1984: Ernest Dobbert, child abuser

Add comment September 7th, 2009 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florida Governor Bob Graham agreed.

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

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

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

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

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,Murder,USA

Tags: , , , , , ,

1943: 186 prisoners at Plotzensee Prison

1 comment September 7th, 2008 Headsman

As dark fell on the evening of September 7, 1943, a mass execution of 186 death row prisoners — including six with unresolved clemency appeals — began at Berlin’s bomb-damaged Plotzensee Prison, continuing by candlelight until the following morning.

An Allied air raid the night of September 3-4 had struck the facility, allowing four prisoners to escape and damaging the guillotine and execution shed where sentences were normally carried out. Coincidentally, that had come hours after Hitler had (as was his wont, in common with many a politician to the present day) castigated the judiciary for the dilatory rigmarole that allowed the condemned to delay their fate with legal appeals.

Converging circumstances generated sensible elite consensus:

That is the last thing we need, that after the air raids a few hundred condemned to death would be let loose on the population in the Reich capital.
-Goebbels

Instead, at the order of Reich Minister of Justice Otto George Thierack, cases were quickly tied up for a night of mass hangings.

Protestant pastor Harold Poelchau described (pdf) what he witnessed.

As darkness fell on September 7 the mass murders began. The night was cold. Every now and then the darkness was lit up by exploding bombs. The beams of the searchlights danced across the sky. The men were assembled in several columns one behind the other. They stood there, at first uncertain about what was going to happen to them. Then they realized. Eight men at a time were called by name and led away. Those remaining hardly moved at all. Only an occasional whisper with my Catholic colleague and myself … Once the executioners interrupted their work because bombs thundered down nearby. The five rows of eight men already lined up had to be confined to their cells again for a while. Then the murdering continued. All these men were hanged. … The executions had to be carried out by candlelight because the electric light had failed. It was only in the early morning at about eight o’clock that the exhausted executioners paused in their work, only to continue with renewed strength in the evening.

And as Poelchau intimates, the fearful harvest of September 7-8 was not the end of the massacre. Dozens more followed over the ensuing days, for a total of more than 250 executions at Plotzensee September 7-12.

Notable among the victims was 27-year-old German-Dutch concert pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, memorialized at this German page. He’d been a little too loose with his distaste for Hitler and been arrested on the eve of a concert a few months before.

In 2003, Dutch composer Rudi Martinus van Dijk debuted his Kreiten’s Passion, an excerpt fo which can be enjoyed on the composer’s homepage.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Summary Executions,Theft,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Next Posts


Calendar

September 2019
M T W T F S S
« Aug    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!