invasion — an invasion that did indeed arrive and eventually drove the Continental Army all the way to Philadelphia.* As Paine beheld, the wrong turn of events here could have been decisive. The Continental Army was badly outnumbered and afflicted by desertion. The Continental Congress itself had to abandon Philadelphia not long after boldly declaring independence on July 4.

Whatever one might say of the great-man historiographical mood, you’d have to think that knocking out the rebel army’s top general at this juncture would have been a coup for the British.

In June of 1776, New York was tense ahead of the fighting. A British ship of the line sat forebodingly in the harbor, and even as she awaited the coming British force, her crew members rowed freely ashore for provisions. Plots went abroad among the mixed population of “Patriot” and “Loyalist” citizens. Nathan Hale would soon earn his martyr’s laurels in New York, trying to reconnoiter behind enemy lines as Washington staged a series of losing battles and a gradual retreat.

Somewhat below this plane of world-shaping combat and statecraft, a guy named Isaac Ketcham (or Ketchum) found himself clapped in gaol for counterfeiting the easily-counterfeited colonial paper currency. There, Ketcham caught jailhouse scuttlebutt of Loyalist plots afoot in New York. Realizing this could be his ticket out of prison, Ketcham wrote New York’s Provincial Congress informing on the schemes.

Sadly, Ketcham’s full memorandum has been lost, and as the ensuing trial records are circumspect the “plot” or “plots” in question are a bit of a historical muddle. Roughly, there are two discernible thrusts:

  • A fifth-column plot against the patriot position in New York, with Loyalist-inclined soldiers set to desert back to the arriving British army.
  • A plot against the person of George Washington himself.

Ketcham was eagerly interrogated by the Provincial Congress on these matters, and returned to his dungeon in the capacity of an informant. There, he made the acquaintance of the Irish-born Thomas Hickey, a member of George Washington‘s personal guards who had on June 15th been committed for doing his own bit of private currency-printing.

Representing himself as a Tory loyalist, Ketcham apparently induced Hickey to boast about something quite a bit more serious than counterfeiting.

“In different conversations he informed me that the Army was become damnably corrupted,” Ketcham told the court-martial that tried Hickey. “That the fleet was soon expected; and that he and a number of others were in a band to turn against the American Army when the King’s troops should arrive.”

The whole scheme went under the pay of Loyalist New York mayor David Mathews, who was also arrested by patriot troops — although Mathews, whose execution might have turned the British very nasty in the various diplomatic conferences ongoing during the New York campaign, was never even tried.** He escaped to British protection shortly after capture.

No kid gloves were available to the treacherous Irishman Hickey, however. Word of the conspiracy against the patriots had also been obtained from a businessman, William Leary, who reported the attempt of his former employee to recruit him into it. The sheer quantity of highly indiscreet men blabbing about it in taverns and jails and the like makes the whole thing seem crazy in retrospect, but if it had succeeded in, say, destroying Kingsbridge, it might have trapped the Continental Army on Manhattan where they would have been easy pickings for the vastly superior British. Someone surely had to pay for this.

Several of Hickey’s accomplices provided evidence against him, and the speedy conclusion of the military commission that tried him was that Hickey should hang in order to, as Washington wrote the Continental Congress, “produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into like traitorous practices.” So far as is known, however, Hickey was the only person to suffer this extremity.

The unhappy fate of Thomas Hickey, executed this day for mutiny, sedition, and treachery, the General hopes will be a warning to every soldier in the Army to avoid those crimes, and all others, so disgraceful to the character of a soldier, and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats. And in order to avoid those crimes, the most certain method is to keep out of the temptation of them, and particularly to avoid lewd women, who, by the dying confession of this poor criminal, first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious death.

-Washington’s general order, June 28, 1776

Physician William Eustis (eventually the U.S. Secretary of War), who was among the 20,000 to see Hickey hanged, wrote a friend that afternoon of the execution.

Their design was, upon the first engagement which took place, to have murdered (with trembling I say it) the best man on earth: Genl Washington was to have been the first subject of their unheard of Sacricide: our magazines which, as you know, are very capacious, were to have been blown up: every General Officer and every other who was active in serving his country in the field was to have been assassinated: our cannon were to be spiked up: and in short every the most accursed scheme was laid to give us into the hands of the enemy, and to ruin us. (Source)

The scarcity of original documentation makes it very difficult to say with confidence just how impressive this accursed scheme really was. One can see from Eustis’s letter that it was understood immediately to have compassed the murder of George Washington. This prospective “Sacricide” of America’s founding father par excellence has been worth a good bit of embellishment; one bit of utterly insupportable folklore congenial to vegetable-hating schoolchildren is that Hickey arranged to have General Washington’s peas poisoned with arsenic, but the faithful housekeeper exposed the scheme in the nick of time.

Only a bit more fantastical is the video game Assassins Creed III, whose representation of the death of Thomas Hickey — this version of Hickey is a Templar agent — uses a wacky sequence that begins with the public execution of the game player’s own assassin character, complete with first-person, inside-the-hood perspective.

It might well be that Hickey had been engaged in a plot not to murder but to kidnap the rebel general. David Mathews, the New York mayor, would later tell a royal commission in London autopsying Britain’s Revolutionary War defeat, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard prisoners but which was not effected.” It’s been speculated that the Continental Army itself chose to play up the “murder” angle for public consumption in preference to “kidnap” — perhaps because the notion that the Tories had the strength to contemplate the more complex objective of snatching Washington away from his own army, and were in a position to use his very own guards to accomplish it, implied a weakness in the revolutionary cause far too grave to acknowledge openly.

* It’s from this position that Washington would [re-]cross the Delaware amid December ice floes to conduct a morale-salvaging raid on Hessian troops in New Jersey after many long months of reversals. The British, for their part, held New York for the balance of the war, and this helped make adjacent New Jersey a battleground between pro-British and pro-American militias.

** Mathews administered New York until 1783, when the British ceded it to the victorious colonists.

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1991: Warren McCleskey

8 comments September 25th, 2011 Headsman

Twenty years ago today, Warren McCleskey died in Georgia’s electric chair for the murder of a police officer.

Yet the “question reverberates: Did Warren McCleskey deserve the chair? For the question to outlive him is a damning commentary on capital punishment in the United States.”

The most reverberating commentary on this case was the 1987 Supreme Court decision McCleskey v. Kemp — a landmark 5-4 ruling that still shapes the way judges handle purported racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

McCleskey (the decision, not the man) “marked the end of an era in death penalty jurisprudence … reject[ing] the last major challenge to the death penalty in America” from the generation of legal tinkering reaching back to the 1960s.

McCleskey v. Kemp was decided on April 22, 1987, at which time just 70 humans had been executed since the “modern” era of capital punishment began in the 1970s. (Today, the count is well beyond 1,200.)

The victims attributed to those 70 were 83% white (77 of 93),* even though blacks and whites are murder victims in roughly equal numbers — suggesting on its face that white victims are treated as disproportionately “valuable” by prosecutors, juries, and/or judges. This was, prospectively, the case with Warren McCleskey himself, an African American who in the course of an armed robbery had gunned down (or maybe not: see below) a white off-duty policeman.

McCleskey’s appellate team marshaled a statistical study by Iowa Prof. David Baldus indicating that black murderers (to a small extent) and killers of white victims (to a greater extent) were indeed more likely to receive a death sentence in Georgia, even when controlling for dozens of other variables. “According to this model,” wrote Justice Lewis Powell for the majority, “black defendants, such as McCleskey, who kill white victims have the greatest likelihood of receiving the death penalty.”

Though it accepted evidence of a discriminatory pattern,** the high court nevertheless ruled that McCleskey was not entitled to appellate relief unless he could demonstrate that that it was at work in his specific case.

And with some reason: the import of granting constitutional relief to a claim of “endemic racism in the system” would open a Pandora’s box of appeals from America’s burgeoning carceral state.

McCleskey’s claim, taken to its logical conclusion, throws into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system … if we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty.

Let justice be done though the heavens fall?† Not on our dime, buddy.

This reasoning too backtracked from equal protection concerns that had helped lead a similarly bare 5-4 majority to strike down then-existing capital statutes 15 years before in an appeal originating from the same state — Furman v. Georgia. That old regime had then been replaced with a death penalty system supposedly capable of minimizing arbitrariness. McCleskey served notice that justices wouldn’t be going out of their way to hunt arbitrariness any time soon.

The Court’s remaining liberal lions — it still had such a thing in 1987 — dissented furiously from McCleskey. William Brennan replied to the majority:

Warren McCleskey’s evidence confronts us with the subtle and persistent influence of the past. His message is a disturbing one to a society that has formally repudiated racism, and a frustrating one to a Nation accustomed to regarding its destiny as the product of its own will. Nonetheless, we ignore him at our peril, for we remain imprisoned by the past as long as we deny its influence in the present.

He also found “fear that recognition of McCleskey’s claim would open the door to widespread challenges … seems to suggest a fear of too much justice.”

mccleskey_presentation_314

Brennan was on the losing side of this judgment in a larger historical sense as well — at least, the brief span of history to unfold since Warren McCleskey sat in the electric chair.

McCleskey author Lewis Powell retired a few weeks after issuing it, and not long thereafter expressed regret for the McCleskey decision.‡ Relentless death penalty foes Brennan and Thurgood Marshall would hang up the spurs within a few years. (The circus Senate hearing to place Clarence Thomas in Thurgood Marshall’s seat was ongoing when Warren McCleskey finally died.)

But the deciding vote in McCleskey was cast by freshman Reagan-appointed justice Antonin Scalia, and he’s still going strong.

Scalia was then the Court’s emerging conservative paladin, though he was so new to the Court that McCleskey’s litigators hoped he might be amenable to their suit as a swing vote. Far from it: after Thurgood Marshall’s death in the early 1990s, his donated papers were found to contain a Scalia memo that rubbished the McCleskey majority’s mere consideration of the Baldus study.

I disagree with the argument that the inferences that can be drawn from the Baldus study are weakened by the fact that each jury and each trial is unique, or by the large number of variables at issue. And I do not share the view, implicit in [Powell’s draft opinion], that an effect of racial factors upon sentencing, if it could be shown by sufficiently strong statistical evidence, would require reversal.

Since it is my view that the unconscious operation of irrational sympathies and antipathies, including racial, upon jury decisions and (hence) prosecutorial [ones], is real, acknowledged by the [cases] of this court and ineradicable, I cannot honestly say that all I need is more proof.

Shorter Scalia: racism happens, so what?§ (Ultimately, Scalia opted not to file a separate opinion explicitly making this case; he just signed on to the majority opinion.)

As squishy regret-prone jurists have left Scalia’s Court since, and hard-right ideologues joined it, 1987’s militant reactionary is now one Rick Perry victory away from being the highest court’s median vote. Now that’s moving the Overton Window.

As one might imagine, death penalty jurisprudence at One First Street NE in these latter days has become correspondingly rougher — and the problems raised by McCleskey have scarcely abated.


Although the McCleskey case is what our day’s principal is best known for, he was also caught up in one of the more everyday — but not the less disreputable — toils of the system: the phony jailhouse informant. Very late in the appeals process, McCleskey’s lawyers were finally able to show that the fellow-prisoner who testified that McCleskey admitted the shooting to him was in fact a police plant operating on a quid pro quo to reduce his own sentence. (It’s amazing how often defendants spontaneously confess to these guys; the Troy Davis case which climaxed last week also featured a jailhouse snitch.) Somehow, prosecutors forgot all along to mention that arrangement even when directly asked.

The Supremes ruled, Kafkaesquely, that this issue was procedurally out of order because McCleskey hadn’t raised it earlier, neatly ignoring that the reason he hadn’t raised it was that prosecutors were actively concealing the fact. That’s the subject of the other SCOTUS case under our man’s name, McCleskey v. Zant.

(At issue was whether McCleskey was himself the triggerman. Since he was part of the robbery gang, he was legally on the hook for capital murder whether or not he personally fired the shot; but, his death sentence turned in reality on the jury’s belief that McCleskey was the individual killer — a detail supplied by the suspect police informant. None of McCleskey’s confederates faced execution.)

The final drama this date was a “chaotic” mess of last-minute legal maneuverings, with McCleskey strapped into the chair at one point, then interrupted from his last statement to be returned to his cell, then finally hauled back to the lethal device after an early-morning telephone poll of Supreme Court justices.

* Execution demographic counts via the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

** While the McCleskey court accepted Prof. Baldus’s statistical interpretations even while rejecting their constitutional import, a vigorous pro-death penalty case is made here against the reading that the modern American death penalty is racially discriminatory to any great extent.

† This Latin phrase — fiat justitia ruat caelum — is actually engraved above the sitting justices at the Georgia Supreme Court.

‡ The regret was about more than Warren McCleskey; Powell’s biographer described a complete change of heart in the June 23, 1994 New York Times:

when the retired Justice Powell said he had changed his mind about the McCleskey case, I thought he meant that he would now accept the [Baldus] statistical argument.

“No,” he replied, “I would vote the other way in any capital case … I have come to think that capital punishment should be abolished.” …

Justice Powell’s experience taught him that the death penalty cannot be decently administered. As actually enforced, capital punishment brings the law itself into disrepute.

§ See Dennis Dorin, “Far Right of the Mainstream: Racism, Rights, and Remedies from the Perspective of Justice Antonin Scalia’s McCleskey Memorandum,” Mercer Law Review, 1994.

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2001: Terrance Anthony James, snitch-killer

Add comment May 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 2001, Terrance Anthony James suffered lethal injection in Oklahoma for the vicious murder of a suspected jailhouse snitch.

Awaiting trial in 1983 for theft of government property, James became convinced that a fellow-inmate was responsible for his arrest, and proceeded to strangle Mark Allen Berry with a wire.

Usually, in death penalty cases, it’s the jailhouse snitch who does the killing.

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1930: William Henry Podmore, inculpated

Add comment April 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1930, criminal forensics claimed an apparent — albeit controversial — victory with the hanging of William Henry Podmore.

Podmore was noosed by a chain of circumstantial evidence investigators used to connect him to a murder scene — that, specifically, of his former employer Vivian Messiter, whose badly decomposed corpse was found tucked in a garage nine months after it went missing.

The ensuing investigation went like a Roaring Twenties version of CSI.

First, famed pathologist Bernard Spilsbury established a cause of death: blunt force to the skull, apparently delivered by a bloodied hammer found nearby.

After that, it was a matter of connecting some malefactor to the handle of the hammer.

[A] scrap of paper, about two inches square, which was found behind a barrel in [the] garage … led ultimately to the conviction of the murderer. This fragment was caked with dirt and soaked in oil, and had been repeatedly trodden under foot, and the problem was to remove the dirt and oil, without also removing the pigment of the copying ink pencil.

After numerous experiments with various makes of copying ink pencil, petroleum spirit was found to be suitable for the purpose, and a message from a man calling himself “W. F. Thomas” was left upon the paper. Until then, it was not known that anyone of the name of “Thomas” (an alias of Podmore) had been in any way connected with the victim.*

This was still very far from placing a fellow on the gallows until a further bit of investigative prestidigitation produced an apparent motive:

a leaf from a note-book showing indentations which had, presumably, been made by the pressure of a pencil on another leaf of the book subsequently torn out. By means of photography with the use of oblique lighting to illuminate the edges of the indentations, words relating to bogus orders, with the initials of “Thomas,” were rendered visible.*

From such paper was the crown able to craft a case which the reader will readily discern: Podmore, a mechanic only temporarily in Mr. Messiter’s employ, had entered some fraudulent transactions upon which he claimed a commission, and a fatal altercation presumably ensued upon Messiter’s discovering the con. The fact that Podmore was already wanted for fraud and robbery elsewhere did not help the defendant’s situation.

The “Garage Murder” investigation played out for months throughout 1929, much of which Podmore spent in jail on the other larceny charges while the cloud of suspicion gathered over him. In early March 1930, trial bulletins on counsels’ disputes over this novel evidence — its admissibility, its weight and application to the theory of the crime, and the sleuthing techniques employed to gather it — filled the papers almost daily.


The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks agrees. (Headline from London Times, March 10, 1930)

Evidence that fit “like a crossword puzzle” (in the summing-up of the state’s attorney) nevertheless did not amount to anything so ironclad that Podmore wanted for public support: in the couple of weeks between a rejected appeal and Podmore’s execution, 12,000 people signed a petition for his reprieve, including 79 Members of Parliament.**

(Those crossword forensic clues had been buttressed by that classic recourse of the prosecutor, dubious jailhouse-snitch testimony as to the convenient spontaneous confession of the accused allegedly delivered to perfect strangers in the most injurious possible situation: that such specious evidence might have proved decisive in a matter of life and death seems to have moved a lot of signatures to the clemency petition.)

Given the circumstances, the Home Secretary took the unusual step of issuing a statement on its denial of this measure to calm the “disquiet in the public mind” — and expressing his confidence beyond any “scintilla of doubt as to the prisoner’s guilt.”†

* C. Ainsworth Mitchell, “Scientific Documentary Evidence in Criminal Trials,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Vol. 23, No. 2 (July-August, 1932)

** London Times, April 16, 1930

London Times, April 21, 1930. “I searched for many days,” Secretary Clynes said after the hanging (Times, April 23, 1930), “in the hope that I would find a reason for recommending a reprieve. I searched in vain.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf

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1535: Thomas More, the king’s good servant but God’s first

14 comments July 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1535, Sir — later Saint — Thomas More kept his conscience at the expense of his head on Tower Hill.

For all More‘s greatness — as intellectual, polemicist, lawyer, statesman, father — none of his many gifts at the end could avail him beside his commitment to Catholicism at the dawn of the English Reformation.

Yet it is for those gifts that he cut such a commanding presence in his times, for those very reasons that his sovereign hounded his first citizen to assent to the divorce and remarriage he was fixed upon.

A devotee and friend of Erasmus from years before, More was in Henry’s more orthodox youth the king’s very scourge of Protestantism. His scatological invective against Martin Luther in Responsio ad Lutherum — much in the impolite tenor of Catholic-Protestant rhetoric continent-wide, it should be noted — is of the sort to crimson the cheeks of the milquetoast modern:

Since he has written that he already has a prior right to bespatter and besmirch the royal crown with shit, will we not have the posterior right to proclaim the beshitted tongue of this practitioner of posterioristics most fit to lick with his anterior the very posterior of a pissing she-mule until he shall have learned more correctly to infer posterior conclusions from prior premises?

Over that hairshirt, he wore the robes of state. But his engagement with the world had a selective bent that must have exasperated his colleague and predecessor as Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. Orson Welles and Paul Scofield spar here in the definitive More hagiography A Man for All Seasons over the intellectual’s delicate refusal to dirty his gloves with the great matter of state before them — the annulment the king demanded of his marriage to the Queen (and More’s friend) Catherine of Aragon:

Peas in a pod, these two: Wolsey, the cleric grounded in realpolitik; More, the barrister who trusts to God. (More considered holy orders as a young man.)

Our man’s reputation for honesty in a den of hypocrites has certainly outrun Wolsey’s. Still, all More’s disdain for the deal-making that invests the sovereign majesty and all his foreboding for the relationship he had with his dangerous king were not quite enough to stop him accepting the Chancellorship and the opportunity to stamp out Lutheranism … knowing perfectly well the simultaneous thrust of Henry’s boudoir policy.

It all cuts quite a contrast to More’s (barely) pre-Reformation text, Utopia (available free from Project Gutenberg), which named a literary genre and described an imagined society of tolerant primitive communism that surely would have blanched at its inventor’s coming role in the state’s machinations:

I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please

[E]very man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavour to draw others to it by the force of argument and by amicable and modest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions; but that he ought to use no other force but that of persuasion, and was neither to mix with it reproaches nor violence* …

It’s not a given that More himself agrees with every (or even any) sentiment expressed in Utopia, but his most famous work’s criticism of the death penalty too liberally applied makes interesting reading.

[E]xtreme justice is an extreme injury: for we ought not to approve of those terrible laws that make the smallest offences capital … God has commanded us not to kill, and shall we kill so easily for a little money [i.e., execute petty thieves]? But if one shall say, that by that law we are only forbid to kill any except when the laws of the land allow of it, upon the same grounds, laws may be made, in some cases, to allow of adultery and perjury: for God having taken from us the right of disposing either of our own or of other people’s lives, if it is pretended that the mutual consent of men in making laws can authorise man-slaughter in cases in which God has given us no example, that it frees people from the obligation of the divine law, and so makes murder a lawful action, what is this, but to give a preference to human laws before the divine? and, if this is once admitted, by the same rule men may, in all other things, put what restrictions they please upon the laws of God.

This insistence on the supremacy of divine law over human institutions forms the basis of his objection to parliament’s overthrowing the papacy — which he expressed openly only after he was convicted by obviously perjured “jailhouse snitch” testimony

[Y]ou have no authority, without the common consent of all Christians, to make a law or Act of Parliament or Council against the union of Christendom.

Paul Scofield bears enjoying in the role in A Man for All Seasons:

More is sometimes suspected of desiring martyrdom since he marched so unerringly into it, but he also made every attempt to survive Henry’s demand the he affirm the royal remarriage and the king’s ecclesiastical supremacy by withdrawing silently from the public sphere rather than openly opposing it. More had by every account an enviable, downright happy life at his own hearth, and a tender and intellectual relationship with his favorite daughter Meg. (Meg corresponded with her father in prison, collected his works, and retrieved his head from London Bridge.)

But by his way of thinking — Meg tried to talk him out of it — he couldn’t swear to the Act of Succession acknowledging the king’s right to divorce Queen Catherine and disinherit her daughter Mary if Henry decided to force the choice. And in the king’s eyes, there was no middle ground for someone of the ex-Chancellor’s stature.

Henry could see to it, though, to cut his old friend a break and commute the sentence from drawing and quartering to “mere” beheading, here depicted in the past season of the Showtime series The Tudors.

More’s last moments as rendered here — the ironic remark at the foot of the scaffold, “See me safe up: for my coming down, I can shift for myself”;** his generous answer to the headsman’s plea for forgiveness — are well-documented. Undoubtedly, his sturdy martyr’s bearing, the extension of a life of joyful piety, helped cement for posterity the fame he held in life.

And that dying address — “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first” — gathers in one sentiment free of bombast or self-pity the irreconcilable demands of conscience that would lead many thousands besides More to Henry VIII’s scaffolds, and rings equally true to less lethal challenges to the conscience in every land and time since.

Anne Boleyn, who caused More’s fate, shared it less than a year afterwards.

Thomas More was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935 — the patron saint of politicians. Rather bizarrely, July 6 is also his feast day on the Anglican calendar, a tribute to the nearly universal regard his memory enjoys.

Thomas More's statue at the Chelsea Old Church

Chelsea resident Thomas More’s statue at the (Anglican) Chelsea Old Church.

* Despite its religious tolerance, More’s Utopia — anticipating Dostoyevsky — maintains:

a solemn and severe law against such as should so far degenerate from the dignity of human nature, as to think that our souls died with our bodies, or that the world was governed by chance, without a wise overruling Providence … since a man of such principles must needs, as oft as he dares do it, despise all their laws and customs: for there is no doubt to be made, that a man who is afraid of nothing but the law, and apprehends nothing after death, will not scruple to break through all the laws of his country, either by fraud or force, when by this means he may satisfy his appetites.

** According to the biography published by More’s son-in-law — who married More’s favorite, Margaret — the jest was occasioned by the rickety look of the scaffold. The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatness; Or, The Life of Sir Thomas More is available free on Google Books.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,God,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Rape,Religious Figures,The Worm Turns,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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