1997: Bruce Edwin Callins, in the machinery of death

3 comments May 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Bruce Edwin Callins was executed in Texas — part of the torrid pace of executions unleashed in Texas in the late 1990s.

This small-timer would hardly rate a notice, but for the fact that Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun had chosen this otherwise forgettable murderer’s appeal to announce, in 1994, his belief that the death penalty was irreperably unconstitutional — probably the most famous comment on the death penalty to issue from the bench since capital punishment was reinstated with Blackmun’s concurrence in Gregg v. Georgia.

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.

You’ll see the quote on anti-death penalty placards and apparel from now ’til kingdom come.

But there’s a bit more to it than what fits on a bumper sticker, and Blackmun’s reasoning is worth excerpting at greater length:

Within days, or perhaps hours, the memory of Callins will begin to fade. The wheels of justice will churn again, and somewhere another jury or another judge will have the unenviable task of determining whether some human being is to live or die. We hope, of course, that the defendant whose life is at risk will be represented by competent counsel — someone who is inspired by the awareness that a less-than-vigorous defense truly could have fatal consequences for the defendant. We hope that the attorney will investigate all aspects of the case, follow all evidentiary and procedural rules, and appear before a judge who is still committed to the protection of defendants’ rights — even now, as the prospect of meaningful judicial oversight has diminished. In the same vein, we hope that the prosecution, in urging the penalty of death, will have exercised its discretion wisely, free from bias, prejudice, or political motive, and will be humbled, rather than emboldened, by the awesome authority conferred by the State.

But even if we can feel confident that these actors will fulfill their roles to the best of their human ability, our collective conscience will remain uneasy. Twenty years have passed since this Court declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly, and with reasonable consistency, or not at all, see Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), and, despite the effort of the States and courts to devise legal formulas and procedural rules to meet this daunting challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake. This is not to say that the problems with the death penalty today are identical to those that were present 20 years ago. Rather, the problems that were pursued down one hole with procedural rules and verbal formulas have come to the surface somewhere else, just as virulent and pernicious as they were in their original form. Experience has taught us that the constitutional goal of eliminating arbitrariness and discrimination from the administration of death, see Furman v. Georgia, supra, can never be achieved without compromising an equally essential component of fundamental fairness – individualized sentencing. See Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978).

It is tempting, when faced with conflicting constitutional commands, to sacrifice one for the other or to assume that an acceptable balance between them already has been struck. In the context of the death penalty, however, such jurisprudential maneuvers are wholly inappropriate. The death penalty must be imposed “fairly, and with reasonable consistency, or not at all.” Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 112 (1982).

To be fair, a capital sentencing scheme must treat each person convicted of a capital offense with that “degree of respect due the uniqueness of the individual.” Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. at 605 (plurality opinion). That means affording the sentencer the power and discretion to grant mercy in a particular case, and providing avenues for the consideration of any and all relevant mitigating evidence that would justify a sentence less than death. Reasonable consistency, on the other hand, requires that the death penalty be inflicted evenhandedly, in accordance with reason and objective standards, rather than by whim, caprice, or prejudice. Finally, because human error is inevitable, and because our criminal justice system is less than perfect, searching appellate review of death sentences and their underlying convictions is a prerequisite to a constitutional death penalty scheme.

On their face, these goals of individual fairness, reasonable consistency, and absence of error appear to be attainable: courts are in the very business of erecting procedural devices from which fair, equitable, and reliable outcomes are presumed to flow. Yet, in the death penalty area, this Court, in my view, has engaged in a futile effort to balance these constitutional demands, and now is retreating not only from the Furman promise of consistency and rationality, but from the requirement of individualized sentencing as well. Having virtually conceded that both fairness and rationality cannot be achieved in the administration of the death penalty, see McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279, 313 , n. 37 (1987), the Court has chosen to deregulate the entire enterprise, replacing, it would seem, substantive constitutional requirements with mere aesthetics, and abdicating its statutorily and constitutionally imposed duty to provide meaningful judicial oversight to the administration of death by the States.

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years, I have endeavored — indeed, I have struggled — along with a majority of this Court, to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor. Rather than continue to coddle the Court’s delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies. The basic question — does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants “deserve” to die? — cannot be answered in the affirmative.

Antonin Scalia, never one to let pass an opinion he could just as easily scorn, issued his retort in a concurrence with the 8-1 opinion to execute Callins:

Convictions in opposition to the death penalty are often passionate and deeply held. That would be no excuse for reading them into a Constitution that does not contain them, even if they represented the convictions of a majority of Americans. Much less is there any excuse for using that course to thrust a minority’s views upon the people.

Justice Blackmun begins his statement by describing with poignancy the death of a convicted murderer by lethal injection. He chooses, as the case in which to make that statement, one of the less brutal of the murders that regularly come before us, the murder of a man ripped by a bullet suddenly and unexpectedly, with no opportunity to prepare himself and his affairs, and left to bleed to death on the floor of a tavern.* The death-by-injection which Justice Blackmun describes looks pretty desirable next to that. It looks even better next to some of the other cases currently before us, which Justice Blackmun did not select as the vehicle for his announcement that the death penalty is always unconstitutional, for example, the case of the 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat. How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!

Scalia’s mention of the “case of the 11-year-old girl” isn’t about Callins at all. The monster Scalia refers to here as obviously execution-worthy for his incendiary crime is Henry Lee McCollum … who in 2014 would be exonerated by DNA evidence after some 30 years on death row.

* Specifically, Callins wasted the patron of a strip bar who was insufficiently prompt at giving up his wallet. The $3 he took from the dying man’s pockets wouldn’t even have been enough to make it rain.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Pelf,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,USA

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1894: Emile Henry, because there are no innocent bourgeois

3 comments May 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1894, Emile Henry was guillotined in Paris for bombing the Cafe Terminus three months before.

Yale history professor John Merriman (see him lecturing on the Paris Commune) explores how Henry’s bombing “ignited the age of modern terror.” (Review.) (Another.)

A bourgeois youth who, disgusted at the gross economic exploitation of the Gilded Age, had turned against his class with the fury only the apostate can command, Émile Henry had chucked a bomb into the chic cafe of the Parisian Gare Saint-Lazare a week after the execution of Auguste Vaillant.

Henry’s act killed only one, but electrified the country.

The Terminus bombing stood out in an era of violent anarchist ferment for its target selection: not a prince or president or parliamentarian, but the faceless multitudes of the bourgeoisie (formerly) secure in their metropolitan repose — who, in their indifference to the misery of workers assented to and profited from the more infamous repressions wrought by their plenipotentiaries.

Henry was completely explicit about his intent: “there are no innocent bourgeois.”

Recognizing the hopelessness of his legal position, he proudly admitted the charges against him and mounted an eloquent defense for the wider world of his version of anarchist terror.

I had returned to Paris at the time of the Vaillant affair, and I witnessed the frightful repression that followed the explosion at the Palais Bourbon. I saw the draconian measures which the government decided to take against the anarchists. Everywhere there were spies, and searches, and arrests. A crowd of individuals were indiscriminately rounded up, torn from their families, and thrown into prison. Nobody was concerned about what happened to the wives and children of these comrades while they remained in jail.

The anarchist was no longer regarded as a man, but as a wild beast to be hunted everywhere while the bourgeois Press, which is the vile slave of authority, loudly demands his extermination.

But, gentlemen of the bourgeoisie, you have reckoned a little too much without your host. You arrested hundreds of men and women, you violated scores of homes, but still outside the prison walls there were men unknown to you who watched from the shadows as you hunted the anarchists, and waited only for the moment that would be favourable for them in their turn to hunt the hunters.

… The bomb in the Cafe Terminus is the answer to all your violations of freedom, to your arrests, to your searches, to your laws against the Press, to your mass transportations, to your guillotinings. But why, you ask, attack these peaceful cafe guests, who sat listening to music and who, no doubt, were neither judges nor deputies nor bureaucrats? Why? It is very simple. The bourgeoisie did not distinguish among the anarchists. Vaillant, a man on his own, threw a bomb; nine-tenths of the comrades did not even know him. But that meant nothing; the persecution was a mass one, and anyone with the slightest anarchist links was hunted down. And since you hold a whole party responsible for the actions of a single man, and strike indiscriminately, we also strike indiscriminately.

Perhaps we should attack only the deputies who make laws against us, the judges who apply those laws, the police who arrest us? I do not agree. These men are only instruments. They do not act in their own name. Their functions were instituted by the bourgeoisie for its own defence. They are no more guilty than the rest of you. Those good bourgeois who hold no office but who reap their dividends and live idly on the profits of the workers’ toil, they also must take their share in the reprisals. And not only they, but all those who are satisfied with the existing order, who applaud the acts of the government and so become its accomplices, those clerks earning three or five hundred francs a month who hate the people even more violently than the rich, that stupid and pretentious mass of folk who always choose the strongest side — in other words, the daily clientele of Terminus and the other great cafés.

That is why I struck at random and did not choose my victims! The bourgeoisie must be brought to understand that those who have suffered are tired at last of their sufferings; they are showing their teeth and they will strike all the more brutally if you are brutal with them. …

We will not spare the women and children of the bourgeois, for the women and children of those we love have not been spared. Must we not count among the innocent victims those children who die slowly of anaemia in the slums because bread is scarce in their houses; those women who grow pale in your workshops, working to earn forty sous a day and fortunate when poverty does not force them into prostitution; those old men whom you have made production machines all their lives and whom you cast on to the waste heap or into the workhouse when their strength has worn away?

At least have the courage of your crimes, gentlemen of the bourgeoisie, and grant that our reprisals are completely legitimate.

In that pitiless war which we have declared on the bourgeoisie, we ask for no pity. We give death, and we know how to endure it. So it is with indifference that I await your verdict. I know that my head is not the last you will cut off; yet others will fall, for the starving are beginning to know the way to your great cafes and restaurants, to the Terminus and Foyot. You will add other names to the bloody list of our dead.

You have hanged in Chicago, decapitated in Germany, garotted in Jerez, shot in Barcelona, guillotined in Montbrison and Paris, but what you will never destroy is anarchy. Its roots are too deep. It is born in the heart of a society that is rotting and falling apart. It is a violent reaction against the established order. It represents all the egalitarian and libertarian aspirations that strike out against authority. It is everywhere, which makes it impossible to contain. It will end by killing you.

Clemenceau, who witnessed the beheading at the Place de la Roquette, saw in the ghastly white 21-year-old crying “long live anarchy!” in the predawn gloom this morning in 1894 “the face of a tormented Christ, terribly pale, implacable in expression, trying to impose his intellectual pride upon his child’s body … let those for the death penalty go, if they dare, to smell the blood of La Roquette.”

Five weeks later, the French president who had refused to spare Henry was himself assassinated by another anarchist.

The clip above uses an actual 1893 anarchist hymn to dynamite, that fruit of the chemical science whose pyrotechnics were held to catalyze social change. Henry, who probably hummed the song a few times in his life, must have approved the songwriter’s philosophy.

Tant mieux s’il éclate parfois en faisant beaucoup de victimes
Chez nos ennemis les bourgeois cela nous venge de leurs crimes

For more on Henry’s place in the era’s revolutionary ferment, enjoy this lecture by Dynamite Club author John Merriman as part of his course European Civilization, 1648-1945.

[audio:http://openmedia.yale.edu/projects/courses/fall08/hist202/mp3/hist202_14_102208.mp3]

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Martyrs,Murder,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

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1425: Parisina Malatesta and Ugo d’Este, for incest

Add comment May 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1425, the Marquess of Ferrara had his wife and son beheaded for an incestuous affair, along with a courtier who had kept their secret.

The “incest” was social rather than sanguinary: the lovers were not related. Like many a Renaissance despot, Niccolò III d’Este produced a multitudinous assortment of illegitimate children and underaged dynastic wives. Small wonder, one might think, that the 14-year-old (at her marriage) Parisina Malatesta (the link is to her Italian Wikipedia page) should come to prefer the attentions of the Duke’s eldest bastard Ugo (one year her junior) to those of a spouse more than twenty years older.

Awww.

Still, the affair has its curious aspect, apart from the obvious. The Duke was on that timeless monarchical quest for legitimate male issue; Parisina Malatesta would bear him two surviving daughters and a son who died in infancy during her teenage years.

One can hardly fail to think of that more renowned decapitated queen of the next century Anne Boleyn. Like Anne, Parisina lost her head to an incest allegation after a few years’ failure to give her husband an heir.

The need for specifically legitimate succession, however, was somewhat less pressing in tightly run Ferrara than early Tudor England. As the oldest illegitimate son, Ugo himself had a chance to succeed by his father’s appointment — in fact, the second illegitimate son Leonello ultimately did just that. For this reason, Ugo and Parisina — the latter threatening to supplant the former with a legitimate child of her own — might have been natural rivals, and there is some hint of initial enmity between the two. One wonders if there might not have been a twist of obscured courtly skullduggery about this day’s bloody climax.

In any event, interlocutors have preferred the personal aspect, and little wonder. The Marquess played his part by being stricken with anguish and remorse for his ruthless treatment of a favored son, possibly aided by a general reaction of horror among most contemporaries.*

Retold in later years as scandal (though never with much sympathy for the marquess**) its Byronic potential as tragic love story was eventually seized by, well, Lord Byron. His “Parisina” gives us two true hearts in the flower of youth crushed by the cruel weight of their unjust world … although he found it more apt to conclude with only the boy losing his head while the wail of his lover signals a more ambiguous fate.

With all the consciousness that he
Had only passed a just decree;
That they had wrought their doom of ill;
Yet Azo’s† age was wretched still.
The tainted branches of the tree,
If lopped with care, a strength may give,
By which the rest shall bloom and live
All greenly fresh and wildly free:
But if the lightning, in its wrath,
The waving boughs with fury scathe,
The massy trunk the ruin feels,
And never more a leaf reveals.

Mascagni also adapted it for the opera in 1913 — a legendarily tiresome four-hour affair. One review’s famous recommendation (apt enough for the subject as well as the performance) was “Cut, cut, cut!”

* The Marquess was less troubled about his wife, and promulgated a decree imposing like punishment for any other wife guilty of such a crime. The sentence was actually carried out upon a magistrate’s wife.

** Gibbon tut-tutted the affair, simultaneously helping circulate it anew:

Under the reign of Nicholas III, Ferrara was polluted with a domestic tragedy. By the testimony of a maid, and his own observation, the Marquis of Este discovered the incestuous loves of his wife Parisina, and Hugo his bastard son, a beautiful and valiant youth. They were beheaded in the castle by the sentence of a father and husband, who published his shame, and survived their execution. He was unfortunate, if they were guilty: if they were innocent, he was still more unfortunate; nor is there any possible situation in which I can sincerely approve the last act of the justice of a parent.

† Niccolo is “Azo” in the poem, for metric convenience. The House of Este had produced a number of lords named Azzo over the preceding centuries.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ferrara,History,Italy,Nobility,Scandal,Sex,Women

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