1881: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

1 comment November 4th, 2014 Headsman

Three murderers’ coincidental hanging dates on November 4, 1881, were reported by the next day’s issue of the New York Herald. We reproduce all three bulletins below, verbatim save added line breaks to aid readability.

Whiteville, N.C., Nov. 4, 1881

Henry Lovett, colored, to-day suffered the extreme penalty of the law for the murder of Archelaus P. Williams, who was also colored.

The doomed man slept quietly last night and ate a hearty breakfast this morning. The Rev. H. Gore, colored, of the Missionary Baptist Church, who had attended the malefactor on several occasions and officiated with him to the last moment, states that Lovett professed himself as willing to die. His demeanor this morning was calm and collected and he bade goodby to the sheriff, jailer and others in attendance with perfect composure.

At half-past eleven o’clock this forenoon he was taken from the jail to the gallows, which was erected in the jail yard. He mounted the scaffold with a firm step, attended by the jailer, sheriff and clergyman.

PRAYING ON THE SCAFFOLD.

The execution being public, the yard and surrounding grounds were packed with an eager populace anxious to witness a spectacle seldom seen in the county of Columbus.

Religious services were held upon the scaffold, in which Lovett joined with fervor.

At the conclusion of the devotions the Sheriff adjusted the rope, and at ten minutes past twelve the drop fell. At the expiration of fifteen minutes the physicians in attendance pronounced Lovett dead. He died with scarcely a struggle, the neck being dislocated by the fall. After remaining suspended for twenty minutes the body was cut down and taken to the public burial ground for interment.

STORY OF THE CRIME.

The murder of Williams by Lovett was committed at a place known at Williamson’s Cross Roads, in Tatums township, in this county, on the 19th of July, 1880.

The parties had always been on friendly terms, but upon the day of the murder, both men being intoxicated, some misunderstanding had arisen between them, during which Williams picked up a rock to throw it at Lovett, who had drawn a pocket knife. High words and threats passed between them, but finally apparent peace was restored and Williams threw down the rock in token of amity.

Lovett then approached him, and putting his arm around Williams’ neck said, “There is no trouble, Ned (a name by which the latter was usually known), between us,” and they walked off together in seeming good friendship, when a blow was heard and Williams exclaimed, “I’m a dead man without a cause!”

At the same instant Lovett was seen by one of the bystanders to draw a knife from the neck of his victim.

Some of those present immediately secured Lovett, while others hastened to the assistance of the wounded man. The former made no effort to escape, nor did he attempt to resist arrest.

Medical attendance was very promptly on hand, and it was found that the jugular vein was partially severed and the throat and windpipe badly cut. Williams, however, lived twenty-four hours after receiving the fatal wound.

He was about fifty-five years of age, and left a wife and several children. He was generally a peacable man, but at times, especially when partially intoxicated, was inclined to be quarrelsome.

TRIAL AND CONVICTION.

At the fall term of the Superior Court of Columbus county last year the Grand Jury found a true bill against Lovett, and he was duly arraigned for trial.

As the prisoner was entirely without means the Court assigned counsel to defend him. Upon affidavit being made that the prisoner was not prepared for trial the case was continued until the spring term of 1881, at which the prisoner’s counsel asked for a further continuance to enable them to secure important witnesses, and upon affidavit made to that effect the request was granted.

At the fall term, which convened at Whiteville, September 19, 1881, Judge Jesse F. Graves, presiding, Lovett was brought to trial, and after a fair and impartial hearing, an able defence by his counsel and an exhaustive charge by the court, the jury rendered a verdict of “guilty of murder in the first degree.”

A motion was made for a new trial upon the ground that no malice had been shown upon the part of the defendant, but it was overruled. The court then pronounced sentence of death upon the prisoner.

INDIFFERENCE TO HIS FATE.

Lovett received the sentence with stolid indifference, apparently without remorse for the fearful crime he had committed or solicitude for the awful fate which awaited him.

This utter disregard of the past or future he has as a rule maintained ever since. Spiritual consolation has been offered him through the ministrations of a Baptist (white) clergyman and also by two colored ministers of the same denomination, but he paid little attention to any of them, although his conduct has been quiet, peacable and orderly during his long confinement.

He claimed to be but twenty-one years of age, although his appearance would indicate that he was at least four years old. He also claimed to have had no recollection of the events of that fatal day.

Lovett was a full black, about five feet and five inches in height, and his status as a colored man was considerably below the average of intelligence among those people. He was unmarried.


Plattsburg, N.Y., Nov. 4, 1881

Henry King was executed here to-day for the murder of Michael Hamilton at the State Prison, at Clinton, on July 13, in which both men were convicts.

Both were New York burglars, who had been drafted from Sing Sing Prison. King was serving a life term for killing Police Sergeant McGiven, of New York. He had been very quiet and penitent in the jail and attended strictly to the religious advice given him by Father Walsh.

The arrangements for the execution were carefully made by Sheriff Mooney, the gallows being placed in the rear yard of the jail.

At thirty-six minutes after eleven o’clock the Sheriff and deputies, two medical men and representatives of the press took their places.

The warrant had been previously read in the cell. The condemned man walked unpinioned, with a determined air to his fate, behind Fathers Walsh and Carroll, who were reciting the offices of the Church. King spoke briefly, thanking the Sheriff and his deputies for their kindness, and saying that he had hopes of God’s forgiveness.

DEATH BY STRANGULATION.

The rope and cap having been adjusted by Sheriff Mooney, that official stepped behind a screen, and at seventeen minutes to twelve the body of King sprang upward and was dangling in the air four feet from the ground.

The knot having slipped to the front the neck was not broke and death ensued by strangulation.

After a lapse of three minutes no pulse could be felt at the wrist, but it was still eighty at the heart. At twelve o’clock it was gone and he was declared dead by the doctors. Seven minutes later the body was lowered, placed in a coffin and given to his mother and brother, who had come up from New York last Tuesday for that purpose.

The remains were taken to St. John’s Church, where a funeral mass was recited, and at two o’clock they were buried in the village cemetery.

DETAILS OF THE TRAGEDY.

On the 10th of August, 1876, Henry King was sentenced to serve a life term in Dannemora Prion for murdering Sergeant James McGiven, of New York.

A short time after the shooting of President Garfield, King and another convict named Hamilton, got into a quarrel regarding the character of Vice President Arthur and his fitness to administer the affairs of the nation in the event of President Garfield’s death and Arthur’s succession to the Presidency.

Hamilton made some remark which was not complimentary to Arthur, whereupon King struck his brother convict two blows on the head with an axe, killing him instantly.

King was tried on the charge of murder, at the Circuit Court in session at Plattsburgh, on September 14, Judge Landon presiding.

Three witneses were sworn for the prosecution — the prison physician, a cook and one of the keepers. No evidence was introduced on behalf of the prisoner. The taking of testimony occupied about one hour and a half, when the jury retired. After an absence of about two hours it returned and requested the Judge to explain the legal difference between murder in the first and second degrees.

EXTRAORDINARY SCENE IN COURT.

Judge Landon was about to reply, when the prisoner arose to his feet and said: — “Your Honor and gentlemen of the jury, this was not a murder in the second degree. It was a deliberate and premeditated murder. I know that I have done wrong, that I ought to confess the truth and that I ought to be hanged.”

Here the prisoner’ counsel tried in vain to silence him.

“No,” continued King.

I have done wrong. It is my duty to confess it, and I cannot help doing so. I cannot keep still. I plead guilty to murder in the first degree. It was fifteen minutes from the time I struck the first blow with the axe until I struck him the second time, and all this time I kept thinking, ‘I will finish this man.’ If this is not premeditated murder what is it? I have already killed two men. What is my life to me? The life of either of these two men whom I have killed is worth a dozen of mine.

THE DEATH SENTENCE.

The prisoner then sat down, whereupon the Judge informed the jury that in view of the prisoner’s admission that the murder was premeditated there was no necessity for any further explanation of the law upon his part.

The jury thereupon retired and very soon came back with a verdict of guilty. In reply to the question as to whether he had anything to say why the sentence of death should not be passed upon him King replied: — “Nothing, sir; the sentence is a just one. I ought to be hanged.”

KING’S RECORD IN NEW YORK.

Policeman Patrick Kennedy, of the City Hall police, said yesterday: —

I arrested King immediately after his stabbing poor McGiven. King had a watch and chain in one hand and an open knife in the other.

As soon as McGiven was wounded he released his hold of the thief, who had thus become a murderer, and cried out ‘I am stabbed!’ Just as this occurred I arrived at the scene and seized the murderer.

McGiven said, ‘Look out for him; he has a knife.’ With some difficulty I succeeded in disarming King, not, however, before he informed me that if he had his pistol with him he would ‘fix’ me.

I subsequently learned that King was one of the worst characters in a locality notorious for crime — viz., from Twelfth to Forty-Second Street, east of First Avenue. He was always ready, for anything in the way of crime, being what is known as a ‘general thief,’ having no particular specialty, but adopting sneak thieving, burglary or highway robbery as occasion offered.

He lived with his mother and brother in Nineteenth street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, and was well known to the police as one of the most desperate characters in the Eighteenth Ward.

He had the most violent temper that ever man was cursed with. He would stop at nothing to injure any one who interfered with or thwarted him.

Since he has been in prison I have ascertained that he wrote letters to this city, in which he expressed the intention, if ever he got out, to put an end to my life. Some idea of the man may be formed from his statement only a day or two ago that he does not want to live, as if he were to obtain his liberty he might commit other murders.


Jonesborough, Ga., Nov. 4, 1881

Tom Betts, colored, was hanged here to-day for the murder of Judge H. Moore, last fall.

Betts was taken from jail at 12 o’clock by the Sheriff under a guard of seventy men and carried to the gallows, which was erected a mile from the town.

The condemned man made a speech confessing his crime and expressing the belief that he would be saved. The drop fell at 1:01 o’clock and death resulted in seven minutes from strangulation.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,Murder,New York,North Carolina,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1881: Charlie Pierce lynched in Bloomington, Illinois

Add comment October 1st, 2014 Headsman


Philadelphia Inquirer, October 3, 1881

On this date in 1881, a mob of 5,000 shouting imprecations against the courts spent two hours breaking open the jail in Bloomington, Illinois, then hauled out a horse thief named Charlie Pierce* and lynched him to an elm tree at the corner of Market and Center.

Pierce’s offense wasn’t so much the horse-and-buggy theft from a weeks prior — the crime for which he was arrested — as making an impulsive and extraordinarily foolish escape attempt that entailed grabbing the sidearm of a well-liked jailer named Teddy Frank and shooting him dead. Rushing to the scene, the sheriff disarmed an unresisting Pierce who perhaps was already beginning to apprehend the possible consequences his rashness would visit on him that very night.

Now, murdering a lawman was typically just about the best way to appear before the bar of Judge Lynch this side of sexual assault. And it may have been that folks in McLean County were just spoiling for a bout of vigilante justice anyway; the local paper Pantagraph had reported that June that such “excitement prevails” against two other criminals that “it is not improbable they will be lynched.”

They weren’t, but according to a 2010 recap of the still-notorious Pierce hanging written by a McLean County Museum of History archivist, matters were exacerbated by the autumn by an Illinois Supreme Court ruling reversing the conviction of another Bloomington murderer.** And Pierce’s end came just two weeks after the U.S. President finally succumbed to the bullet that a madman had pumped into him months before.

A flash mob of infuriated citizenry had the jail surrounded by 8 o’clock, 90 minutes or so after Pierce shot Frank.

“Special despatches from Bloomington, Ill., give graphic details,” ran wire copy that generally expressed special shock at the participation of “the best citizens … in the front ranks of the lynchers. Leading business men cheered and encouraged the lynchers, and women waved their handkerchiefs in approbation.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 3, 1881)

These bloodthirsty local grandees ran up against — and in this instance prevailed over — the growing sentiment among respectable elites that such carnivals tarnished the majesty of the law. In some cases, that was pretty near the very point of them; hooting onlookers were reported to have shouted things like “Justice and the courts are a farce!” and “We have seen too much of court quibblings!” For any observer in his wits it was manifest that such hot blood would bend towards anarchy if given free rein.

A police officer managed to cut down Pierce as the three-quarter-inch manila hemp gouged into his neck, but the miscreant was strung up a second time and “upon [the officer’s] attempting to repeat this act of bravery he came near being killed.” The fire department was summoned to disperse the mob with hoses but was also forced to retreat. And the area’s delegate to the U.S. Senate as well as a state’s attorney pleaded with the mob to let the courts handle Mr. Pierce.

By way, maybe, of retort, a placard appeared the following day on the late Charlie Pierce’s lynch tree reading

McLean, Illinois — Ax-man, ax-man, spare this tree, and never touch a single bough; and may God spare this elm tree forever to grow to mark where the first justice to a murder ever was done in McLean County, and may the good people stand by the boys that did it. (The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), October 3, 1881)

It’s the only lynching in McLean County’s history.

* It transpired that Pierce’s actual surname was Howlett. He hailed from Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

** Patrick “Patsey” Devine, the beneficiary of that ruling, would be convicted again and hanged in 1882. He was feared in danger of joining Pierce on the lynch tree this night, but the mob gave him a miss.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Common Criminals,Crime,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Lynching,Murder,Public Executions,Summary Executions,USA

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1865: John Yates Beall, well-connected Confederate

8 comments February 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Confederate John Yates Beall was hanged at Governors Island, New York, as a spy and saboteur.

This Virginian was knocked out of regular service through injuries early in the Civil War, but proceeded to a privateering career harassing Union shipping.

The pinpricks inflicted by Beall’s couple of ships was hardly calamitous for the North, but what he lacked in resources he made up in persistence.

Captured and exchanged midway through the war, he returned to his swashbuckling ways. But sneaking into New York from Canada in a bid to free rebel prisoners, Beall was caught again trying to derail trains — and secretly condemned by a military tribunal.

When the news of his impending execution got out, six Senators and 85 other members of Congress* appealed for leniency.

Despite Lincoln’s reputation for clemency, he did not grant it in this case.

“For days before the execution,” it was said, “the President closed the doors of the executive palace against all suppliants, male or female, and his ears against all appeals, whether with the tongue of men or angels in behalf of the unfortunate prisoner. From the first Mr. Lincoln had responded to all applications for his interposition — ‘Gen. Dix may dispose of the case as he pleases — I will not interfere.’ Gen. Dix on his part replied, ‘All now rests with the President — as far as my action rests there is not a gleam of hope.’ Thus they stood as the pillars of the gallows, on which Beall’s fate was suspended and between them he died.” (Source)

Here’s the capture-trial-and-execution portions of a homemade documentary on Beall (also check the preceding parts 1, 2, and 3)

There’s a strange tradition that the hanged man was a personal friend of John Wilkes Booth, and that the actor’s assassination of Honest Abe seven weeks after Beall’s hanging was partly motivated by personal revenge.

* One of Beall’s clemency supporters was future assassinated U.S. President James Garfield.

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1630: John Billington, signer of the Mayflower Compact

7 comments September 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1630, Massachusetts’ Plymouth Colony held its first hanging — of a guy who’d come over on the Mayflower.

In this unfinished epic poem of the American experience by Stephen Vincent Benet, Billington is mourned at the foot of his gallows as “a man who came with the first and should have thriven.”

John Billington‘s John Hancock is on the Mayflower Compact, but he and his progeny had an ill reputation from the start.

Billington’s son almost torched the Mayflower while the pilgrims were still living in it; the old man himself achieved the distinction of “the first offence since our arrival … for his contempt of the captain’s lawful command with opprobrious speeches, for which he is adjudged to have his neck and heels tied together; but upon humbling himself and craving pardon, and it being the first offence, he is forgiven.”

(It wasn’t all bad. Another Billington kid gave the family name to an inland pond. (pdf))

Billington was condemned for shooting a neighbor.

This year John Billington the elder, one that came over with the first, was arraigned, and both by grand and petty jury found guilty of wilful murder, by plain and notorious evidence. And was for the same accordingly executed. This, as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them. They used all due means about his trial and took the advice of Mr. Winthrop and other the ablest gentlemen in Bay of the Massachusetts, that were then newly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land to be purged from blood. He and some of his had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them ; they came from London, and I know not by what friends shuffled into their company. His fact was that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen, about a former quarrel and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.
-Plymouth Gov. William Bradford (Source)

Billington is supposed to be a distant ancestor to American President James Garfield.

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1882: Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s colorful assassin

12 comments June 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1882, America’s weirdest assassin recited fourteen verses of the Gospel of Matthew and (sans requested orchestral accompaniment) a poem of his own composition entitled “I am Going to the Lordy,” and was hanged in the District of Columbia jail for shooting forgettable Gilded Age president James Garfield.

Mad as a march hare, Charles Julius Guiteau had irritated the obscure reaches of the Republic near four decades, trying his hand at free love, law, newspapering* and evangelism. A contemporary account of his religious flimflammery survives:

Charles J. Guiteau (if such really is his name), has fraud and imbecility plainly stamped upon his (face). (After) the impudent scoundrel talked only 15 minutes, he suddenly (thanked) the audience for their attention and (bid) them goodnight. Before the astounded 50 had recovered from their amazement…(he had taken their money and) fled from the building and escaped.

Having failed at each characteristic American monkeyshine more comprehensively than the last, he naturally gravitated to politics; while today Guiteau might tilt with his psychoses on some vituperative blog, in 1880 he published and delivered as a speech a widely-ignored crackpot encomium** for his eventual victim. Guiteau reckoned the GOP carried the 1880 elections on the strength of such rhetorical thunderbolts as “some people say he [Garfield] got badly soiled in that Credit Mobilier transaction but I guess he is clean-handed.”

Stunned that his contributions did not earn him a diplomatic posting to France, Guiteau stepped out of obscurity and into this blog’s pages by shooting the ungrateful (and unguarded) executive in the back at a Washington, D.C. train station (since demolished, and today occupied by the National Gallery of Art).

“To General Sherman: I have just shot the President. I shot him several times as I wished him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am a stalwart of the Stalwarts. I was with Gen. Grant, and the rest of our men in New York during the canvass. I am going to the Jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the Jail at once. Very respectfully, Charles Guiteau.” (Click for the full image.) From the Georgetown Charles Guiteau collection.

Thoughtfully, he had already hired a cab to take him to jail, where he expected to be liberated by General William Sherman.

Malpractice

The bugger of Garfield’s assassination is that Guiteau was no better at killing presidents than he was at electing them. Despite his exultation “Arthur is President now!”, he actually inflicted what could have been a non-fatal flesh wound that through ten-thumbed medical intervention became an agonizing eighty-day Calvary for the miserable Garfield.

Doctors jabbed unwashed hands into the the wound, failing to dig out the bullet they were looking for but successfully turning the three-inch wound into a crater, puncturing Garfield’s liver, and passing him Streptococcus. Alexander Graham Bell invented a metal detector to find the missile, but the damn thing gave a bad reading … because Garfield was lying on a bed with metal springs. His doctors, feuding with one another and with the press, instituted a regimen of rectal feeding — “Nutritive enemas — consisting of beef bouillon, egg yolks, milk, whiskey, and several drops of opium … Garfield’s flatulence became intolerable,” according to one biographer — that “basically starved him to death.”† He lost 100 pounds before succumbing; the autopsy concluded that Garfield probably would have lived if not for the medical attention, which didn’t stop the doctors from submitting a sizable invoice to the feds for services rendered.

(In a moment of lucidity, Guiteau defended himself with the observation “The doctors killed Garfield; I just shot him.”)

Not Ha-Ha Funny

Horribly hilarious, this American Absurdistan. “Except for the dead-serious details of his assassinating President Garfield and being in all likelihood clinically insane, Charles Guiteau might be the funniest man in American History,” Sarah Vowell put it.

Guiteau’s circus trial — with the defendant constantly interrupting to harangue participants, object to his own attorneys or converse with the spectators, plus the macabre appearance of the late Garfield’s actual vertebrae (now at Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Health and Medicine) as an exhibit — was for all that a landmark test of evolving law around criminal insanity.

Just as Garfield probably would have survived his injury had he been treated by the next generation’s medical norms, Guiteau probably would have survived his brush with the law if treated by the next generation’s legal norms.

Against an almost-too-strict-to-achieve earlier bar for legal insanity, a more accommodating jurisprudential norm called the M’Naghten Rules or M’Naghten Test was even then being adopted from English courts: essentially, did the “criminal” realize his act was wrong? Still the basis for legal insanity claims in much of the U.S. today, the first trial of a presidential assassin would be the M’Naghten standard’s trial by fire.

While the judge gave ample leeway for the defense to use M’Naghten, the legal standards it implied were still not widely understood and the medical testimony about Guiteau’s mental condition was (embarrassingly, for the profession) wildly contradictory. Ultimately, the judge cued the jury that “the law requires a very slight degree of intelligence indeed” on Guiteau’s part to impute him with sufficient criminal culpability to hang. There were cheers in the courthouse when the jury took an hour to decide that Guiteau had that very slight degree of intelligence indeed.

In the final analysis, as Charles Rosenberg observes in The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and the Law in the Gilded Age, the jurors’ prompt conviction of the widely hated, barking-mad defendant underscored the real-life constraints of dry legal theory as applied by an outraged community to a notorious offender:

[T]he Guiteau case demonstrated anew that the circumstances of a particular case had ordinarily as much to do with its disposition as the precise injunctions of rules of law … Many observers agreed after the trial that if an individual of Guiteau’s marked eccentricity had killed an ordinary man … he would almost certainly not have been convicted; very likely he would not even have been brought to trial. Similarly, while Garfield lay on his sickbed, it was commonly assumed that his assailant would be institutionalized if the President should survive. But if not, then not.

Reckoning the gesture could cost him the 1884 Republican nomination, Chester A. Arthur declined to spare his “benefactor” (“Arthur has sealed his own doom and the doom of this nation,” was Guiteau’s reaction, picturing fire and brimstone) and left Guiteau to his strange and lonely fate. The latter was talked out of an early plan to go to the gallows in the Christlike garb of only his undergarments, but did insist upon delivering his incoherent parting ramble in a high-pitched childlike tone (“the idea is that of a child babbling to his mama and his papa”).

Wrapping up this surreal historical episode in a neat little bow, Charles Guiteau got his own bluegrass tune:‡

For more adventures through Guiteau’s looking glass, there’s a fine page at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

* One of Guiteau’s failed newspaper ventures was to exploit the telegraph to reprint original content from other outlets. That one looks a lot less harebrained in retrospect: it’s a primitive model of the wire service, and latterly of RSS-based distributors like Google News.

** Scans of Guiteau’s apologia for Garfield — via Georgetown’s Charles Guiteau collection — are here: cover, pages 1-2, page 3.

† You really want to know more about the South Park-esque practice of rectal feeding? Garfield’s quack physician published this pamphlet in 1882.

‡ The “Charles Guiteau” ditty is actually a rather shameless knock-off of a murder ballad for James Rodgers, an Irish immigrant hanged in New York in 1858.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Political Expedience,USA,Washington DC,Wrongful Executions

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