Tag Archives: michael radelet

1985: Marvin Francois, back to Africa

On this date in 1985, Florida electrocuted Marvin Francois (to the disappointment of this unknown anti-death penalty protester).

Francois’s last statement, via Last Words of the Executed:

“I am as a grain of sand on the beach of the black race. The black race has lost its pride and dignity and is slowly dying from within and without. My death ends my tears, and the fortune of watching my race slowly die. If there is such a thing as an Antichrist, it ain’t one man, but the whole white race.”

Francois had donned a mask and, with a couple of confederates, stuck up a drug house in 1977.

The mask slipped, exposing Francois’s face — and the home invaders decided to murder the eight prisoners to keep them from making the ID. All were shot in the head execution-style.

Somehow, two survived to identify Marvin Francois. It was an easy conviction. (A confederate, Beauford White, was executed for the same crime in 1987.)

Once the death sentence was on the books, appellate attorneys developed a genuinely sympathetic profile of Francois’s background, if not his crime. A federal appeals court on the day before Marvin Francois died could not help but agree that

[t]he proffered evidence shows that Francois was the product of a sordid and impoverished childhood environment. His parents were not married. His father was a habitual heroin addict who never worked, who brought other addicts into the home for the ingestion of heroin in front of Francois when a child, and who beat Francois because he would not fight with other children when he was a boy. Francois’ mother often worked as a prostitute and was of little benefit to Francois during his childhood. She married but Francois’ step-father abused him. Francois grew up as a child of the street. At the same time he was smart, and although not finishing school, he obtained his G.E.D.

The behavioral scientists in their affidavits posit that “… some offenders, like Marvin Francois, are themselves victims of circumstances that shape their lives in ways beyond their deliberate control.” They suggest that given Francois’ chaotic antisocial upbringing, “clear mitigation of punishment compellingly surfaces.”

Nevertheless, the panel concluded that, given the extent of the crime (and his existing history of violence), all this sob-story stuff “would not have affected the sentencing outcome in this case had it been submitted to the jury.”

That was that.

It was a touching parting for at least one good friend on death row with him. “We wanted to send him out on a high,” a fellow-prisoner later remembered of sharing a last cigarette with Francois while imagining it a joint. “It took a little out of me when they killed him. I’d grown real attached to him.”

According to David von Drehle’s Among the Lowest of the Dead, that disattachment was rather unusually distant: Marvin Francois’s final resting place is … the sea off Dakar, Senegal.

Francois had asked that his ashes be scattered in Africa. Susan Cary, the longtime activist … was determined that this last wish would be honored. But it was one thing to find bus fare for a condemned man’s family, and quite another to raise the money for a trip to Africa. Cary collected the cremated remains of Marvin Francois and put them in a shoebox in her closet, where they sat for two years while she tried to figure out how to get them across the ocean.

In 1987, Michael Radelet, Cary’s frend and fellow activist, announced that he was going to Senegal to visit a relative. Take Marvin, Cary suggested. Radelet was game, but there were rules — human remains can’t just be toted from country to country. Uncertain as to the relevant legalities, Radelet contacted John Conyers, a prominent black congressman from Detroit; Conyers strongly opposed the death penalty, he was well known in Africa, and he had offered more than once to help Florida’s anti-death penalty crusaders any way he could. The congressman pulled the right strings, and shortly before his trip Radelete received an official letter announcing that the Senegalese government would be happy to welcome “Brother Marvin” home.

… Radelet had a darkly comic view of the world. Traipsing around Senegal, shoebox in hand, he would place the box on the opposite chair at restauants and say things like “Marvin, would you like some water?” On sightseeing jaunts, he would take snapshots of the shoebox in front of important buildings and picturesque vistas. Finally, Radelet carried the box to a bluff outside Dakar, a lovely spot with the city in the distance and the Atlantic spread out below. He took one more snapshot – “Marvin at the seashore” — then opened the box and sprinkled the ashes on the sun glittered waves. As he gazed into the oceanic expanse, it occurred to him that this very water might have rocked and sloshed all the way from Florida; now, the waves lapped the shores of Africa, bearing the remains of Marvin Francois to his dreamland.

The aforementioned Michael Radelet — now at Colorado University, not Florida — holding forth on more up-to-date death penalty trends:

1984: Ernest Dobbert, child abuser

At 10:09 a.m. this morning in Starke Prison, 46-year-old Ernest Dobbert threw a wink to his minister and was electrocuted for torturing his nine-year-old daughter to death.

The gist of the offense is described by the Gainesville Sun:

He was a child abuser, dating back to 1969. With his wife in prison for kiting paper, his four children obviously got on his nerves. His daughter, age 9, he tortured by beating with boards and belts, by kicking, by poking in her eyes, and by holding her head underwater in the toilet. He celebrated New Year’s Eve of 1971 by dressing her poor abused body in the finest garb on hand, placing it in a garbage bag and concealing it in the attic.

No chauvinist, he. Within weeks, he had done much the same with his son, aged 7. With the help of another terrorized son, age 12, he buried them both out in the scrub somewhere, with their bodies not yet found.

An unsympathetic character deservedly forgotten a quarter-century later, Dobbert interestingly illustrates some of the wide legal and ethical gray area in the real-life application of the death penalty for the many prisoners who are guilty yet not the like of Ted Bundy.

The Sun editorial cited urges Dobbert’s commitment to a mental institution on the nicely circular grounds that “no person is truly sane who tortures — much less kills — the fruit of his own loins.” This might bespeak an impoverished appreciation of human psychology’s potential.

More legally serious is the matter of intent and premeditation, ambiguous here as it so frequently is in life. Dobbert was convicted of only second-degree murder for killing his son; for slaying his daughter, the jury convicted him of capital murder but recommended only a life sentence, unsure of his degree of calculation.

But Ernest Dobbert is on this blog because Florida law allowed a judge to overrule the jury’s recommendation, opining,

this murder of a helpless, defenseless and innocent child is the most cruel, atrocious and heinous crime I have ever personally known of — and it is deserving of no sentence but death.

Maybe so … maybe no. In a 2000 paper* that undoubtedly plays better for an academic audience than a popular one, death penalty expert (and opponent) Michael Radelet points out that if one does suppose Dobbert’s intent to be less than fully formed, a case like his could be held to constitute a species of “wrongful execution” notwithstanding his guilt for the crime.**

The cases of those wrongly sentenced to death and who were totally uninvolved in the crime constitute only one type of miscarriage of justice. Another (and more frequent) blunder arises in the cases of the condemned who, with a more perfect justice system, would have been convicted of second-degree murder or manslaughter, making them innocent of first degree murder. For example, consider the case of Ernest Dobbert, executed in Florida in 1984 for killing his daughter. The key witness at trial was Dobbert’s 13-year-old son, who testified that he saw his father kick the victim (this testimony was later recanted). In a dissent from the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari written just hours before Dobbert’s execution, Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that while there was no question that Dobbert abused his children, there was substantial doubt about the existence of sufficient premeditation to sustain the conviction for first-degree murder. “That may well make Dobbert guilty of second-degree murder in Florida, but it cannot make him guilty of first-degree murder there. Nor can it subject him to the death penalty in that State” (Dobbert v. Wainwright, 468 U.S. 1231, 1246 (1984)). If Justice Marshall’s assessment was correct, then Dobbert was not guilty of a capital offense, and—in this qualified sense—Florida executed an innocent man.

For Justice Marshall, of course, all executions are wrongful.

For those otherwise inclined, like Joshua Marquis, an Oregon district attorney with a dim view of overhyped innocence claims, Marshall’s interpretation figures to look downright “startling”.

Florida Governor Bob Graham agreed.

Ernest Dobbert has been executed because of his brutal actions toward his own children. I hope that this indication of the seriousness of child abuse will be an example of the value which the people of Florida place upon the lives of infants and young people in our state, and a measure of the lengths the people of Florida are prepared to go to prevent and punish such crimes.

* “The Changing Nature of Death Penalty Debates,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 26, August 2000.

** Fellow anti-death penalty academic Hugo Bedau on people whose murders are “arguably not … capital murder”:

We rarely think about this category when discussing innocence and the death penalty, but it is relevant and extremely important. The problem has been with us for at least two centuries, ever since the invention of the distinction between first-degree (capital) murder and second-degree (noncapital) murder.