2020: Walter Barton, coronavirus milestone

Add comment May 19th, 2020 Headsman

Missouri graced America with her first coronavirus pandemic execution tonight.

Aptly emblematic of a moment where crumbling institutions reveal the post-Cold War empire’s far-advanced rot, Walter “Arkie”* Barton’s death on the gurney culminated three decades of shambolic re-prosecutions, reliant in the end for their victory on nothing but the unequal strength of the prosecutor’s office and the willingness of courts to certify junk science as real evidence.

The victim of the murder was the 81-year-old manager of Riverview Trailer Park, where Barton lived. He was friends with that woman, Gladys Kuehler, and visited her the afternoon of her murder; later, he together with Kuehler’s granddaughter and a neighbor discovered the woman’s body. She’d been sexually assaulted and horribly knifed, slashed and stabbed more than 50 times.

The key bits of evidence convincing jurors — several of whom submitted affidavits during Barton’s clemency stage regretting their findings — that Barton had been the author of this savage attack were essentially two:

  1. Blood-spatter expert testimony that a drop of blood on Barton’s shirt that was a DNA match for Gladys Kuehler had arrived there via a “high-impact” splat at velocity –i.e., flying fast off the murder weapon. This stuff is humbug of the same genus as the burn pattern pseudoscience that wrongly executed Cameron Willingham, and more importantly it’s conspicuously silent on why Barton, who didn’t change or wash his clothes, wasn’t ribboned with high-impact bloodstains from his slasher-film murder. His own hypothesis that he picked up a spot of blood at the time he helped discover the body is at least as compelling an explanation.
  2. The ubiquitous jailhouse snitch, behind bars for a list of frauds as long as your arm, to whom Walter Barton, that fool, just spontaneously confessed even while otherwise maintaining his innocence to everyone else who would listen. The use and abuse of these finks, whose comforts are directly controlled by one party in the adversarial hearing, is a factor in a great many wrongful convictions.

Aggressively prosecuted by an attorney general — Jay Nixon, subsequently Missouri’s governor — more politically ambitious than forensically rigorous over the span of no fewer than five trials, then upheld by a split 4-3 vote in the state’s highest court, this met the emptiest formal standards of technical sufficiency to take the life of Arkie Barton, a sort of hollow malevolent pantomime of a functioning liberal democracy’s justice system.

Barton’s was just the sixth U.S. execution of 2020, and the first since COVID-19 torpedoed everything in mid-March. The last previous U.S. execution was that of Nathaniel Woods in Alabama, on March 5. Various states have delayed scheduled execution dates during the 11 intervening weeks, but those and others loom on the dockets as states push to reopen once it’s semi-safe to operate the machinery of death.

* Because he hailed originally from Arkansas.

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2020: The Nirbhaya Gang Rapists

Add comment March 20th, 2020 Headsman

Akshay Thakur, 31, Pawan Gupta, 25, Vinay Sharma, 26, and Mukesh Singh, 32, were hanged at Delhi’s Tihar Jail today — four of the six* widely hated perpetrators of in infamous 2012 gang rape.

On December 16, 2012, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student and call center worker named Jyoti Singh was returning from the cinema with a male friend on a private bus in a South Delhi neighborhood when the five other passengers plus the driver sealed the doors and assaulted them. After the man was knocked out with an iron rod, the five passengers turned on Singh and horrifically gang-raped her while the driver continued to steer the bus, even using a wheel jack to sodomize the struggling woman. By the time it was finished, and both victims tossed out of the moving vehicle, she’d suffered “massive damage to her genitals, uterus and intestines.” (Per medical examiners.) She succumbed several days later after desperate surgeries, but she lived long enough to identify her attackers, who were being arrested by the very next day. (Her male friend, Avanindra Pandey, survived the attack with broken ribs.)

The victim became publicly known as “Nirbhaya”, meaning “fearless”, owing to laws against doxxing sex crime victims, but her parents revealed her identity in the media in 2015. “We want the world to know her real name,” her father told British media. “My daughter didn’t do anything wrong, she died while protecting herself. I am proud of her. Revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks. They will find strength from my daughter.”

Instantly iconic, the case gestated huge public protests against endemic sexual violence, and allegedly contributed to a massive decline in tourism by women costing India billions of dollars. The prosecutions were naturally fast-tracked by a judiciary under intense public pressure, and Delhi police handed down internal punishments to officers for failing to prevent the crime when it emerged that the crime-van had been used to rob another passenger earlier that same night. The seven-year span from crime to execution is relative lightning speed for a country which in recent times has only rarely enforced death sentences. But comparative timetables were of no comfort to Nirbhaya’s parents, who have been publicly implacable on the matter of punishment throughout.

“We all have waited so long for this day,” her mother said upon news of the men’s execution. “Today is a new dawn for daughters of India. The beasts have been hanged.”

This case has been the subject of considerable international commentary, most controversially a BBC documentary titled India’s Daughter (often available on YouTube despite its copyright) which includes interview footage with one of the now-hanged defendants attributing the attack to Jyoti Singh’s “indecency”. The film is still banned in India as of this writing.

* Besides the four executed, a fifth man, the driver Ram Singh, was found hanged in pretrial detention — either suicide or murder — and a sixth was underage. The latter has long been released from his juvenile sentence; he’s reportedly working as a cook, ostracized by his family.

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2020: Nathaniel Woods, #SaveNate

Add comment March 5th, 2020 Headsman

Nathaniel Woods was controversially executed by lethal injection at William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, tonight at 9:01 p.m. U.S. Central Time.

Woods and Kerry Spencer — a co-defendant who is awaits execution for the same affair — were in a Birmingham trap house when officers Charles Bennett, Harley Chisholm III, Carlos Owen and Michael Collins arrived to serve a warrant. Of the four, only Collins would outlive the deadliest day in Birmingham police history.

While the facts of the case are contested, one that is universally agreed is that Kerry Spencer, not Nathaniel Woods, killed all three officers. Woods met them but as the police were in the process of taking him into custody, Spencer — just waking up from the commotion, he claimed — burst onto the scene firing an SKS.

“When I looked to the side, there was two police officers trying to train their guns on me so I opened fire with the fucking rifle. I wasn’t trying to get shot, period. I got a rifle in my hand. They’re going to shoot me,” Spencer told CNN. “You point a gun at me, bitch, I’m fixing to shoot.”

Woods said he simply fled from an unexpected crossfire, and Spencer agrees. “Nate is absolutely innocent,” he said. “That man didn’t know I was going to shoot anybody just like I didn’t know I was going to shoot anybody that day, period.” Alabama prosecutors characterized Woods as conspiring with Spencer to lure the cops into an ambush.

Woods and Spencer not only deny this, but developed an explosive appellate argument — never probed by any court — that the slain policemen were hassling the place as part of a routine police shakedown racket, to which the apartment’s owner had fallen behind on payments, and intimidated that owner out of providing exculpatory evidence.

But at a minimum, Woods’s execution presented the disturbing spectacle of a non-triggerman being punished for actions to which he might have been little other than a bystander. The #SaveNate campaign garnered a wide and fruitless call for clemency compassing civil rights leaders …

… celebrities …

… and at least one relative of a victim.

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2019: Wei Wei

Add comment December 26th, 2019 Headsman

Japan this morning hanged a Chinese man for a 2003 robbery-murder.

With two other Chinese nationals, Wei Wei robbed and murdered a clothier in Fukuoka Prefecture, along with his wife and two young daughters ages 11 and 8 — scoring ¥37,000 in the process. All four were strangled or drowned, and eventually discovered dumped in Hakata Bay, weighted down with dumbbells.

According to the Japan Times,

The two accomplices fled to China where they were arrested. One of them was executed there in 2005 and the other was given a life sentence.

Wei’s death sentence was finalized in 2011. Prior to the murder, the three had been involved in various robberies.

In a statement released on the same day, international human rights group Amnesty International’s Japanese arm lambasted the execution of Wei, noting that it went ahead while he was seeking a retrial.

“Appealing for a retrial is part of the processes stipulated in the criminal procedure law,” the group said.

“They should have begun a process for suspending the execution while he was demanding a retrial. Failing to do so runs counter to the international human rights law.”

Wei Wei is reportedly the first foreign national hanged in Japan since 2009

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2019: Ali Hakim al-Arab and Ahmad al-Mullali, Bahrain opposition

Add comment July 27th, 2019 Headsman

The Gulf state Bahrain shot three men this morning, including two young Shia activists whose condemnation became a worldwide cause celebre. (The third man was an unnamed individual convicted of killing an imam.)


Left: Ali Hakim al-Arab, right: Ahmad al-Mullali

The majority-Shia island, home to American and British military bases, has been ruled by the Sunni House of Khalifa since 1783. In those two-plus centuries, this dynasty has achieved Croesus-like wealth for itself and disproportionately directed the country’s vast oil revenues to a class of predominantly Sunni elites.

This simmering grievance exploded during the Arab Spring era in the form of a 2011 uprising; though these protests were violently squelched by troops requisitioned from Bahrain’s allied Gulf petrokingdoms Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, protests and opposition have continued ever since.

Many of the political prisoners arrested in this crackdown or subsequently were housed in Jau (or Jaw) Prison, notorious for overcrowding and torture. This prison in turn has become the target of numerous actual and attempted jailbreaks in the 2010s, with outside supporters trying to help imprisoned Shia dissidents escape.

The most daring and deadly of these was the January 1, 2017 raid by armed regime opponents that (temporarily) freed ten prisoners. The gunmen, who reportedly prepped for the operation by scouting the prison and environs with drones, slew a police officer during the escape.

Throughout the 2010s Bahrain has met every exertion of its opposition by heightened repression. Just weeks after this jailbreak, it extended military tribunals to civilian cases, a chilling threat to every dissident. And it made a massive example of the people who were allegedly involved in the Jau Prison outrage, both the escapees and the outside activists — all bracketed together under the expansive rubric of “terrorism”. (Bahrain judges have ruled that mere “moral pressure” can supply the violence necessary to qualify an act as terrorism.)

The result was a mass trial of 60 alleged jailbreak participants. There were two acquittals and 56 sub-capital sentences; Ali Hakim al-Arab and Ahmad al-Mullali earned the headlines with death sentences for killing an off-duty officer (not the one shot during the jailbreak). Most of those convicted also had their citizenship stripped into the bargain.

Both men submitted “confessions” under heavy torture, including beatings, electric shocks, having nails ripped out, and possibly even moral persuasion.

Human rights organizations around the world raised alarms yesterday with the ominous news that the men’s families had been summoned to visit their doomed relations at Jau Prison; in London, an activist scaled the Bahrain embassy to unveil a banner demanding clemency.

“One of Bahrain’s darkest days,” said Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy director Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei in a statement. “It appears that the Bahraini government planned this meticulously, timing the executions to coincide with US, EU and UK legislative recesses in order to avoid international scrutiny. These crimes only happened because of the unconditional support lent to dictator Hamad by Washington and London.”

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2018: The Sultan of Coins

Add comment November 14th, 2018 Headsman

Iran today hanged two men for financial crimes.

Vahid Mazloumin, dubbed “the Sultan of Coins”, was arrested in July with two tons of gold coins in his possession. He was condemned with accomplice Mohammad-Esmaeil Qassemi of comprising a “smuggling gang”.

Iran’s currency has collapsed in recent months ahead of the bad-faith U.S. nuclear sanctions, leading Iranians to rush for precious metals.

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2018: Shoko Asahara and six Aum Shinrikyo followers, for the Tokyo sarin attack

Add comment July 6th, 2018 Headsman

Shoko Asahara and six of his followers in the Aum Shinrikyo cult were hanged today in Japan as authors of one of the most infamous terrorist attacks in recent history: the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway of 1995.

Thirteen people died and several thousand more were injured when members of this millenial sect deposited punctured bags of homemade liquid sarin on multiple rail lines of Tokyo’s subway during Monday rush hour.

It was only one of several gas attacks perpetrated by Aum Shinrikyo during the 1990s; just nine months previous, they had killed nine people in a sarin attack in Matsumoto. But it is by far the most notorious. Images of stricken commuters, blinded and suffocating under the nerve agent’s influence, sprawled on the transit platforms or outside them shocked orderly Japan in 1995, especially so since it came fast on the heels of the devastating January 1995 Kobe earthquake.

These comprised “two of the gravest tragedies in Japan’s postwar history,” according to Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. “It is no exaggeration to say that there was a marked change in the Japanese consciousness ‘before’ and ‘after’ these events.” Japanese Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa struck a similar chord in announcing the hangings today: “These crimes … plunged people not only in Japan but in other countries as well into deadly fear and shook society to its core.”

Its mastermind Shoko Asahara, the first man executed this morning, emerged soon thereafter into public view a bedraggled and half-blind fanatic, almost the picture of an agent of chaos. Shockingly, his cult had been able to thrive in the early 1990s thanks in part to murdering an attorney who was investigating Aum Shinrikyo back in 1989.

Beyond the seven hanged on July 6, 2018, six additional members of the cult still remain under sentence of death in Japan for the Tokyo subway atrocity.

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2018: Zahid Iqbal

Add comment April 10th, 2018 Headsman

Via UrduPoint.com. A different report give the spur to the murder not as a “minor dispute” but a “robbery bid”.

FAISALABAD, (UrduPoint / Pakistan Point News — 10th Apr, 2018): A condemned prisoner was executed in Central Jail Faisalabad on Tuesday. According to Prisons Department, Zahid Iqbal had murdered three persons Rehana, Anayat Ali and Haris over a minor dispute in 2005 and the session court had awarded him death sentence on three counts.

The apex court also upheld the decision of the trial court whereas the President also turned down his mercy appeal. After the rejection of mercy petition, death warrants were issued against the condemned prisoner Zahid Iqbal and the court fixed April 10 for implementation on his execution. Later, the body was handed over to his heirs after completing necessary formalities.

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2017: Fifteen Sinai Islamic militants

Add comment December 26th, 2017 Headsman

Egypt today hanged 15 Islamic militants convicted of a 2013 attack on an army checkpoint that killed nine.

Hanged in simultaneous mass executions at Borj al-Arab and Wadi al-Natroun prisons, the accused ISIS/ISIL fighters might have been selected to ornament Cairo’s public present-day crackdown on the Islamist movement and the restive Sinai, on the heels of a Bir al-Abed mosque attack last month that claimed more than 300 lives.

An attorney representing the hanged men claims that the execution was irregularly expedited a mere six days after the death warrants were approved, instead of the mandatory 15; if true, according to a statement today by the British human rights organization Reprieve, that would not far differ from the process that landed them in the executioner’s path to begin with.

These death sentences and executions are a flagrant breach of international law. Trials in Egypt routinely fail to meet basic fair trial standards, and this is especially so in mass trials and military tribunals — as in this case. Egypt has executed at least 55 people and sentenced thousands to death since Sisi took power — a massive increase on pre-2014 figures.

The international community, particularly Egypt’s allies, must condemn these killings. The European Commission and member states must urgently review their assistance to Egypt’s judiciary, which is responsible for these atrocities.

These executions also appear to break a yearlong lull in executions in Egypt; a Cornell University project had Egypt credited with only a single previous execution in 2017 after hanging 44 in 2016.

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2017: Robert Pruett

4 comments October 12th, 2017 Headsman

Texas this evening executed Robert Pruett, a 38-year-old man who last saw the outside of prison as a 15-year-old boy … and who perhaps had no hand in either of the murders that defined his life and death.

He was sent to jail as a child under the “law of parties” for being present when his father stabbed a neighbor to death — an offense that caught him an unthinkable 99-year sentence before he was old enough to drive.

It’s claimed by way of justifying his death by lethal injection tonight that in 1999 he murdered a guard. Pruett has always denied this and has never been linked by physical evidence to the murder — a very late attempt at DNA testing yielded a frustratingly indecisive outcome — and the testimony against him consisted of prisoners whose status as wards of the state issuing the prosecution predictably compromises their evidence. Pruett never quite had conclusive proof of his innocence so his “merely” questionable guilt fits a depressingly frequent pattern: use the prosecutor’s muscle to get a conviction on the books, then ride procedural inertia all the way to the gurney.

Anti-death penalty nun Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame has a Twitter thread summarizing the case for Pruett beginning here.

Innocent or guilty, Pruett is — was — a man of unusual erudition. A blogspot blog last updated in 2007 has some fascinating reflections from a much younger man, years before he was a figure of interest for New York Times op-eds.

As I lie awake at night pondering my predicament, a feeling of futility envelopes me. The maxim that had once helped me develop an insatiable will wants to fade away. I waited too long to fight, says some voice that I hardly recognize as my own. It’s over. I should acquiesce to my fate … Yet there’s another voice from the depths of my soul rebuking the other, warning me against throwing the towel in. I’m not a quitter, it says, I can do this if I set my mind to it. That sounds more like the Robert I know. There’s still time to prove my innocence. It’s foolish to waste it with all the negative thoughts of defeat.

Just three days before Pruett’s execution, Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson wrote a captivating review of a nine-chapter autobiography of Pruett’s that demands a full read. I have not been able to locate a link to the actual autobiography itself and would be grateful for anyone who might be able to direct me; nevertheless, Robinson’s lengthy excerpts achingly humanize the late writer from his behind-the-8-ball childhood to his maturation under the executioner’s very long shadow.

It wasn’t until I got to death row that I realized my ignorant and hateful views on race were a reflection/projection of how I felt about myself, that I’d constructed a complex ideology totally rooted and parallel to the things I most disliked about me. I used to go on tangents about the criminality exhibited by the black youth of America, how it needs to be addressed and curbed, but the truth was that I was talking about myself the entire time and didn’t even realize it. It’s a truth that we project onto others the things we most hate about ourselves. Carl Jung said that our shadow selves, the part of our psyches that we store repressed emotional themes and the aspects of our personalities we dislike, is represented by what we hate/dislike in others. You are what you hate …

Somehow, I believe it took me coming here, living the life of extreme adversity that I have, in order to conquer my shadow and grow in the ways I have … I needed to have my life ripped away from me, to face a hopeless situation and experience great loss and pain in order to finally break through and spread my own wings.

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