1714: Geczy Julianna, the White Woman of Locse

Add comment September 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1714, Geczy Julianna was executed in the marketplace of Gyor as a traitor.

“The White Woman of Locse” — which is also the title of an 1884 romantic novel about her live by Mor Jokai — this woman allegedly betrayed that place* into the hands of imperial Habsburg troops during Hungary’s unsuccessful 1703-1711 rebellion. Sober historians view her as simply a person trusted to serve as the emissary between the garrison and its Habsburg besiegers which role would eventually entail her communicating the defenders’ surrender.

She salvaged her reputation for posterity — and set herself up for torture and execution — by paying the betrayal forward to the empire when she destroyed a number of documents sought by the imperial marshal Janos Palffy that could have incriminated Kuruc nobles in plotting for a renewal of hostilities.

“How can a woman sacrifice her whole country for a kiss, and then sacrifice her handsome head for the same country?” Jokai mused of his paradoxical subject. “What reconciles the heaven and hell in the character of a woman?”

* Formerly part of Hungary’s northern reaches, this town today resides in Slovakia.

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1863: Spencer Kellogg Brown, Union spy

Add comment September 25th, 2017 Headsman

Spencer Kellogg Brown, a young Union spy during the U.S. Civil War, was hanged on this date in 1863 in the rebel capital of Richmond, Virginia.

Brown would come by the latter years of his short life to commonly drop his surname and simply go by Spencer Kellogg: this was fruit of the same cause for his enthusiasm for the northern cause, to wit, his growing to manhood in Osawatomie, the antislavery epicenter of the dirty frontier war known as “Bleeding Kansas”. But the thing about the name was, notwithstanding Kellogg’s/Brown’s enthusiasm for the Free State side, the surname he chanced to share with the ferocious abolitionist warrior John Brown was liable to get a body killed when uttered in the wrong company. (There was no blood relationship between Spencer Brown and John Brown.)

Spencer Kellogg Brown was just a teenager when he joined the Union army but the pell-mell ramp-up to war footing opened opportunities for able people. Brown rose out of the enlisted ranks to an officer’s commission and was detailed for risky scouting assignments into rebel territory down the Mississippi River, even feigning desertion so that he could enlist in the Confederate ranks and then escape back to his own lines with intelligence. Execution was an occupational hazard of this daring profession; eventually, young Brown was captured one too many times.

This public domain volume summarizes the man’s short biography, including many affectionate letters that Brown exchanged with family in the course of his adventures and his subsequent year-long imprisonment. If you like, you can imagine them in that Ken Burns documentary portentous voice-over reading.

Castle Thunder, Richmond, Virginia, Sept. 18, 1863.

Dear Kitty, my Sister: After lying in prison over a year, my time has come at last. To-day I went out for trial, but got it deferred until to-morrow. The witnesses are there, and there can be but one result, death. So I have written to you for all, to bid you a last good-bye, God bless you, I have tried to write often to cheer all, and it seemed very hopeful for a while, but within a few days all hope has left me. But don’t mourn, Kitty, as for one without hope. These only take away the mortal life, but God, I trust, has given me one that is immortal. Dear Kitty, I hope there is a ‘shining shore’ for us all, and another world where, free from guilt, we’ll no more sorrow, or part. I do not look forward with fear to death — not nearly as much as when it was farther off. God has been very kind to me, and for the past twelve months I have tried earnestly to please Him. I fear the embarrassment of the trial, to-morrow, the worst, but He will help me, I trust.

I have some little trinkets; you must divide them. The ring is for my wife; if she be not found, for yourself. Take comfort now, dear ones, God is good, and naught shall separate us from Him. I have hoped and longed, indeed, to see you all; but I know His wisdom chooses better; let us be content. Thank Him that all this time He has given me life and health and a heart to love Him, and to trust in Christ. Much as I long to see you all, I know ’tis best as it is, for He doeth all things well. So do not mourn, but hope — and think of heaven, where I hope, by God’s mercy, to await you all.

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1987: Gennady Modestovich Mikhasevich, Belarus serial killer

Add comment September 25th, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1987* in the Belarusian SSR, highly prolific serial killer Gennady Modestovich Mikhasevich was put to death by firing squad. Police were able to prove he’d committed 36 murders; he confessed to 43, but the actual total may have been 55 deaths or perhaps more.

Robert Keller notes in his book Murder By Numbers: The 100 Most Deadly Serial Killers From Around The World that, as was in the case with Mikhasevich’s contemporary, Andrei Chikatilo, the investigation was seriously hindered by the authorities’ insistence that serial killers were a decadent capitalist phenomenon and didn’t exist in their socialist paradise:

“The murders are separate incidents,” the police insisted, “not connected at all.” And so off they went to arrest a suspect, four in fact over a fourteen-­year period, one of whom was executed. It was an arcane and inept stance, one that allowed a killer to massacre at least 33 young women in 14 years.

On the surface, Mikhasevich (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | Belarussian) was an ordinary enough man: born in the village of Ist in the Vitebsk Oblast’ in 1947, as an adult he served in the military, graduated college, got a job in a machine repair shop, married and sired two children.

He was conscientious at his work, a caring father, and didn’t drink. He was a Communist Party member — in fact, he was chosen to be secretary of the local committee — and also a member of the Voluntary People’s Druzhina, a sort of Soviet equivalent to the Neighborhood Watch.

But who watches the watchmen?

Mikhasevich committed his first murder on May 14, 1971. He came home from his stint in the army and discovered that his girlfriend back in Ist had left him and married another man.

Devastated, a few days later he decided to hang himself. He was walking to a nearby forest to do the deed, carrying the rope, when he met a woman on the road. Rather had commit suicide, Mikhasevich took his anger out on the stranger, dragging her off into the woods and strangling her.

He must have liked it, because he killed again later that year, and twice more in 1972.

And the list kept growing.

With his early murders, he would wait at an isolated spot, hoping that a woman would chance along. Now he had a car, a red Zaporozhets, so he cruised the roads looking for victims. None of the women ever refused to get into his car. In a backwater like Ist, a ride in a motor vehicle was a real treat. (Keller)

Mikhasevich would drive his victim to an isolated spot and then turn on her. Throttling her into unconsciousness. He’d then rape the woman before strangling her with a rope. Then he’d rob the victim of money and valuables, toss the body at the side of the road and drive off. In common with many serial killers, he often kept souvenirs.

By the 1980s, the police had finally conceded that the murders were related, and witnesses reported the killer drove a red Zaporozhets. Investigators started checking who in the oblast’ owned that particular vehicle, and called on the Voluntary People’s Druzhina for help with their inquiries.

Thus, Mikhasevich began investigating his own crimes.

Authorities were stopping and questioning anyone seen driving a red Zaporozhets, but the investigation went nowhere; the killer appeared to be invisible. Mikhasevich, as a druzhina, was of course aware of where the cops were and when, and he evaded them easily. He claimed fourteen victims in 1984 and twelve more the following year.

He was growing a bit nervous, though, so to derail the investigation he sent a letter to a local newspaper, supposedly written by members of an organization called the “Patriots of Vitebsk.” The letter said the murders were being committed by them and they were trying to rid the oblast’ of “lewd women.”

The police were inclined to write the letter off as a sick joke. But then a note turned up at one of the crime scenes, written in the same hand. It was signed, “the patriots of Vitebsk.”

Galvanized, the cops decided to check the handwriting of all the men living in the oblast. After sorting through 556,000 samples, graphologists found a match: Gennady Mikhasevich.

He was arrested on December 9, 1985, fourteen and a half years after his first murder. As the police were hauling him away in handcuffs, he told his wife, “This is a mistake. I’ll be right back.” Taken to the prosecutor’s office, he was asked, “Are you the patriot of Vitebsk?”

He ultimately broke down and confessed, leading investigators to the place where he’d hidden some of his victims’ belongings. He’d given other items to his wife as gifts; in one case, he even melted down two wedding rings from women he’d murdered and used them to make dental fillings and crowns for his wife.

According to Mikhasevich, although he did rape his victims, he got the most satisfaction out of killing them.

From there on it was a short trip to the firing squad.

The case was widely remembered in the area, not only for the terrible crimes Mikhasevich committed, but for the wrongfully convicted men and the ineptitude of the police. Several officials were dismissed from their posts, and one prosecutor was himself prosecuted for abuse of power.

Who watches the watchmen?

* Many Soviet executions were conducted in secrecy and have elusive dating as a result. In September 25 we’re going with the most commonly attributed date and the one favored at present by Russian and Belarussian Wikipedia. However, alternate dates as late as February 3, 1988 are also out there.

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1794: Edmund Fortis, in the hands of God

Add comment September 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Edmund Fortis was hanged in Dresden, Maine* — at the time still a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Fortis was born a slave in Virginia but escaped and slipped into the wage economy by hiring out as a seaman on a ship bound from Alexandria, Va., to England. According to his dying confession he was a habitual petty thief; by the time he had made his way to Maine, “my life was dreadful — Drinking, stealing and gaming.”

Fortis admitted to, and even pleaded guilty to, the rape-murder of a young girl named Pamela Tilton whom he saw by chance and waylaid on a country road on May 18. This confession “the evidence of credible witnesses on oath … abundantly confirmed.” That’s from the sentencing oration of Justice Robert Treat Paine, via The Oracle of the Day (Portsmouth, N.H.), July 26, 1794, which continues with flourishes of hellfire —

This sentence, when executed, will remove you from this world, where you have proved yourself so unworthy an inhabitant, to a state of existence where you must reap the fruits of your past life; where you must appear before the awful tribunal of that holy Being, who cannot be deceived and who will not be mocked, and who will judge you for this and all the other sins in your life …

you have cast off the fear of God from your eyes, and all restraint of reverence to him from your thoughts, words, and actions, till your unbridled lust and malicious disposition had arrived to full ripeness, and urged you to the commission of crimes, at your own relation of which, nature revolts and the human heart is rent with agony. To what a pitch of brutal lust must you have arrived, that a person of your nation, your age, having a wife and children in the neighborhood, should so inhumanly assault and violate the chastity of that young girl in spight of her intreaties and remonstrances, and then with all the savage cruelty of a ruffian and an assassin, deaf to those cries and supplications which would have melted any heart but one lost to every humane feeling, you barbarously strangled to death the inoffensive victim of your lustful crime; thus in a short space of time destroying life, the first right of all mankind, and chastity, the second right of woman.

… repent and live … so, although your aggravated crimes must bring you to an untimely and disgraceful death, yet that you may escape that weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, that destruction from the face of the Lord, that bitterness of misery which cannot be discribed nor conceived, which will be inflicted on all the enemies of the holy Governour of the Universe, and that your soul may be happy forever in the heavenly world.

But Fortis did not need much convincing of his soul’s peril.

The bulk of his confession is taken up describing the transformative apparition of God’s grace as he awaited arraignment in prison — the appearance of which is precisely what induced him to plead guilty to the charge, lest he “lie against God.”

I could not rest, there was no comfort or peace for me: I tho’t no person was so bad as I, my whole life filled with sin, stealing, lying, whoring and drinking, and now murder. At length I got up, and endeavoured to pray, but my heart was hard as a stone, and it seemed bound up; still I thought I would keep praying to the Lord whether he had mercy on me or not.

On Saturday morning it seemed as if I had more desire to pray and plead with God than before; and in the afternoon it seemed as if my heart was in some degree melted, and there was some hope. I heard something like a voice, saying “verily, verily give him a new heart,” and it seemed as if a man was in me working downward, and clearing or cleaning my heart. I thought I could breathe out my heart to God, and could see a light shining from heaven, brighter than snow, and in the light it seemed as though a great many angels were singing, which drowned my groans and prayers; and I cried O Lord! and looked up, and I saw in a corner of the prison something red like fire, and thought it was the Devil. I found I had another feeling, and I cried to the Lord. I now felt relieved; but was doubtful whether it could be true that the Lord had mercy on me, and wanted to see the light again.

On Lord’s day morning I felt more contented; but could hardly believe what I saw, and felt. I looked out of the grates, and all things looked strange, as if in another place; the birds seemed to come near the Goal and sing. Putting myself in the same place where I first saw the light, I prayed, and said, O Lord, for thy dear Son Jesus’ sake, who died for sinners, have mercy on me! And immediately the same angels began to sing again; and I believed in the Lord, and loved every body. I felt cool and calm; all the dread and fear which I had suffered were gone.

When I was brought to the bar, a gentleman spoke to me, and advised me to plead not guilty: Oh! I thought he wanted me to lie against God; and I considered how dreadful it was for a man that could read to give such advice. When the indictment was read, and the judge asked me whether I was guilty or not guilty, I felt very calm, and answered, guilty. And when I was brought the next day to hear my sentence, I felt perfectly resigned and thankful to the court, God knows their sentence was just. I now wait for the last stroke of death. I can trust my soul in the hands of the Lord, and am willing to do, or suffer any thing God shall lay upon me; and if he should cast me off, it will be right for I deserve it.

However wondrous this gallows-foot conversion was for Edmund Fortis, it augured ill for some other residents of the Commonwealth.

A Henry McCausling (or McCaslane), whose own minister also tended to Fortis, took from this example the prospect of using the murder-repentance two-step as a back door into heaven.

It appears that M’Causling has lately become deluded in matters of religion. For some time he has principally associated himself with a party of baptists, living on a plantation back off Pittston, headed by one Stinson, and two or three others. In one of his paroxisms of religious insanity, he burnt an elegant church in the town of Pittston. He says that Stinson told him, that his brother Edmund Fortis, who was lately executed for the murder of Pamela Tilton, was certainly gone to heaven, and that the road to Heaven was marked with blood. M’Causling thought, that as Fortis had gone to heaven, he should go there too, provided he was to use the same means. (Boston Gazette and Weekly Republican Journal, Nov. 17, 1794)

Consequently, McCausling stalked a Mrs. Warren** “in a dark night, through woods and over rivers which were almost impassable by day” until he finally came upon her at her sick mother’s house, tending to her, and thereupon

he flung her back with his left hand, and with his right, drew a knife from his pocket, where he had concealed it, and instantly cut her throat, without her being able to say more than this — “M’Causling, are you going to murder me!” He immediately fled, but was soon arrested and committed to gaol, where he must remain for the sentence which awaits him.

Like his predecessor, McCausling also pleaded guilty to his crime; the court judging him quite mad, he was balked of his objective in this world at least: how he has fared in the next we dare not guess.

* The Pownalborough Court House, which doubled as a jail, can still be seen today. It’s where Fortis spent his last days, although he was not tried in that building.

** From the press accounts I have seen, she is identified only as “the wife of a Mr. Pelton Warren.”

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1911: Dmitry Bogrov, Stolypin’s assassin

2 comments September 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1911,* Dmitry Bogrov was hanged in Kiev for assassinating Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin.

Many could diagnose the long-advancing rot of the Russian state, but few had the physic to abate it. Stolypin, a resolute conservative landowner, might have been tsarism’s last, best hope.

During the cataclysmic 1905 revolution, Stolypin was governor of Saratov and kept his province notably free from disturbances.

That earned him a kick upstairs in 1906 in hopes that he could work the same magic on the turbulent country. To a greater extent than most, he did: Stolypin was tsarist Russia’s last great statesman, notably introducing capitalistic land reforms in an effort to germinate a new rural middle class of small, freeholding landowners with skin in the Romanov dynasty. To break liberal obstruction, he also mounted a coup to weight the Duma in favor of propertied classes. “Give me 20 years of peace,” he vowed, “and you won’t recognize Russia.”

It’s left to the speculation of posterity whether he could have pulled the trick: in the event, Stolypin did not get 20 years and Russia did not get peace.

For some, like Solzhenitsyn, Stolypin is the lost chance for a Russia without either despotism or revolution: “He brought light to the world and the world rejected him.” For many others, that Great Man theory is a bit much. Russia’s issues with class and governance were a pretty long-term concern.

One of its long-term products was Russia’s energetic radical underground, and this Stolypin harried Russia’s revolutionaries from pillar to post, greatly intensifying police surveillance and infiltration of agitators’ circles to prevent a repeat of 1905. His secret courts meted out punishment with a greater regard for swiftness than certainty; a staggering 3,000 radicals were hanged for alleged involvement in terrorism from 1906 to 1909, generating worldwide condemnation and causing the phrase “Stolypin’s necktie” to enter the lexicon as a synonym for the noose.

Of course, there was plenty of real terrorism, no small part of it directed at Stolypin himself. He survived or avoided several assassination attempts, including a bomb that took the life of his daughter. In turn-of-the-century Russia, though, there was always a next man or woman up when it came to the propaganda of the deed.

In September 1911, at festivities marking the quinquagenary of the liberation of the serfs, Stolypin attended the Kiev opera’s performance of The Tale of Tsar Saltan.


The (obviously non-operatic) cartoon adaptation of The Tale of Tsar Saltan; the source material for both opera and cartoon is a Pushkin poem.

As the third intermission drew to a close, a young bourgeois approached Stolypin, drew a Browning pistol, and shot the Prime Minister. Legend has it that Stolypin opened his bloodied waistcoat and addressed the close-enough-to-witness-it sovereign with the words, “I am happy to die for the tsar.” The prime minister would linger on and die a few days later; his murderer did not long outlive him.

Despite Stolypin’s reputation as public enemy no. 1 for revolutionaries, the reason for Dmitry Bogrov to commit this particular murder has long remained murky. (pdf)

Bogrov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a revolutionary, but he was also an informer for the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police whose augmentation had been a key Stolypin priority. Just where Bogrov stood at any given time in the vast foggy marches between compromised true believer and agent provocateur is difficult to pinpoint.

The Kiev opera on the night Bogrov shot Stolypin was thick with military personnel, but nobody at all stood watch on the oft-targeted politician — even though there was specific intelligence of a possible threat, issued in his capacity as an informer by the Janus-faced Bogrov himself. The eventual assassin was admitted to the theater that night on a ticket provided by his police handlers.

Considering Bogrov’s very swift execution, and the fact that the tsar suspiciously shut down the investigation (Russian link), many believe that elements of the state security apparatus were the true authors of Stolypin’s death, whether or not Bogrov himself realized it. Russia’s great landholders, never noted for farsightedness, widely opposed the reductions of their estates demanded by Stolypin’s agricultural reforms and rightly saw him as about the only man with the clout to move policy against their considerable opposition. They weren’t sorry to see him go.

As for Bogrov, his departure was a mere footnote. He asked for a rabbi before his hanging, but when he found out that this presumably confessional meeting would be monitored by the public prosecutor, he withdrew the request. (London Times, September 26, 1911) He reportedly died almost indifferently, his last words a disarmingly casual inquiry to the executioner about how best to position his head within his Stolypin’s necktie.

* September 12 by the local Julian calendar; September 25 by the Gregorian calendar.

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2013: Xia Junfeng, chengguan slayer

1 comment September 25th, 2013 Headsman

China has announced the execution this day of “homicide criminal” Xia Junfeng, a kebab vendor from Shenyang.

This case has been in the public eye for several years, and the predominant sentiment has been sympathetic towards the condemned man.

Xia and his wife Zhang Jing were part of China’s vast population of working urban poor, Xia having found his way into job insecurity by virtue of a layoff from the state electricity company. In the entrepreneurial spirit of the age, Xia started up an unlicensed business selling sausages and the like.

These denizens of the gray economy are, as a class, afflicted by the attentions of the City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, better known as the chengguan. Their benign job description entails administering municipal regulations, but this much-loathed force’s relationship to everyday citizens is perhaps best illustrated by the word chengguan‘s status as a shorthand neologism for bullying and abuse. Too many people know this goon squad firsthand, and too many stories of their worst excesses have circulated. Just this past July, the chengguan made headlines by killing a watermelon vendor.

“Chengguan abuses are an open scandal in China,” said Human Rights Watch’s China director. “The chengguan’s ability to flout China’s laws and inflict harm on members of the public is a recipe for greater public resentment and more violent confrontations.”

In the violent confrontation at issue in today’s execution, the chengguan chengguanned Xia Junfeng in May 2009. Xia fought back with his meat-carving knife, and slew two of his tormenters.

Death penalty cases redolent of the social stratification and institutional corruption that ordinary Chinese people experience have proven to be lightning rods in recent years.

Xia Junfeng’s turned, legally, on his claim that he killed protecting himself from the chengguan‘s beating.*

“Extralegal violence, thus employed to compensate for inadequate regulation and an absence of authority and legal deterrence, is no longer individual behavior. Such violence exists everywhere with the permission of the authorities. It is needed because of an overriding concern for “city image” and “urban management.” Finally, when extralegal violence is not monitored by the people and the media, and not punished by the law, it is only natural for Chengguan members to feel justified. Using violence with impunity enables the Chengguans to see violence psychologically as their “privilege,” a sign of status and pride. Since the legal and political status of Chengguan is unclear, it is only natural for its members to seek personal gain, vent their anger, and prey on the citizens they were intended to protect.”

-from the closing argument of Xia’s defense attorney

This allegation didn’t fly in court, where brother chengguan denied that they’d been abusing the shishkebaber, but it’s won in a rout when it comes to the court of public opinion. “His life and death are more than just a legal matter, but a bellwether of the era, with the tsunami-like public opinion firmly on the side of Xia Junfeng,” wrote author Yi Chen today.

Particularly galling for many is the disparity in treatment between Xia Junfeng and the likes of Gu Kailai, the latter a powerful business and political figure who was able to avoid execution despite being convicted of a scandalous contract murder. And Chengguan themselves never seem to be at risk of harsh punishment for any misbehavior; had Xia Junfeng been the one to leave that confrontation in a body bag, there certainly wouldn’t have been a death penalty case.


Anonymous cartoon circulated on Weibo criticizing Xia Junfeng’s condemnation. (Via) The drawing of the boy in the background was done by Xia’s son, whose art school fees were earned by his father’s roadside business.

Chinese speakers might want to peruse the Weibo feed of Xia’s widow.

* Several years ago, self-defense helped a Beijing migrat worker avoid execution for killing a chengguan who attempted to confiscate his bicycle cart.

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1561: Sehzade Beyazit, inevitably

1 comment September 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1561, the Persian Shah abandoned Ottoman prince Sehzade Beyazit to the vengeance of his “magnificent” father.

A late and sad casualty of Istanbul’s pivotal family tragedy, Beyazit was actually a son of Suleiman the Magnificent‘s favorite wife, the freed Ukrainian slave Hurrem Sultan or Roxelana.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t the first son.

After Roxelana engineered the execution of heir apparent Mustafa on spurious grounds, Beyazit and his brother Selim were the last princes standing.

The natural rivalry between the two for eventual power was surely colored by the clear portent Mustafa’s execution had sent that the succession game was rigged for Selim. After several years of growing estrangement, Beyazit finally revolted outright only to be defeated in battle by Selim in 1559.

The loser found refuge in Persia, but only long enough for the Safavids to negotiate the price of his surrender to the hands of Suleiman … whose executioner went on the road to the Persian city of Qazvin to strangle not only Sehzade Beyazit but his four sons, too.

Extirpating the treasonable branch of the family tree cleared the succession for Selim, whose eight-year turn in power would be remembered as moment the hitherto-all-vanquishing Ottomans began their long, slow slide to Sick Man of Europe status. Particularly given that coda, Suleiman’s own

long reign is flawed by tragedy more subtle than the hubris which had overcome his ancestor Bayezit the Thunderbolt; more consequential than the gilded misery reserved for later sultans. The higher men rose in the empire, the closer they got to the bowstring; and the reign of Suleyman seems in retrospect coiled round with a silken garotte …

When the Austrian ambassador took leave of Suleyman in his old age, it was scarcely a living being he described, but a sort of metaphor of empire, rotting and majestic, fat, made up, and suffering from an ulcerous leg.

There’s more about this misfortunate lesser son in Turkish here, and a Turkish poem he wrote beseeching his father’s forgiveness here.

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1991: Warren McCleskey

8 comments September 25th, 2011 Headsman

Twenty years ago today, Warren McCleskey died in Georgia’s electric chair for the murder of a police officer.

Yet the “question reverberates: Did Warren McCleskey deserve the chair? For the question to outlive him is a damning commentary on capital punishment in the United States.”

The most reverberating commentary on this case was the 1987 Supreme Court decision McCleskey v. Kemp — a landmark 5-4 ruling that still shapes the way judges handle purported racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

McCleskey (the decision, not the man) “marked the end of an era in death penalty jurisprudence … reject[ing] the last major challenge to the death penalty in America” from the generation of legal tinkering reaching back to the 1960s.

McCleskey v. Kemp was decided on April 22, 1987, at which time just 70 humans had been executed since the “modern” era of capital punishment began in the 1970s. (Today, the count is well beyond 1,200.)

The victims attributed to those 70 were 83% white (77 of 93),* even though blacks and whites are murder victims in roughly equal numbers — suggesting on its face that white victims are treated as disproportionately “valuable” by prosecutors, juries, and/or judges. This was, prospectively, the case with Warren McCleskey himself, an African American who in the course of an armed robbery had gunned down (or maybe not: see below) a white off-duty policeman.

McCleskey’s appellate team marshaled a statistical study by Iowa Prof. David Baldus indicating that black murderers (to a small extent) and killers of white victims (to a greater extent) were indeed more likely to receive a death sentence in Georgia, even when controlling for dozens of other variables. “According to this model,” wrote Justice Lewis Powell for the majority, “black defendants, such as McCleskey, who kill white victims have the greatest likelihood of receiving the death penalty.”

Though it accepted evidence of a discriminatory pattern,** the high court nevertheless ruled that McCleskey was not entitled to appellate relief unless he could demonstrate that that it was at work in his specific case.

And with some reason: the import of granting constitutional relief to a claim of “endemic racism in the system” would open a Pandora’s box of appeals from America’s burgeoning carceral state.

McCleskey’s claim, taken to its logical conclusion, throws into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system … if we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty.

Let justice be done though the heavens fall?† Not on our dime, buddy.

This reasoning too backtracked from equal protection concerns that had helped lead a similarly bare 5-4 majority to strike down then-existing capital statutes 15 years before in an appeal originating from the same state — Furman v. Georgia. That old regime had then been replaced with a death penalty system supposedly capable of minimizing arbitrariness. McCleskey served notice that justices wouldn’t be going out of their way to hunt arbitrariness any time soon.

The Court’s remaining liberal lions — it still had such a thing in 1987 — dissented furiously from McCleskey. William Brennan replied to the majority:

Warren McCleskey’s evidence confronts us with the subtle and persistent influence of the past. His message is a disturbing one to a society that has formally repudiated racism, and a frustrating one to a Nation accustomed to regarding its destiny as the product of its own will. Nonetheless, we ignore him at our peril, for we remain imprisoned by the past as long as we deny its influence in the present.

He also found “fear that recognition of McCleskey’s claim would open the door to widespread challenges … seems to suggest a fear of too much justice.”

mccleskey_presentation_314

Brennan was on the losing side of this judgment in a larger historical sense as well — at least, the brief span of history to unfold since Warren McCleskey sat in the electric chair.

McCleskey author Lewis Powell retired a few weeks after issuing it, and not long thereafter expressed regret for the McCleskey decision.‡ Relentless death penalty foes Brennan and Thurgood Marshall would hang up the spurs within a few years. (The circus Senate hearing to place Clarence Thomas in Thurgood Marshall’s seat was ongoing when Warren McCleskey finally died.)

But the deciding vote in McCleskey was cast by freshman Reagan-appointed justice Antonin Scalia, and he’s still going strong.

Scalia was then the Court’s emerging conservative paladin, though he was so new to the Court that McCleskey’s litigators hoped he might be amenable to their suit as a swing vote. Far from it: after Thurgood Marshall’s death in the early 1990s, his donated papers were found to contain a Scalia memo that rubbished the McCleskey majority’s mere consideration of the Baldus study.

I disagree with the argument that the inferences that can be drawn from the Baldus study are weakened by the fact that each jury and each trial is unique, or by the large number of variables at issue. And I do not share the view, implicit in [Powell’s draft opinion], that an effect of racial factors upon sentencing, if it could be shown by sufficiently strong statistical evidence, would require reversal.

Since it is my view that the unconscious operation of irrational sympathies and antipathies, including racial, upon jury decisions and (hence) prosecutorial [ones], is real, acknowledged by the [cases] of this court and ineradicable, I cannot honestly say that all I need is more proof.

Shorter Scalia: racism happens, so what?§ (Ultimately, Scalia opted not to file a separate opinion explicitly making this case; he just signed on to the majority opinion.)

As squishy regret-prone jurists have left Scalia’s Court since, and hard-right ideologues joined it, 1987’s militant reactionary is now one Rick Perry victory away from being the highest court’s median vote. Now that’s moving the Overton Window.

As one might imagine, death penalty jurisprudence at One First Street NE in these latter days has become correspondingly rougher — and the problems raised by McCleskey have scarcely abated.


Although the McCleskey case is what our day’s principal is best known for, he was also caught up in one of the more everyday — but not the less disreputable — toils of the system: the phony jailhouse informant. Very late in the appeals process, McCleskey’s lawyers were finally able to show that the fellow-prisoner who testified that McCleskey admitted the shooting to him was in fact a police plant operating on a quid pro quo to reduce his own sentence. (It’s amazing how often defendants spontaneously confess to these guys; the Troy Davis case which climaxed last week also featured a jailhouse snitch.) Somehow, prosecutors forgot all along to mention that arrangement even when directly asked.

The Supremes ruled, Kafkaesquely, that this issue was procedurally out of order because McCleskey hadn’t raised it earlier, neatly ignoring that the reason he hadn’t raised it was that prosecutors were actively concealing the fact. That’s the subject of the other SCOTUS case under our man’s name, McCleskey v. Zant.

(At issue was whether McCleskey was himself the triggerman. Since he was part of the robbery gang, he was legally on the hook for capital murder whether or not he personally fired the shot; but, his death sentence turned in reality on the jury’s belief that McCleskey was the individual killer — a detail supplied by the suspect police informant. None of McCleskey’s confederates faced execution.)

The final drama this date was a “chaotic” mess of last-minute legal maneuverings, with McCleskey strapped into the chair at one point, then interrupted from his last statement to be returned to his cell, then finally hauled back to the lethal device after an early-morning telephone poll of Supreme Court justices.

* Execution demographic counts via the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

** While the McCleskey court accepted Prof. Baldus’s statistical interpretations even while rejecting their constitutional import, a vigorous pro-death penalty case is made here against the reading that the modern American death penalty is racially discriminatory to any great extent.

† This Latin phrase — fiat justitia ruat caelum — is actually engraved above the sitting justices at the Georgia Supreme Court.

‡ The regret was about more than Warren McCleskey; Powell’s biographer described a complete change of heart in the June 23, 1994 New York Times:

when the retired Justice Powell said he had changed his mind about the McCleskey case, I thought he meant that he would now accept the [Baldus] statistical argument.

“No,” he replied, “I would vote the other way in any capital case … I have come to think that capital punishment should be abolished.” …

Justice Powell’s experience taught him that the death penalty cannot be decently administered. As actually enforced, capital punishment brings the law itself into disrepute.

§ See Dennis Dorin, “Far Right of the Mainstream: Racism, Rights, and Remedies from the Perspective of Justice Antonin Scalia’s McCleskey Memorandum,” Mercer Law Review, 1994.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Georgia,History,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1998: Cao Haixin, unwelcome meddler

Add comment September 25th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1998, the execution grounds settled a local political rivalry in China.

According to an upsetting 1999 Los Angeles Times feature, Cao Haixin had lately governed a small village that was being swallowed up by the sprawling Zhengzhou metropolis.

The previous village chief, Cao Xinbao, had profiteered gleefully from his run at the top with sweetheart deals on rapidly appreciating real estate for himself and his connections.

Cao Haixin, a reformist farmer, beat Cao Xinbao at the polls in 1995 and set about making unwelcome inquiries into the whereabouts of millions of yuan … at which point a goon squad of the ancien regime led by Cao Xinbao’s own brother actually invaded Cao Haixin’s home looking to intimidate or murder him. No subtlety needed.

Instead, the mayor grabbed a hunting rifle and killed his predecessor’s brother in the affray.

Astonishingly, Cao Haixin was the man arrested for this incident, and sentenced to death in a provincial court seemingly stacked with Cao Xinbao allies. A Zhengzhou municipal judge reportedly told one of the condemned man’s many supporters that local village officials had on a full-court press for execution as the case worked its way through the system.

Eventually — after a few cycles of appeals to the Supreme Court, which in turn fruitlessly referred inquiries back to those very village officials who wanted him dead — Cao Haixin was executed in secret. The next day’s news announcement reported nine executions, but listed only eight names.

The problem, analysts say, is that the national and provincial governments are dependent on local strongmen such as Cao Xinbao to implement the state’s basic rural policies concerning land, grain and taxes. Local cadres’ control of these policies affords them ample opportunities to line their own pockets.

These strongmen often wear the multiple hats of local clan leader, village chief and party boss. They often have a corrosive influence on China’s fledgling village election system, leaving peasants with little recourse to justice.

Today, the faith of many of the villagers–faith in the law, in China’s future and in themselves–lies shattered.

Cao Haixin’s widow and 14-year-old daughter struggle to survive. Many of the villagers, lawyers and journalists who fought for more than two years to stop Cao’s execution remain depressed and cowed.

“I feel powerless and frustrated,” said one of Cao’s lawyers. “I ask myself, did I help to deceive the masses by even participating in this sham trial?”

Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17, 1999

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Politicians,Power,Shot,Wrongful Executions

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2007: Michael Richard, whose time ran out

3 comments September 25th, 2009 Headsman

Two years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court unexpectedly accepted a case, Baze v. Rees, challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection — the supposedly humane execution method that seemed less and less so.

Texas inmate Michael Richard, condemned for raping and murdering Marguerite Dixon in 1986, was slated to die that very evening, also by lethal injection.

As Richard’s Texas Defender Service lawyers scrambled to prepare a last-minute legal challenge based on the pending Supreme Court case — for how could Texas carry out a procedure whose constitutionality was in question? — they tripped over an unexpected stretch of red tape that ultimately claimed their client’s life:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals closed at 5 p.m. on the day of the scheduled 6 p.m. execution, and refused to accept an appeal filed a few minutes after 5.

Or more specifically, Judge Sharon Keller refused to accept the appeal, for which she came under immediate fire — and launched campaigns like the website SharonKiller.com.

This bizarre situation, complicated by the fact that the Lone Star State did not have written rules for handling last-minute appeals (it does now), has a thicket of procedural detail best appreciated by lawyers.

But it caught worldwide attention as an illustration of Texas’s cavalier approach to its numerous death penalty cases.

Keller, who has what you might say is an inordinate regard for “finality” (and for prosecutors), has herself been forced to defend her conduct in hearings of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Those hearings could result in her removal from the bench over this incident; a decision is expected soon. (Update: She skated.)

Though it was not completely clear for a few more weeks, it was in fact true that the pending Baze decision suspended the death penalty in the United States. As a result, Michael Richard — whose execution would have been stayed had the appeal entered the judicial system — was the last American put to death until May of 2008.

On this day..

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

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