1806: Cesar Herbaux, Vidocq’s path not taken

Add comment January 6th, 2018 Headsman

French criminal turned seminal criminologist Eugene Francois Vidocq on this date in 1806 witnessed the fate he might have shared when his former underworld collaborator went under the guillotine at Paris for murder.

The son of an Arras baker, the young Vidocq (English Wikipedia entry | French) presented as an incipient Villonesque picaro. He had the first of his many theft-and-arrest events at the tender age of 13 courtesy of his father who summoned the gendarmes when he stole the family silver. Nothing daunted, Vidocq robbed the house again a few months later and ran away to join troupes of itinerant entertainers, soon transitioning into the French Revolution’s new citizen-army where the rogue by turns impressed with his competence and deserted ahead of some scandal, equally prolific in affairs of honor (he was an expert fencer) and those of the heart (same).

While in prison for his latest misadventures in 1795-1796 he fell in with another inmate — our day’s principal, César Herbaux or Herbault — and forged a pardon order for one of their fellows. Vidocq, as we shall see, would always blame the others for inducing him (their story was the reverse). In either event, for their trouble they caught a sentence that was cruel even though “galleys” by this time just meant prison hulks.

The tribunal … sentences Francois Vidocq and Cesar Herbaux to the punishment of the galleys for eight years …

[And] the said Francois Vidocq and Cesar Herbaux shall be exposed for six hours on a scaffold, which whall be for that purpose erected on the public square of this commune.

The sentence Vidocq himself published in his ghost-written memoirs, where the later, respectable man would situate it in the midst of his life’s chrysalis.

Vidocq did not serve his sentence; he escaped custody and lived the first decade of the 19th century on his society’s periphery, under a succession of aliases and with a succession of lovers, the episodes punctuated by re-arrests and re-escapes. In one close escape, Vidocq was lodging in Melun as “a travelling seller of fashionable commodities” when ill rumors induced him to flee for the capital. Resuming his memoir …

I learnt … from the landlord of the inn at which I had put up, that the commissary of police had testified some regret at not having examined my papers; but what was deferred was not ended, and that at my next visit, he meant to pay me a visit. The information surprised me, for I must consequently have been in some way an object of suspicion. To go on might lead to danger, and I therefore returned to Paris, resolving not to make any other journeys, unless I could render less unfavourable the chances which combined against me.

Having started very early, I reached the faubourg Saint Marceau in good time; and at my entrance, I heard the hawkers bawling out, “that two well-known persons are to be executed to-day at the Place de Greve.” I listened, and fancied I distinguished the name of Herbaux. Herbaux, the author of the forgery which caused all my misfortunes? I listened with more attention, but with an involuntary shudder; and this time the crier, to whom I had approached, repeated the sentence with these additions:

Here is the sentence of the criminal tribunal of the department of the Seine, which condemns to death the said Armand Saint Leger, an old sailor, born at Bayonne, and Cesar Herbaux, a freed galley-slave, born at Lille, accused and convicted of murder.

I could doubt no longer; the wretch who had heaped so much misery on my head was about to suffer on the scaffold. Shall I confess that I felt a sentiment of joy, and yet I trembled? … It will not excite wonder, when I say that I ran with haste to the palace of justice to assure myself of the truth; it was not mid-day, and I had great trouble in reaching the grating, near which I fixed myself, waiting for the fatal moment.

At last four o’clock struck, and the wicket opened. A man appeared first on the stage. It was Herbaux. His face was covered with a deadly paleness, whilst he affected a firmness which the convulsive workings of his featured belied. He pretended to talk to his companion, who was already incapacitated from hearing him. At the signal of departure, Herbaux, with a countenance into which he infused all the audacity he could force, gazed round on the crow, and his eye met mine. He started, and the blood rushed to his face. The procession passed on, and I remained as motionless as the bronze railings on which I was leaning; and I should probably have remained longer, if an inspector of the palace had not desired me to come away. Twenty minutes afterwards, a car, laden with a red basket, and escorted by the gendarme, was hurried over the Pont-au-Change, going towards the burial ground allotted for felons. Then, with an oppressed feeling at my heart, I went away, and regained my lodgings, full of sorrowful reflections.

I have since learnt, that during his detention at the Bicetre, Herbaux had expressed his regret at having been instrumental in getting me condemned, when innocent. The crime which had brought this wretch to the scaffold was a murder committed, in company with Saint Leger, on a lady of the Place Dauphine. These two villains had obtained access to their victim under pretence of giving her tidings of her son, whom they said they had seen in the army.

Although, in fact Herbaux’s execution could not have any direct influence over my situation, yet it alarmed me, and I was horror-struck at feeling that I had ever been in contact with such brigands, destined to the executioner’s arm: my remembrance revealed me to myself, and I blushed, as it were, in my own face. I sought to lose the recollection, and to lay down an impassable line of demarcation between the past and the present; for I saw but too plainly, that the future was dependent on the past; and I was the more wretched, as a police, who have not always due powers of discernment, would not permit me to forget myself. I saw myself again on the point of being snared like a deer.

Forever abroad on a false passport, watching over his shoulder for the next inquisitive policeman, the next chance encounter with a bygone criminal acquaintance, Vidocq was in his early thirties now and aching to go straight lest he follow Herbaux’s path to the guillotine. At last in 1809 he was able to find the perfect port of entry for a man of his underworld expertise: policing.

Beginning first as a snitch and informer, Vidocq uncovered a genius for the still-nascent field of professional law enforcement and made himself the field’s towering presence. His last arrest was in 1809; by 1812, he had created La Surete, France’s civil investigative organ. This still-extant entity became the model for Great Britain’s Scotland Yard (1829), with Vidocq consulting for his Anglo imitators.

His subalterns were heavily lawbreakers like himself, men and also women recruited from the streets and prisons for whom the cant of outlaws was native tongue and who took readily to Vidocq’s training in disguise and subterfuge: Vidocq trafficked in information, seeking crime in its native habitat where the easy-to-spot predecessors to the beat cop could not penetrate. The payoffs in robbers ambushed red-handed and turncoats delightedly unmasking themselves made the man a sensation.

Yet alongside his swashbuckling flair, Vidocq’s prescient interest in then-novel police techniques ranging from forensic science to controlling crime scenes to logging permanent records about criminals have established him as either a or the father of criminology.

A few books about Vidocq

All along, the master himself continued to adventure in the field too, and began compounding a sizable income from deploying his investigative talents for a private clientele. His mother who had once been accustomed to shelter him as a fugitive had a requiem mass at Notre Dame on her death in 1824.

In 1833, retired from Surete, Vidocq founded perhaps the first private detective agency. But as had been the case while he was in public service he had a zest for skirting the edges of the legally or ethically permissible, which was eventually the ruin of his business and his fortune. For all his legendary charisma, his heirs at the Surete in the late 19th century all but wrote out of their institutional history the thief who literally wrote the book on their field.

Posterity was bound to reclaim him if for no other reason than that the dashing detective had always been catnip for the literary set. Victor Hugo is thought to have drawn on Vidocq for both the chief antagonists in Les Miserables, the reformed criminal Jean Valjean and his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert; Balzac liberally cribbed from the biography of his good friend Vidocq to create his Human Comedy character Vautrin, a onetime forger become chief of the Surete. American writers invoked Vidocq by name in, e.g., Moby Dick and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Edgar Allan Poe‘s interest in turn gestures at the man’s place in the foundational cosmology of the detective story genre. And for all that the real man’s life, however one discounts for literary flourish, was somehow more colorfully impossible than all the Sherlock Holmeses that have followed him — why, by every probability the scoundrel ought to have wound up sharing the stage with a Cesar Herbaux. Accordingly, depictions of this deeply dramatic figure in theater and cinema stretch from the man’s own time all the way to ours, as with this 2011 Gerard Depardieu offering:

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1946: Kurt Daluege, Nazi cop

Add comment October 24th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1946, former Nazi chief cop Kurt Daluege hanged at Prague’s Pankrac Prison.


Daluege’s postwar detention card.

Daluege, who returned from World War I bearing an Iron Cross and an early affinity for the far-right Freikorps militias, was head of the uniformed police for most of the Third Reich’s evil run. That terminated in 1943 when heart problems saw him pensioned off to Pomerania,* but not before he’d consciously Nazified the entire police force around the perspective of destroying “the consciously asocial enemies of the people.” He wrote a book called National-sozialistischer Kampf gegen das Verbrechertum (National Socialists’ War on Criminality).

With Hitler’s downfall, Daluege was called out of retirement to answer for the villainies that you’d assume a guy in his position would have authored — like mass shootings of Jews on the eastern front and a reprisal order to decorate a Polish town with “the hanging of Polish franc-tireurs from light poles as a visible symbol for the entire population.”

His most notable atrocity, and the reason that his hanging occurred in Czechoslovakia, came via his turn as the de facto successor to that territory’s Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich after the latter’s assassination in 1942.

In this capacity it was Daluege who with Karl Frank ordered the destruction of the village Lidice to retaliate for Heydrich’s murder — one of the standout horrors in a generation thick with them.

Daluege rejected the charges against him to the end, his position a blend of the “superior orders” non-defense and a feigned irrecollection: nothing but the classics. “I am beloved by three million policemen!” he complained.

There’s a bit more information about him in this Axis History Forum thread, wherein appears the author of a hard-to-find German biography, Kurt Daluege — Der Prototyp des loyalen Nationalsozialisten.

* He did retain his seat in the Reichstag all the way to the end, a seat he first won in the November 1932 election.

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1943: Gunnar Eilifsen, good cop

Add comment August 16th, 2017 Headsman

Policeman Gunnar Eilifsen on this date in 1943 achieved the undesirable distinction of becoming the first person executed under the auspices of Norway’s World War II collaborationist Quisling government.

As an officer in Oslo, Eilifsen got himself in hot water with the Reichskommissar Josef Terboven when he supported several constables’ refusal to arrest girls who shirked the national labor conscription.

Terboven’s orders-must-be-followed jag was excessive even by the standards of a fascist puppet state, and a court told him to get lost. So, Terboven “appealed” by keeping Eilifsen in custody until later that day, when he arranged a do-over proceeding with handpicked judges and no defense.

The disobedient cop was shot the next sunrise. Three days later the dubious execution was retroactively legalized by a law subjecting the police to the military code, a measure sometimes sarcastically dubbed the “”Lex Eilifsen”.

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1883: Milton Yarberry, Marshal of Albuquerque

Add comment February 9th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1883,* Albuquerque hanged its Town Marshal.

Milton Yarberry was one of those belt-notching Wild West gunmen badass enough to be worth deputizing for a frontier town with a spiraling crime problem — which Albuquerque was experiencing as the just-completed railroad boomed its population. A number of crimes had been attributed to him in a career that took him from stage-robbing in his native Arkansas, to the Texas Rangers, to a Colorado saloon, to a New Mexico cathouse, a veritable bucket list of spaghetti western tropes packed into 34 roughhewn years with bodies planted at nigh every stop. Yarberry was even reputed to have fought alongside Billy the Kid.

The last of these tropes, of course, was as the bad hombre upon whom the townspeople foist a badge.

It will not surprise that even when minted as a peace officer, Marshal Yarberry continued his manslaying ways. Still, nobody in our present age of impunity could well imagine a lawman standing trial for murder twice in the space of a year.

Yarberry in early 1882 defeated a charge for wasting his lover’s paramour during a row in the street, as witnesses said Harry Brown shot first, just like Greedo.

There was no administrative leave or counseling after that, just straight back on the beat — and barely a month later, the copper gunned down a guy whom he was trying to stop for questioning. It was a confusing encounter in which the Marshal insisted that he fired when the victim, Charles Campbell, wheeled on him with a gun. A single state’s witness was able to establish in the court’s mind that there was no gun in Campbell’s possession.

Our hard-living triggerman would never waver from his self-defense story as his appeals were made;** he had many supporters who believed that he was being railroaded on account of the public relations hit the city was taking for employing a dude who had so liberally populated the Republic’s Boot Hills — and those advocates included the sheriff who recruited Yarberry as a Marshal, Perfecto Armijo, who was also the sheriff detailed to hang Yarberry in the end.

The local Albuquerque podcast City on the Edge has an episode dedicated to Yarberry here.

* In the anarchic game of telephone that was 19th century reporting, some editor somewhere mistakenly understood a story of Yarberry’s condemnation in 1882 as an actual report of his execution; as a result, there were news stories (themselves repeated by multiple papers) announcing Yarberry’s hanging in June 1882. In this business, once one wrong date is out there it’s bound to be echoed into eternity, so it’s still possible to find sources that misdate the execution to June 16, 1882. Past the question of the calendar, the fact that these stories actually expanded with details about the fictitious hanging scene strongly underscores the degree to which the hang-day bulletin had become colorfully but generically abstracted from any save accidental relationship to the actual scene at the gallows.


Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 17, 1882, vividly peopling an imaginary scene.

** Because New Mexico was still just a territory — it was only admitted to the Union as a state in 1912 — Yarberry’s clemency decision went to the U.S. President, Chester A. Arthur.

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1905: A.I. Volioshnikov, police spy

Add comment December 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1905,* the druzhinniki (militia) of Moscow’s insurrectionary Red Presnia district barged into the apartment of 37-year-old police detective A.I. Volioshnikov.

In front of his shrieking children, “they read the verdict of the Revolutionary Committee, according to which Volioshnikov had to be shot” — as a police spy surveilling rebels, according to Trotsky — then taken outside and executed directly at the Prokhorovka textile factory.**

The tsar’s artillery began barraging Red Presnia the very next day, and had overrun it — complete with summary executions of their own — before the calendar turned over to 1906.

* December 28 per the Gregorian calendar; it was December 15 per the Julian calendar still in use at the time in Russia.

** There’s a “Druzhinniki Street” in Moscow near the Krasnopresnenskaya metro station — and the Prokhorovka factory (dating to 1799) still stands nearby.

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1944: Pietro Caruso, fascist chief of police

3 comments September 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Pietro Caruso was shot to death by a firing squad for his reign as the head of police in fascist Rome.

Renowned for his sadism towards the enemies of Mussolini, Caruso was most infamous for his role rounding up Italians* for a Nazi mass-execution just months before — the Ardeatine Massacre.

Subject of the first war crimes trial in Allied-occupied Italy, Caruso almost wasn’t around long enough to make this blog: an angry mob invaded the courtroom where he was tried just days earlier, attempting to lynch him.

Authorities managed to safeguard the war criminal, but the mob sated its bloodlust by grabbing another fascist who had turned state’s evidence and was all set to testify against Caruso until he was hauled out and drowned in the Tiber.

Apparently they didn’t need his evidence anyway.

The war, of course, was not yet over … and in northern Italy’s ongoing fascist enterprise, the blackshirts conducted retaliatory executions to retaliate for executing Caruso for retaliatory executions.

* Caruso’s defense: the Nazis had demanded 80 prisoners of him for this reprisal execution. Caruso moderated it to 50. David Broder would have approved.

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1944: Six Milice collaborators in France

1 comment September 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1944, just days after the Liberation of Paris secured the restoration of the French Republic, six collaborators were publicly shot in the foothills of the French Alps. They were the condemned of the first court-martial to sit in liberated France.

A London Times correspondent estimated that 4,000 or more of their countrymen braved cruel wind and rain to cheer the traitors’ deaths meted to these young members of the Vichy government’s hated milice.

They were among ten members of that militia captured at a training grounds in Grenoble, and the shooting of these six was preceded by a loudspeaker announcement decrying the tribunal which tried them for having the softness merely to imprison the other four.

“The Liberation Committee considers that the sentences which failed to inflict the death penalty on all the militiamen not to be in conformity with the wishes of the French people and accordingly promises, in conformity with those wishes, to see that the composition of the court-martial is revised in order to avoid a repetition of such weakness.” The people answered with a cheer.

-London Times, Sep. 4 1944

The executions, carried out on a grounds the Gestapo had once used to executed Resistance members, were also photographed, and the striking images published in the Oct. 2 issue of Life magazine. Once available online from Life at this now-dead link, the gallery is reproduced at this Chinese page; Warning: Disturbing Content.

Photographer John Osborne, later a noted editor and habitue of Richard Nixon’s enemies list, would not have been a candidate for the Resistance’s court.

“I am susceptible as most,” he wrote in Life‘s original dispatch. “When I first saw the 10 men and boys in the courtroom dock at this trial, I wanted to cry. They looked so young, wretched, unshaven … It was very easy to sentimentalize over these men, all of whom were underlings. It was easy to agree with the [collaborators’] chief defender, Pierre Guy, that France would be harming only herself if she killed them now.”

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1945: A day in the death penalty around the Reich

1 comment April 24th, 2012 Headsman

April 24, 1945 –

Lehrter Street Prison, Berlin. Bavarian Social Democratic politician and trade union activist Ernst Schneppenhorst — who spent most of the war years under detention — was executed by the SS.


Moritz Police Barracks, Berlin. While most petty criminals being held by the police were released as the war’s conclusion drew near, an exception was made for four gay policemen.

Otto Jordan, Reinhard Höpfner, Willi Jenoch and a man named Bautz were, instead, summarily shot at Berlin’s Moritz police barracks. In 2011, a memorial plaque honoring the four was installed near the place of their execution.


Regensburg. The pastor of Regensburg Cathedral, Dr. Johann Maier, was hanged here for participating in the previous day’s public demonstration begging the Nazi government to surrender to approaching American forces in order to minimize destruction.

When the government responded by turning water cannons on the crowd, Maier began to protest:

We have not come here to make a disturbance; we Christians do not register any indignation against divinely ordained authority. We have come simply with a request: we ask that the city be surrendered for the following reasons … (Source)

Rather than let him enumerate his reasons, the divinely ordained authority seized him on the spot and hauled him away for a summary trial that night, followed by a hanging and gibbeting the following morning. A pensioner who protested Maier’s arrest was hanged alongside him, while a policeman who argued the point at the foot of the gallows was promptly shot there and demonstratively laid out to make the group a trio.

When the Americans entered Regensburg on April 27, Maier’s corpse was still strung up in the town marketplace, bearing a placard denouncing him as a “saboteur.”

Today, however, the memorial plaque for him in the cathedral salutes him for “giving his life for the preservation of Regensburg.”


Johann Maier’s grave market in the city cathedral. Image (c) Adam Maroney, and used with permission.

Somewhere in Southern Germany. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired a story on this date attributed to no exact date or locale reporting on the recent, routine execution by the U.S. army of a German civilian believed to be a spy.

It seemed like an innocent enough offer at the time. A friendly German civilian approached soldiers from the U.S. 7th Army, offering to help set up a civilian government. But he broke down after being questioned, admitting he was a spy bent on sabotage. The spy was executed, but that wasn’t the end of trouble for the advancing U.S. army, says CBC correspondent Sam Ross, reporting on developments for the U.S. troops.

Remaining pockets of German soldiers are now attempting to ambush the Americans. Nevertheless, the U.S. 7th has managed to take some prisoners from the German People’s Army, the Nazis’ last-ditch militia composed of very young and very old men. And there are other people to contend with on the roads behind Allied lines; German civilians are returning home after fleeing from war, and displaced persons freed from forced-labour camps are heading home on foot to Russia, Belgium, Poland and France.

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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1880: Prevost, predatory Parisian policeman

2 comments January 19th, 2012 Headsman

From a Paris Dispatch report via the New York Times. (Additional paragraph breaks have been added for readability.)

It is just 10 years ago, day for day, that the notorious Troppman, the murderer of the Kink family, was executed on the Place de la Roquette. This morning another convict of the same stamp underwent the penalty of death on the same spot.

Prevost, the policeman who murdered the woman Blondin and the jewelry-dealer, Lenoble, and afterward cut their bodies up and threw the pieces into the sewers, was guillotined there at daybreak.


Thwack: Prevost clobbers Lenoble.

It having become known last night that his appeal for mercy had been rejected by the President of the Republic, a large crowd began to assemble as early as 9 o’clock round the place of execution. To prevent a recurrence of the scenes of disorder which took place there when the young criminals Lebiez and Barre, the assassins of the woman Gilles, were put to death, a strong force of infantry and cavalry guarded the square and kept the people at a distance.

The crowd, in spite of the bitter cold and piercing north-east wind, grew more numerous toward midnight, and by the hour of execution all the thoroughfares leading to the spot were crammed with people.

The executioner arrived at 4 o’clock, and, aided by his assistants, erected the guillotine about 20 paces from the central door of the prison. The guillotine once in order, the headsman and his assistants entered the prison to arrange what is called the toilet of the culprit previous to his death.

The Abbe Crozes, the Chaplain of the jail, was the first to enter the prisoner’s cell. Prevost started up, gazed wildly at the reverend gentleman, and then buried his head in his hands, trembling and groaning.

“Alas!” said the Chaplain, “there is no hope now but in the mercy of God.”

Prevost had lured the jewel-trader Lenoble on the pretext of arranging a transaction, then for no reason save crass acquisition of his wares bludgeoned him to death with the iron rod-and-ball device used to link railroad cars.

It was a premeditated and gruesomely executed crime.

Using butchers’ knives he had pre-obtained for the purpose, Prevost spent the next several hours skinning Lenoble, dismembering Lenoble, and ultimately dicing Lenoble up into cutlets so that he could heap Lenoble in a basket and dispose of Lenoble’s bits in less-suspicious fragments in a variety of sewer grates and refuse heaps.

Such as was recovered was heaped together at the morgue, “a mass of quivering flesh, stripped of skin … bones covered with their tendons, sternum, ribs with fragments of the chest, bones of the shoulder blades and arms … the liver, heart and guts, and the fragments of skin torn off one by one from each severed part.”*

After his capture for this shocking crime, he admitted that he’d also been the author of the unsolved murder several years before of his lover, Adele Blondin — likewise for pecuniary gain, and likewise disposed of in pieces after Pevost’s ghoulish close work with corpse and saw.

The condemned man then left his bed, but he was too much overcome to dress himself. That task was done by the executioner and his assistants. He was then left alone with the Abbe Crozes to prepare his soul. He embraced the Chaplain several times and wept bitterly.

“Take courage, take courage,” said the reverend gentleman.

“Yes, yes,” replied Prevost, “I will take courage and try to meet my fate. I ask pardon of the Police administration, to which I belonged seven years.”

“If this … pawnbroker has been murdered by some one of a higher class in society,” Dostoyevsky had mused in Crime and Punishment in 1866, “how are we to explain this demoralisation of the civilised part of our society?”

Prevost’s demoralization afflicted his cognition as well as his conscience, because he had actually made previous chit-chat with fellow-officers to the effect that were he to commit the perfect crime he would surely go and butcher the body for no-fuss disposal.

The condemned man, after kissing the crucifix three or four times, marched out to the guillotine wit a firm step, and in an instant he was on the fatal bascule.

The spring was touched, a dull thud was heard, and the next second his head fell into the basket.

After the execution the body and head of the murderer were taken to the School of Medicine, and, having been sown together, electrical experiments were made on them, and in the opinion of all the doctors present death must have been instantaneous.

* This quote, and the other interspersed crime details, and the nice bashing illustration, are all via this French crime pamphlet.

Part of the Daily Triple: 1880 and Death.

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2011: Troy Davis, doubts aside

11 comments September 21st, 2011 Headsman

The reader is likely aware that as of 7 p.m. this evening, Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison local time, a man named Troy Anthony Davis will die by lethal injection — barring some sort of intervention that by this point would rate just this side of the miraculous.

Since Davis already had one of those, an extraordinary 11th-hour Supreme Court intervention the last time he was up for death, you’d have to guess he’s over quota as it is.

The controversial particulars of this case are too voluminously available for this space to hope to contribute much. As Scott Lemieux observes, the affirmative case for Troy Davis’s innocence is not a slam dunk: but the evidence as it exists, of unreliable eyewitness accounts from a nighttime scene, supplied under police pressure and later largely retracted, could today hardly approach the threshold of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. I don’t know if Troy Davis shot Mark MacPhail, and neither do you. Davis dies for it tonight just the same: all the paperwork is in order.

The “demon of error,” Illinois Gov. George Ryan called it, as he emptied that state’s death row. This unsettling matter demands one play bookmaker with a man’s life. Are you as much as 80% sure? Would that be sure enough? Maybe the uncertainties are unusually large here, but at some level this is the calculus for most criminal adjudications, death or otherwise.

“If a case like this doesn’t result in clemency, which is a discretionary process that calls a halt to an execution based on doubt surrounding the integrity of the verdict, then it suggests that clemency as a traditional fail-safe is not adequate,” criminologist James Acker told the Christian Science Monitor. “The Davis case raises doubts about the discretionary clemency process and ultimately raises doubts about whether the legal system can tolerate this potential error in allowing a person to be executed.”

Clemency as an inadequate, dead-letter procedure (Gov. Ryan aside) is familiar to any observer of the American capital punishment scene; Rick Perry thinks he can disdain it all the way to the presidency.

Perry’s state of Texas has something in common with Georgia: the clemency decisions are not directly in the hands of the governor. It’s an interesting arrangement that helps to scatter responsibility for that weightiest of decisions; every actor in the apparatus is in a position to say, “I alone did not have power of life and death.”

Georgia is one of just five states (not including Texas, where the governor has final say and exercises significant behind-the-scenes power over his advisors) where the clemency process is entirely vested in a committee.* The Georgia Governor is a fellow named Nathan Deal, and his autopen will spill much ink in the hours ahead signing form response letters explaining that he doesn’t have anything to do with pardons or clemencies in his state and thanks for writing.

It wasn’t always this way.

A predecessor of Deal’s in that mansion, one with a promising political career ahead, was bayed out of politics for exercising his prerogative to spare Leo Frank because “I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience.” The modern office-seeker typically comes with this accusatory module helpfully un-installed, but one can see how there’d be advantages to removing from the office anything to invite experimentation with self-destructive scruples.

The roots of Georgia’s current system go back to the 1930s, when the notoriously corrupt Eurith Rivers held the governorship and used the solemn power of pardons like merchants in the temple — and every bit as lucratively.

The “pardons racket” continued under Rivers’s successor, until a young reformist captured the office and dramatically rewrote the way Georgia did business.

Among those reforms was the progressive concept of rooting out the pardons racket by removing the authority from the governor’s hands. No pardon power, no embarrassing Marc Rich cases. As Gov. Arnall himself explained,

There were those who used to say facetiously, “If you bring the governor a cow, he’ll get you a pardon for your kinfolks, or if you get him a bale of cotton if you do this, or if you get the right lawyer or if you get the right set-up, you can get pardons, pardons, pardons.” So they had gotten a lot of pardons, and the newspapers were after them day in and day out for granting these pardons.

Pardons, pardons, pardons. You can’t get hold of them for a bale of cotton any longer.

These institutions naturally have a life of their own, and what was forward-looking under Georgia’s 1943 constitution seems anything but to Troy Davis’s supporters this day. In the end, the board is still appointed by governors, and it predictably skews towards prosecutors and police — the latter of whom are out for Davis’s blood since Mark MacPhail wore a badge for his day job. It deliberates behind closed doors, and need not record or account for its considerations.

But this is really the lament against the decision itself more so than the process: individual governors are no more bound to broadcast their decision-making process, although some choose to do so. The rules of the game matter, but whatever they might be, it is humans who apply them — human judgment that makes the choices, whether as the first officers on the scene, as jurors, or as a panel of inscrutable bureaucrats with power over life and death.

* Here’s an example of a similar committee in Nebraska granting a pardon, in the relatively less-fraught circumstance of a man 100 years dead.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.


Update: After a last-second reprieve that extended into a four-hour execution-night drama, the U.S. Supreme Court denied (pdf) Davis’s last appeal. He was executed at 11:08 p.m.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Wrongful Executions

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