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.

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1915: Charles Becker

Add comment July 30th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1915, New York City cop and New York City mafioso Charles Becker was electrocuted at Sing Sing for engineering a hit on bookie Herman Rosenthal.

This case of police corruption and gangland gunplay owned the Big Apple’s headlines in the early nineteen-teens — it even gets a callout in The Great Gatsby. Whether it was rightly decided has been hotly contested ever since.

Author Mike Dash, who maintains a dashing historical blog, delved into this Jabba’s Palace in Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Political Corruption and New York’s Trial of the Century. He was generous enough to grant Executed Today permission to excerpt Satan’s Circus for the narration of Becker’s last hours.


Sing Sing had already prepared for Becker’s death.

Invitations had been despatched in the middle of July to those chosen to witness the execution. There were three dozen in total, and they went to doctors and to a sanitary engineer, to representatives of the press, and to the operators of several wire services. One, scarcely surprisingly, was sent to Swope of the World, but the reporter — to his undoubted chagrin — was recuperating from a bout of rheumatic fever and his doctor had forbidden him to attend. Swope despatched another World reporter in his stead; the man arrived at Ossining bearing a large sheaf of handwritten instructions setting out in considerable detail exactly how the story should be covered. Preparations were also made to cater for the needs of the large body of newsmen expected to descend on Sing Sing without the benefit of invitations. Linemen spent several days installing additional telegraph wires and Morse code senders in a shack opposite the death–house.

Inside the condemned cells, white curtains were fitted across the bars of all the cells that Becker would have to pass on his way to the execution chamber, so that the other inmates would not be able to see him as he walked by. In the execution chamber, guards tested each piece of equipment. The lieutenant’s electrocution was scheduled to be the first at which a new system of signals would be used, as the New York Times reported:

Instead of the old method, by which the executioner signalled with his arm to the man in charge at the power plant, there is a little electric button behind the chair, and above it is tacked a placard bearing the following gruesomely suggestive instructions: “Five bells, get ready; one bell, turn on the current; two bells, turn on more current; three bells, turn on less current; one bell, shut off current; six bells, all through.”

New York’s newspapers remained predominantly hostile to the condemned man. The Times spoke for most of the Manhattan press when it observed that Becker’s death sentence was a punishment not just for Herman’ s death, but for the arrogance Rosenthal’s killer had displayed during his strong–arm days: ‘He paid for the times when “Big Tim” called him “Charlie”. He paid for his one–time power, that almost of a dictator, over the underworld of New York. And he paid for his pride in all this.’ Several dailies had issued their reporters with instructions to study Becker carefully for signs of weakness or incipient collapse; in the end, opinion seemed evenly divided between those who thought that the policeman continued to display an ‘iron nerve in the face of doom’ and those who discerned the onset of a nervous breakdown.

The lawyers were more generous. [Williiam] Bourke Cockran paid tribute to his client’s astounding self–control: ‘His hand is just as cool and his voice as steady as can be.’ John McIntyre said that he had never previously doubted the verdict of a jury in a murder trial. ‘But in this case I say that if Becker is executed tomorrow I will carry to my grave the conviction that at least one innocent man has suffered the death penalty.’ And Joseph Shay, another of the lieutenant’s old attorneys, released a statement of his own: ‘I believe that Becker is dying a martyr, and that his innocence will be established in time, perhaps by the deathbed confession of Vallon or Webber. Rose is too low to confess even on his deathbed.’

Becker himself was woken early on his last morning. At 8am his prison clothes were exchanged for special black cotton shirt and trousers, made without metal buttons or wire stitching; he was given black felt slippers instead of shoes. A guard shaved a spot on his temple, ready for the electrode. Another appeared carrying a pair of shears and neatly slit Becker’s trouser leg almost to the knee. When the time came this would allow the death–house guards to affix a second wire to the condemned man’s calf.

The next portion of the day was passed in writing: a love letter for his wife, a final statement for the press. At two in the afternoon the policeman saw his relatives for the last time. His brothers John, the detective, and Jackson, now a Wall Street broker, found him sitting in his cell, gazing at a small photograph of Helen that he kept on the wall. The meeting was so difficult that the two men were relieved when one of the other prisoners along death row broke the awkward silence by singing ‘Rock of Ages’. Becker joined in with the chorus.

Helen Becker reached Sing Sing, pale and breathless from her journey, soon after 11pm. Her husband had been waiting for her with increasing anxiety for most of the evening. Becker was so popular in the death–house that he had received special permission to spend more than an hour and a half with his wife in the warden’s room. The guards, who had been given strict instructions to keep their eyes on the prisoner at all times, turned their backs as the couple embraced for the final time. ‘No condemned man at the prison had ever had such sympathetic treatment,’ observed the World.

Helen left the prison at 1.30 in the morning, and Becker was returned to his cell. ‘I am tired of the world and its injustice to me,’ he told Father Curry, the New York priest. ‘My happy life has been ruined; I have not been given a chance a mere dog would get.’ Warden Osborne, coming to say good-bye at 2.30am, found his prisoner awake and sitting on the edge of his cot, ‘his chin sunk in his hands’. At four, Father Cashin heard Becker’ s last confession, which contained no admission of guilt and ended with the firm assertion: ‘I am sacrificed for my friends.’

The execution was set for 5.45am. Outside the walls, a double line of guards poked long sticks through the fence that marked the limit of the prison grounds to keep back the crowds assembling there. Inside, the executioner – a small, sharp-faced, balding electrician dressed in a baggy grey sack suit, a striped shirt, polka–dot tie and pointed patent leather shoes – checked his equipment for the final time.

Becker was the one hundred and sixteenth prisoner to die at Sing Sing since electrocution was first used to execute a man in August 1890. The victim on that occasion had been an axe-murderer named William Kemmler, who was accidentally subjected to ‘a far more powerful current than was necessary’ and died ‘in convulsive agony’, flames jetting from the base of his spine and purplish foam spewing from his lips. The technique for electrocuting a man had been refined somewhat since then, but it was still common for the death-house to fill with the odour of burning flesh and scorched hair as the moistened electrical conductors placed against the condemned man’s skin dried out. A lengthy electric shock could ‘turn blood into charcoal and boil a brain’. When a prisoner was ready to enter the chamber, he was issued with thick muslin underwear, and little wads of cotton would be forced into his ears and nostrils to prevent scalding brain fluids spurting forth uncontrollably when the current was applied.

Thomas Mott Osborne, who had vowed never to be present when a man in his charge was being executed, walked away from the death–house at 5am, leaving Deputy Warden Johnson to bring the policeman from his cell. Becker, who was still awake when Johnson came for him, went quietly to his death. A dozen steps took him from his cot to the door leading to the execution chamber. At 5.42 the witnesses clustering inside saw a narrow red door swing open, and the condemned man entered the room. He walked with a strange, hobbled gait, his knees locking involuntarily. His face was a mask. The chair, surprisingly insubstantial, stood on a thick rubber mat almost in the centre of the room. There was no glass and no partition to separate Becker from the witnesses who had come to watch him die, the nearest of whom sat only 10 feet away. The electric chair itself, the man from the American observed, ‘had had a double coat of varnish and its metal fixtures had been burnished for the occasion.’ Straps dangled loosely from its arms and legs, and a heavily–insulated wire hung from a goose-necked fixture above it. The policeman’s guards, anxious to spare the condemned man the agony of a lengthy wait, hurried so much with the buckles that they neglected to secure one of the restraints that stretched over his chest. Becker’s last words, uttered as another leather strap was fastened across his mouth, were a recitation of the Catholic litany: ‘Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’

Five bells rang, then one. The executioner took his hands out of his pockets and threw a long wooden lever on the wall. The raucous drone of electricity filled the room, a green flash shot from the equipment and Becker’s muscular body lurched forward against the straps, his head twisting sideways and upwards as though attempting to escape the shock.

Charley Becker was the largest man ever brought into the execution chamber at Sing Sing, and it may be for this reason that his electrocution was horribly botched. Too little current was applied at first, so that the death agonies became protracted. The temperature within the dying man’ s body rose to 140 F, the loose strap across his chest burst open, flames were seen to spurt from his temple, and despite the administration of 1,850 volts for a full 60 seconds, Charles Farr, the death–house doctor, found Becker’s heart ‘not only still beating, but pounding strongly.’ In the end it took nine minutes and three separate jolts to kill the prisoner, though the representative of the World observed that ‘to those who sat in the grey-walled room and listened to the rasping sound of the wooden switch lever being thrown backward and forward, and watched the greenish-blue blaze at the victim’s head and feet and the grayish smoke curling away from the scorched flesh, it seemed an hour.’ The whole affair was described in later years as ‘the clumsiest execution in the history of Sing Sing.’

As the reporters gathered to witness the execution filed out of the chamber, they were handed copies of Becker’s final letters. The first was addressed to Governor Whitman:

You have proved yourself able to destroy my life. But mark well, Sir, these words of mine. When your power passes, the truth about Rosenthal’s murder will become known. Not all the judges in this State, nor in this country, can destroy permanently the character of an innocent man.

The second letter was a final testament. Becker had spent much of the night memorising it, in the hope of being allowed to deliver it himself, but the guards had not permitted this.

‘I stand before you,’ this statement began,

in my full senses knowing that no power on earth can save me from the grave that is to receive me, and in the presence of my God and your God I proclaim my absolute innocence of the crime for which I must die. You are now about to witness my destruction by the State … And on the brink of my grave, I declare to the world that I am proud to have been the husband of the purest, noblest woman that ever lived, Helen Becker. This acknowledgement is the only legacy I can leave her. I bid you all goodbye. Father, I am ready to go.

CHARLES BECKER

When most of the reporters had left, Becker’s corpse was removed to the autopsy room for the usual examination, arms dangling, head hanging back, legs swinging. Dr Farr stripped the black cotton shirt from the lieutenant’s hulking body, and was startled to discover that it concealed the little photo of Helen that Becker had kept on the wall of his cell. The dead man had pinned it to his undershirt, with the face turned inward, over his heart.

I have no idea.

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1904: Mart Vowell, aged Civil War veteran

22 comments June 9th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1904, a 61-year-old veteran of the U.S. Civil War was hanged for murder at Paragould, Ark.

“Hanging Day 1904”: this is apparently a photo either from Vowell’s execution, or the July 9, 1904 hanging at Paragould of Nathan H. Brewer

Mart Vowell, the hanged man, was anomalously the former city marshall of Rector, Arkansas — and his victim the town troublemaker, whom Vowell had previously arrested.

(Vowell fought in the Confederate army under Nathan Bedford Forrest. If it’s the same Mart Vowell described in this Reconstruction-era report, he apparently stuck around in Tennessee after the fighting stop and followed Forrest into the Ku Klux Klan.)

Even the grand jury summoned to indict the killer had to be dismissed after repeatedly returning only second-degree charges.

This case cries out for primary research beyond the scope of this blog’s daily deadlines further to the motivations of the characters involved, but the bottom line is that Vowell hanged before a highly sympathetic crowd — calling “Good-bye, Mart!” as he “died game” — in Paragould, Ark.

Arkansas Governor Jeff(erson) Davis — named after, but not related to, the Confederate president* — was himself hanged in effigy the next day for his refusal to spare Vowell in the face of thousands of petitioners. Davis being an open advocate of lynching (“without apology to any tribunal on the face of the earth”) we suppose the populist governor could hardly have been sore about a little mannequin, however “carefully prepared.”

* Given the famous characters evoked by name, we need to note that our day’s principal, Mart, was actually named Martin Van Buren Powell, which would presumably make him a namesake of abolitionist former U.S. President Martin Van Buren.

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1945: Three German war criminals

Add comment November 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1945, three Germans were hanged by the American army at Landsberg for killing downed U.S. pilots during the late war.

Also available here.

Ernst Waldmann, a former Wehrmacht Unteroffizer, was one of the three; he shot an American pilot at Haimbuch in December 1944.

The other two were policemen Wilhelm Haffner and Albert Bury, who killed a downed pilot at Langen Sel Bold that same month — under, they protested, the coercion of the SS.

As the New York Times report noted, they died “within sight” of the cell in that same prison where Adolf Hitler (serving easy time for the Beer Hall Putsch) wrote Mein Kampf.


This was, coincidentally, also the same date that American president Harry S Truman first transmitted to Congress a national health insurance proposal. The doctors’ lobby howled it down as rank Bolshevism … leading to the bizarre ascendancy of the Rube Goldberg-esque employer-based insurance system that had sprouted during World War II as a consequence of wartime wage controls limiting employers’ ability to bid for workers’ service.

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1725: Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker General and Receiver of Stolen Goods

11 comments May 24th, 2010 Anthony Vaver

(Thanks to Anthony Vaver, author and publisher of EarlyAmericanCrime.com for the guest post. Vaver is the author of Bound With An Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America. -ed.)

A buzz filled the air as people stood on their toes and filled every window in an attempt to get a glimpse of the great Jonathan Wild as he was paraded through the London streets on Monday, May 24, 1725. Despite the festive atmosphere surrounding the procession, Wild appeared to be unmoved by the shouts of the crowd, his attention focused instead on the Bible held open in his hands. After traveling about a third of the way to his destination, the procession stopped at the Griffin Tavern, so that Wild could drink a glass of wine.

Not long after leaving the Griffin Tavern, a rock thrown from a window hit Wild in the head, and blood began to pour down his face. The crowd roared with approval and people started to hurl insults at him, along with more stones and dirt. The cart stopped twice more before reaching its final destination: first at the White Lion, where Wild drank another glass of wine, and once again at the Oxford Arms, home of the bare-knuckle boxing champion James Figg, where Wild drank a tankard of beer and even more wine. His next and final stop was Tyburn Hill, where he was scheduled to be executed.

Convicts often stopped for drinks at various taverns during their march from Newgate Prison to Tyburn to be executed, so the fact that Wild stopped at three along the way to his execution was not unusual. What was unusual, however, was the fact that he was able to hold down his liquor, given that the previous night at two in the morning he had tried to kill himself in his jail cell by drinking a large dose of laudanum, a concoction of opium dissolved in alcohol. Wild was already in a half-stupefied state before his slow journey to the gallows and his wine drinking had even begun.

Wild’s dramatic execution marked a precipitous fall for a man who was perhaps the most influential person in England’s criminal justice system, even though he never held an official government position. As the self proclaimed “Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland,” Wild was instrumental in capturing and bringing to justice scores of petty thieves that plagued the London streets. He consulted the government on the passage of laws intended to encourage the capture of criminals. He also oversaw a vast criminal empire, the likes of which has never been duplicated.

Wild ran an Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property where people could apply to him for help in recovering their possessions for a fee that fell below what it would cost them to replace the objects. Wild would then use his connections in the criminal underworld to recover the goods and return them to the owner. His business proved to be extremely popular.

In addition to recovering lost and stolen property, Wild was particularly adept at catching and prosecuting criminals, a public service that enhanced his general reputation and gained the approval of the authorities. In the absence of a true police force, the government relied on rewards to encourage people to police the streets themselves. Anyone who could capture a thief and convict him or her with evidence received a reward of £40, far more than what most people in England could earn in a year. Wild benefited from this policy by collecting a fee every time he was able to prosecute a criminal. His office, then, essentially served as the de facto “Scotland Yard” of the day.

Wild’s knack for catching criminals brought him great renown. He often appeared at trials to give evidence against the criminals he helped to capture. He got to know the bailiffs of the prisons and could be seen socializing in the local taverns with Justices of the Peace. He entertained government officials in his house.

The public remained blissfully unaware that there was another, more sinister, side to Wild.

In point of fact, the man supposedly responsible for clearing the streets of criminals was also the head of a vast criminal empire and a well-oiled criminal machine. Wild’s Lost Property Office turned out to be a clearinghouse for stolen goods that members of his own organized gang had themselves acquired. The thieves he apprehended, supposedly for the good of the community, were fall guys; they either belonged to rival gangs, or were members of his own gang who tried to double-cross him, quit his business, or had ceased to be more valuable than the £40 reward given by the government for capturing and convicting a criminal. Wild sent many of these criminals to the gallows by appearing in court to give evidence — real or otherwise — against them. The unofficial head of crime prevention was in actuality the foremost perpetrator of crime and organizer of criminals in London and throughout Great Britain.

Wild’s downfall began when he helped prosecute the thief and burglar Jack Sheppard, whose daring and dramatic escapes from the notorious Newgate Prison turned him into a folk hero. Public opinion soured on the “Thief-Taker General” and his involvement with Sheppard’s execution … and when details of Wild’s criminal operation emerged after his arrest for receiving stolen goods, the public was furious.

When Wild finally reached the gallows at Tyburn, the noise from the crowd was so loud that the Ordinary of Newgate found it almost impossible to say his prayers with Wild and the three other criminals scheduled to die. The hangman, Richard Arnet, who years before had been a guest at Wild’s wedding, tried to give Wild as much time as he needed before preparing him for execution. The crowd, however, grew restless and threatened to tear Arnet to pieces if he did not proceed in carrying out his duties immediately. Reluctantly, Arnet placed a noose around Wild’s neck.

A great shout went up from the crowd as the cart drove away leaving the convicts dangling from the ropes tied around their necks. After the drop, Wild desperately grabbed onto Robert Harpham, who was being executed for coining, in an attempt to lift himself up and slacken the rope connected to his neck. Arnet intervened and separated the two, and after a few minutes, the life of Jonathan Wild came to an end at the age of about 42.

Almost as soon as Wild’s body was cut down, a rumor began to circulate that it was being carried off to the Surgeon’s Hall for dissection. The bodies of executed criminals were often used for such a medical purpose, but the practice usually led to a struggle between the surgeons, who were trying to take the body of the criminal away, and the disapproving crowd. In this case, Jonathan’s wife, Mary Wild, had arranged to circulate the rumor that he had been turned over to the surgeons as a ruse, so that his body could be properly buried without interference. Her plan didn’t work. Three or four days after it was buried Wild’s body was dug up from the St. Pancras churchyard by the surgeons.

Today, Jonathan Wild’s skeleton can be seen on display at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.


The skeleton of Jonathan Wild at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Infamous,Organized Crime,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1903: William Ennis, wife-murdering cop

Add comment December 14th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1903, a nine-year veteran of the Brooklyn police became the first member of the thin blue line to die in the electric chair.

Then 31-year-old William Ennis had gunned down his estranged wife (and, not fatally, his mother-in-law) early the preceding year, and his attempt to claim insanity at trial was rejected as shamming.

This slice of New York color is the second story in this New York Times column reporting the day after the crime.

While in a frenzy of rage, as a result of heavy drinking and brooding over family troubles, William H. Ennis, a policeman attached to the Adams Street Station, Brooklyn, early yesterday morning broke into the hime [sic] of Mrs. Alice Gorman, his mother-in-law, in Canarsie, wounded her seriously with a bullet from his revolver, and then shot and killed his wife, who was living there.

He then rushed from the house and ran along the railroad tracks to East New York, two miles distant, where he was found asleep in a room in a hotel by the police several hours later. …

Two weeks ago Mrs. Ennis had her husband in court on a charge of non-support, and he was ordered to pay her a weekly stipend. At that time Ennis declared that he would “rot in jail” before he would pay his wife any money unless she left her mother’s house and returned to live with him. …

Early on Saturday morning he reported sick at Adams Street Station and was excused from duty. It was learned that he came to Manhattan and in the evening was arrested at Forty-second Street and First Avenue for intoxication and disorderly conduct, but at the East Thirty-fifth Street Station was allowed to go when it was found that he was a policeman.

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1993: Mohamed Mustafa Tabet, serial rapist with a badge

1 comment August 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1993, the police chief of Casablanca was shot in Kenitra Central Prison for abuse of power.

Mohamed Mustafa Tabet (or Tabit) wasn’t exactly Captain Renault.

While Morocco still has prisoners on death row, Tabet’s was the first execution actually carried out in 11 years, and it’s the last execution in Morocco to date. He went on the rocket docket, just five months from his arrest to standing up against a wall.

To earn that rare distinction, Tabet exploited his official power to rape or sexually exploit hundreds of women. Tabet confessed to some 1,500 victims over 13 years; the minimum figure matches the 518 personal identity cards found in his apartment. (Also found: 118 video cassettes — many of them violent — and a computer list of his crimes.)

The “Tabet Affair” — actually called “Tabetgate,” proving that the United States retains the power of exporting ideas — opened a discomfiting window on gender and power in Morocco.

Webster University Prof. Don Conway-Long was in Morocco at the time researching gender and masculinity for his dissertation. His paper “Sexism and Rape Culture in Moroccan Social Discourse” (pdf) is probably the most illuminating readily-available English* document on the affair — and the many contradictory reactions it drew from contemporaries, and the pressure it put on the government to contain the fallout as “a morals case, instead of looking further into overall police corruption.”

Prof. Conway-Long was good enough to spare Executed Today a few minutes to explore power and gender in Morocco, then and now.

ET: The scale of the crime spree seems just unimaginable, that he could get away with victimizing hundreds upon hundreds of women.

DCL: And not that many came forward! It was just a couple of women. If it’s difficult to talk to rape and sexual assault survivors here [in the U.S.], it’s exponentially harder in Morocco.

You were in Morocco in the years leading up to this trial. What was the country like in terms of its gender outlook?

It’s more like our 1950’s in terms of the attitudes towards women. Some educated professors at one point were laughing at the idea that a man could be charged with raping his wife in the West. In some ways, attitudes in Morocco are maybe 20 years behind what we see in the West. We had that same conception in the 1950’s — Missouri actually finally changed that law in 1993. [See here and here -ed.]

Morocco was also probably one of the most liberal countries of the Muslim world in the sense of being more closely connected to the West. Morocco has had more openness, more tourism.

How did the Tabet case impact women’s position?

[In 1995,] about a year after I left, a battered women’s shelter was set up in Casablanca, the first one in Morocco. By comparison, our first shelters in the U.S. and U.K. were set up in 1971, 1972.

In 2004, they passed a new family law that changed a lot of the freedoms that women have — e.g., women can ask for divorce, and don’t have to obey their husbands.

But I have no idea if you can claim there’s any causal relationship between the discovery of Tabet’s crimes and these later events. At the time, some men thought he was this great sexual hero, very virile.

So what lies ahead?

The old king died in 1999; his son Mohammed VI is in there now and he’s young and more aware and one of the rising stars of the monarchs of the middle east, like the king of Jordan. His [Mohammed’s] head is on the right way, but running a country like this with so much variation — there’s 50% illiteracy, the Western Sahara conflict, a certain level of Islamist opposition, and around twenty political parties all the way out to the Communists.

So there’s no certain future, absolutely not.

As far as cases like Tabet’s — let’s hope it’s not happening still, but Morocco when I was there was a place where you pass six different kinds of uniforms walking down the street with Uzis that would be pointed at your body as you passed.

* There’s more in French and Arabic.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Interviews,Milestones,Morocco,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Rape,Scandal,Shot

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