1987: Jimmy Glass, electrocution appellant

June 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1987, Jimmy L. Glass died in Louisiana’s electric chair — having come one vote short of having the device declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The 20-year-old Glass escaped from a parish jail with fellow inmate Jimmy Wingo on Christmas Eve, 1982, robbing and murdering an elderly couple in the process. Each blamed the other; both got the chair.*

But should they have?

Glass would lend his name to a landmark 1985 Supreme Court decision contesting Louisiana’s method of execution.

By a 5-4 decision, the high court held that electrocution, still at that point the country’s prevailing method of execution despite its medieval reputation for grisly botches, remained a constitutional method of inflicting death.

Liberal Justice William Brennan‘s vigorous dissent from that judgment is not for the squeamish. (For readability, I’ve added emphasis and removed the many citations in the original.)

[E]vidence suggests that death by electrical current is extremely violent and inflicts pain and indignities far beyond the “mere extinguishment of life.” Witnesses routinely report that, when the switch is thrown, the condemned prisoner “cringes,” “leaps,” and ” ‘fights the straps with amazing strength.’ ” “The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands.” The prisoner’s limbs, fingers, toes, and face are severely contorted. The force of the electrical current is so powerful that the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and “rest on [his] cheeks.” The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool.

“The body turns bright red as its temperature rises,” and the prisoner’s “flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking.” Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire, particularly “if [he] perspires excessively.” Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound ” like bacon frying,” and “the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh” permeates the chamber. This “smell of frying human flesh in the immediate neighbourhood of the chair is sometimes bad enough to nauseate even the Press representatives who are present.” In the meantime, the prisoner almost literally boils: “the temperature in the brain itself approaches the boiling point of water,” and when the postelectrocution autopsy is performed “the liver is so hot that doctors have said that it cannot be touched by the human hand.” The body frequently is badly burned and disfigured.

The violence of killing prisoners through electrical current is frequently explained away by the assumption that death in these circumstances is instantaneous and painless. This assumption, however, in fact “is open to serious question” and is “a matter of sharp conflict of expert opinion.” Throughout the 20th century a number of distinguished electrical scientists and medical doctors have argued that the available evidence strongly suggests that electrocution causes unspeakable pain and suffering. Because ” ‘[t]he current flows along a restricted path into the body, and destroys all the tissue confronted in this path . . . [i]n the meantime the vital organs may be preserved; and pain, too great for us to imagine, is induced. . . . For the sufferer, time stands still; and this excruciating torture seems to last for an eternity.‘ ” L.G.V. Rota, a renowned French electrical scientist, concluded after extensive research that

“[i]n every case of electrocution, . . . death inevitably supervenes but it may be very long, and above all, excruciatingly painful . . . . [T]he space of time before death supervenes varies according to the subject. Some have a greater physiological resistance than others. I do not believe that anyone killed by electrocution dies instantly, no matter how weak the subject may be. In certain cases death will not have come about even though the point of contact of the electrode with the body shows distinct burns. Thus, in particular cases, the condemned person may be alive and even conscious for several minutes without it being possible for a doctor to say whether the victim is dead or not. . . . This method of execution is a form of torture.”

At least neither the juridical near miss nor Brennan’s graphic description of his impending manner of death dented Jimmy’s sense of humor. Asked for his last words, the “swaggering” inmate, already strapped in the chair, replied

Yeah, I think I’d rather be fishing.

Luckily for Carlisle United, he’s not the same guy as journeyman goaltender Jimmy Glass, who in 1999 improbably struck home one of the greatest goals in English football history.

* Wingo was put to death four days after Glass.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Gallows Humor,Louisiana,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Theft,USA

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1993: Leonel Herrera, perilously close to simple murder?

6 comments May 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1993, Leonel Herrera was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas, for shooting two policemen. Herrera’s last statement averred,

Herrera’s sister Norma self-published this book about the case — keeping a promise to her executed brother.

I am innocent, innocent, innocent. Make no mistake about this; I owe society nothing. Continue the struggle for human rights, helping those who are innocent, especially Mr. Graham. I am an innocent man, and something very wrong is taking place tonight. May God bless you all. I am ready.

Well, Herrera wasn’t the first to go to his death maintaining his innocence. The circumstances (and circumstantial evidence) of the crime rate on the forgettable side.

But Leonel Torres Herrera was a bit different from his cousins in hopeless protestation: while he died this evening, his name lived on … in a landmark Supreme Court decision

Herrera v. Collins

Years after Herrera was convicted and death-sentenced, multiple affidavits were produced to the effect that his late brother, Raul, was the real killer.

This evidence was naturally pursued with gusto by the condemned man.

Unfortunately, a claim like Herrera’s of “actual innocence” faces a very high bar when raised in appellate courts, once a prisoner has already been convicted and their presumption of innocence become a presumption of guilt.

That this arbitrary rule of the game has a defensible rationale — could any criminal justice system operate if prisoners could continually relitigate their cases while memories fade and evidence ages into obsolescence? — does not make it the less Kafkaesque for individual prisoners, some of whom are in fact innocent.

Herrera presented this problem in unusually stark terms. Lacking any procedural violation upon which to hang his hat as an appeals issue, his claim pitted substance against form in the Supreme Court. (Oral arguments at Oyez.org)

You already know how it ended.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s opinion patiently explained a jurisprudential truism loftily uncolored by any experience in life liable to introduce a sense of kinship with a Hispanic man charged with a Texas cop-killing who uncovers too late the evidence that could save him.

“[A]ctual innocence” is not itself a constitutional claim.*

Instead, the Court recommended — tongue no doubt planted firmly in cheek — that Herrera apply for executive clemency, a dead letter procedure in Texas used exclusively in a good cop/bad cop routine opposite the black robes.

“Judicial restraint forbids relieving you,” says the court. “Go ask the governor.”

“The courts have thoroughly reviewed the case,” intones the governor. “May God have mercy on your soul.”

Herrera himself may or may not have been innocent. At the end of the day, he went down because the game was rigged against him: his exculpatory evidence was not available at trial, when it might have introduced “reasonable doubt” — as Rehnquist’s opinion put it, “in state criminal proceedings the trial is the paramount event for determining the guilt or innocence of the defendant.” Once that evidence became available deep in the appeals process, it was procedurally barred, and far from such a slam-dunk exoneration that any institutional actor would stick his, her or its neck out to lift Leonel Torres Herrera from the gurney.

Justice Harry Blackmun’s dissent retorted,

Just as an execution without adequate safeguards is unacceptable, so too is an execution when the condemned prisoner can prove that he is innocent. The execution of a person who can show that he is innocent comes perilously close to simple murder.

Whether “simple murder” happened in Huntsville this night in 1993, perhaps no one can really say with certainty.

But as DNA evidence and other forensic advances in the intervening years have increasingly eroded confidence in the reliability of the justice system that metes out death, Herrera v. Collins stands as a key precedent in a case now before the Supreme Court — in which states (joined by the Obama administration) are asking the justices to agree that convicted prisoners have no right to cheap, simple, and frequently dispositive DNA testing that may not have been available when they were tried.

Given the composition of the court (including three holdovers from the Herrera majority), that decision figures to have Leonel Herrera rolling over in his grave.

* Rehnquist conceded a theoretical possibility that extraordinarily persuasive evidence could generate relief on due process grounds. Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas went much further, claiming that prisoners had no right to anything but their trial and their (procedural) appeals.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Innocent Bystanders,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1947: Willie Francis, this time successfully

8 comments May 9th, 2009 Gilbert King

(Thanks to Gilbert King, author of The Execution of Willie Francis (book site), for the guest post, the second of two. Read the first here.)

On May 9, 1947, Willie Francis was executed in the same electric chair that he had walked away from a year and a week earlier, when a drunken prison guard and trustee bungled the wiring. Willie’s story had made front-page headlines around the country as the United States Supreme Court grappled with questions about what the State of Louisiana was permitted to do with regard to double jeopardy and cruel and unusual punishments.

One of the things that drew me to this story as I was working on my book, The Execution of Willie Francis, was the shroud of secrecy that surrounded the Willie Francis case.

Willie was accused and convicted of killing 53-year-old Andrew Thomas, a Cajun pharmacist who was something of a mystery to the people in the small town of St. Martinville, Louisiana. Thomas’ brother Claude was the town’s chief of police, and Willie was convicted by twelve Cajun jurors and sentenced to death by a Cajun judge. His court-appointed attorneys neither called nor cross examined any witnesses, and did not even make a case in defense of their 16-year-old client.

The prosecution based its entire case on a confession obtained while Willie was in police custody without the aid of a lawyer. In this confession, Willie wrote, “it was a secret about me and him,” which was never explained. It was obvious to me that there was more to Willie’s story than the version presented in trial and to the public.

In my research, I came across a photograph taken on the evening Willie had survived his own execution. He’d been brought back to his cell, and the sheriff allowed reporters and a photographer to visit with Willie, where he told them that death tasted “like peanut butter” and looked a lot “like shines in a rooster’s tail.” The photographer asked for a few pictures, and Willie, holding his dog-eared Bible, stood in front of a dull pink wall. The flash fired.

This picture was never used by any of the newspapers. There was a lot of glare on the wall, and the photographer had gotten a much better one of Willie smiling — the picture that ended up on the front page of many newspapers the next day. But there was some writing on the wall image that was barely legible. I scanned it onto my computer and ran it through Photoshop, adding contrast and burning and dodging until the words could be read. The handwriting matched Willie’s.


Detail of the enhanced photograph. Click for the full image.

Not surprisingly, the sheriff had testified under oath that Willie had confessed to killing Andrew Thomas in writing on the wall of his cell a month before he was scheduled to die in the chair. But the Sheriff had also taken Willie’s words out of context, reading only select portions of the writing, and mischaracterizing others. In fact, Willie Francis, just as he had when he wrote in his confession that “it was a secret about me and him,” alluded to something different than the robbery-turned killing prosecutors accused him of. Willie wrote, “Practically I killed Andrew by accident. It will happen once in a life time”

Only two people know the truth about that fateful confrontation at the house of the Cajun bachelor and the black teenager who once worked for him. Both are dead, and the official story does not ring true. Willie Francis never denied killing Andrew Thomas. But he disputed the prosecution’s accusation that he was trying to rob the pharmacist. “I wasn’t after money,” Willie insisted to a reporter before he went to the chair a second time. Yet he would never elaborate, and took whatever “secret” there was between him and Thomas to his grave.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Louisiana,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1786: Hannah Ocuish, age 12

19 comments December 20th, 2008 Caitlin GD Hopkins

(Thanks to Caitlin at Vast Public Indifference for the guest post -ed.)

On December 20, 1786, the Sheriff of New London, Conn., led a distraught 12-year-old girl to the gallows, placed a rope around her neck, and hanged her in front of a crowd of spectators. The girl was Hannah Ocuish, a young member of the Pequot nation. She was charged with the murder of six-year-old Eunice Bolles, a white girl with whom Hannah had quarreled the previous summer.

While it is difficult to get a clear picture of Hannah’s life from the available sources, it is clear that hers was not a comfortable existence. An appendix to Rev. Henry Channing’s execution sermon notes that Hannah’s mother was “an abandoned creature, much addicted to the vice of drunkenness,” who sent Hannah to work as a servant in a white family’s home. At the age of six, Hannah was accused of beating a white child while trying to steal her necklace. The anonymous author describes Hannah’s character thus:

Her conduct, as appeared in evidence before the honorable Superior Court was marked with almost every thing bad. Theft and lying were her common vices. To these were added a maliciousness of disposition which made the children in the neighborhood much afraid of her. She had a degree of artful cunning and sagacity beyond many of her years.

This description, expressed in terms designed to emphasize the importance of training children in obedience, may or may not be accurate. Regardless, all evidence suggests that Hannah was alone in a hostile world.

On July 21, 1786, someone found Eunice Bolles’ body at the side of the road outside Norwich, Conn. The corpse displayed signs of extreme trauma: “the head and body were mangled in a shocking manner, the back and one arm broken, and a number of heavy stones placed on the body, arms and legs.” Investigators questioned Hannah, who initially denied any involvement, but mentioned that she had seen a group of boys on the road earlier. The town officials did not believe her. On July 22, “she was closely questioned, but repeatedly denied that she was guilty.” Still unconvinced, the investigators “carried [Hannah] to the house where the body lay, and being charged with the crime, burst into tears and confessed that she killed her, saying if she could be forgiven she would never do so again.”

Hannah’s confession, which was accepted as truth by the court, indicated that she had sought revenge on Eunice because the younger girl had “complained of her in strawberry time … for taking away her strawberries.” When Hannah saw Eunice walking to school alone, she beat and choked her, covering the body with rocks “to make people think that the wall fell upon her and killed her.”

Rev. Henry Channing, a talented local minister, visited Hannah in prison many times, urging her to repent so that her soul might be spared. On the day of her execution, he delivered a thundering sermon entitled, God Admonishing His People of Their Duty as Parents and Masters, which held Hannah up as an example of what could happen if parents did not raise their children to be “dutiful and obedient.”

Her crimes, he argued, were the “natural consequences of too great parental indulgence,” and warned that “appetites and passions unrestrained in childhood become furious in youth; and ensure dishonour, disease and an untimely death.” In the portion of the sermon directed at Hannah herself, Channing did his best to scare her into repentance:

HANNAH! — prisoner at the bar– agreeably to the laws of the land you have arraigned, tried and convicted of the crime of murder … The good and safety of society requires, that no one, of such a malignant character, shall be suffered to live, and the punishment of death is but the just demerit of your crime: and the sparing you on account of your age, would, as the law says, be of dangerous consequence to the publick, by holding up an idea, that children might commit such atrocious crimes with impunity … And you must consider that after death you must undergo another trial, infinitely more solemn and awful than what you have here passed through, before that God against whom you offended; at whose bar the deceased child will appear as a swift witness against you — And you will be condemned and consigned to an everlasting punishment, unless you now obtain a pardon, by confessing and sincerely repenting of your sins, and applying to his sovereign grace, through the merits of his Son, Jesus Christ, for mercy, who is able and willing to save the greatest offenders, who repent and believe in him.

At her trial in October, Hannah “appeared entirely unconcerned,” but as the date of her execution approached, she began to show fear. In early December, visitors began to ask her how long she had to live, and Hannah “would tell the Number of her Days with manifest Agitation.” On December 19th, she “appeared in great Distress . . . and continued in Tears most of the Day, and until her Execution.” Witnesses to her execution reported that Hannah “seemed greatly afraid when at the Gallows.” With her last words, she “thanked the Sheriff for his kindness, and launched into the eternal World.”

In the United States, the youngest children put to death by the government have all be children of color. James Arcene, a Cherokee boy, was only 10 or 11 years old when he was hanged for committed a robbery and murder that resulted in his 1885 hanging in Arkansas.* At 12, Hannah Ocuish was the youngest female offender executed by any state. In the 20th century, the youngest children executed were both African-American: 13-year-old Fortune Ferguson of Florida (1927) and 14-year-old George Stinney of South Carolina (1944).

In 2005, the United States Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for criminals who committed their crimes as juveniles (Roper v. Simmons). The court split 5-4, with Jutices Scalia, O’Connor, Thomas, and Chief Justice Rehnquist dissenting. In his dissent, Justice Scalia excoriated the majority for considering international consensus (along with the laws of 30 of the 50 U.S. states) on the cruelty of executing children under the age of 18 when determining the standard for “cruel and unusual.” Justice Scalia, an avowed proponent of Constitutional originalism, proclaimed, “I do not believe that the meaning of our Eighth Amendment, any more than the meaning of other provisions of our Constitution, should be determined by the subjective views of five Members of this Court and like-minded foreigners.”

* This post originally asserted that Arcene was a juvenile when hanged. In fact, he was (or claimed to have been) 10 years old or so at the time he committed the crime, but was not tried and hanged until over a decade later. (This is corrected in the Arcene post.) -ed.

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2003: Paul Hill, anti-abortion martyr

22 comments September 3rd, 2008 Headsman

Five years ago today, minister Paul Hill was put to death by lethal injection for murdering an abortion provider and a clinic escort nine years before.

Hill rose to prominence in the early 1990’s as a fire-eating abortion foe, who openly preached the righteousness of defending unborn life by force — a divisive position among anti-abortion activists that got him excommunicated from the Presbyterian church.

On July 29, 1994, in the abortion conflict’s ground-zero of Pensacola, Fla., Hill put his theology into action by gunning down Dr. John Britton and his septuagenarian escort, along with Britton’s wife (who survived the shooting).

Creepy. It sure looks like the song and image pairings were done in earnest, not in irony.

He never betrayed the least scruple about his act, hoping only to use his trial to present a “justifiable homicide” defense; the judge’s suppression of this line was and remains a grievance of Hill’s fellow-travelers against the judiciary.

Nor did Hill betray the least concern to die for his beliefs; if anything, in dropping appeals that would at the least have prolonged his life, he cut a figure thirsty for the martyrdom he attained this day.

To what end?

Hill left a plentiful documentary record — like this manifesto, among the pro-Hill documents collected on the Army of God website:

I knew that [killing an abortion provider] would uphold the truths of the gospel at the precise point of Satan’s current attack (the abortionist’s knife). While most Christians firmly profess the duty to defend born children with force (which is not yet being disputed by the government) most of these professors have neglected the duty to similarly defend the unborn. They are steady all along the battleline except at the point where the enemy has broken through. I was certain that if I took my stand at this point, others would join with me, and the Lord would eventually bring about a great victory.

One can question whether this proved to be the case or not. The infamy (in most circles) of the killing arguably dampened enthusiasm for the cause, at least as measured by the sulfur level on clinic sidewalks. At the same time, Hill’s was only the most spectacular instance of a campaign to terrorize abortion providers that drove many out of business and made some areas of the country virtual abortion-free zones.

Whatever may have surprised him about the way the issue played out over the 1990’s, he was serene about his choices when interviewed the day before his execution.

To some in the movement, he’s a holy martyr, the John Brown of slavery’s modern-day parallel.

And even if Paul Hill’s name is taboo in the respectable public discourse of abortion today, with four relatively young rock-ribbed anti-Roe v. Wade votes now entrenched at the Supreme Court, it’s far from obvious that Hill won’t get what he was after all along … even if he didn’t live to see it.

Part of the Themed Set: Judging Abortion.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Activists,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Florida,God,History,Infamous,Lethal Injection,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Terrorists,USA

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1989: Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr., “just hope that he was not conscious”

29 comments July 14th, 2008 Headsman

Minutes after midnight this date in 1989, Alabama’s executioners electrocuted a developmentally disabled murderer. Nine minutes later, after rewiring the chair, they finally managed to kill him.

Alabama’s fifth execution of the “modern” era initially made the headlines as the nation’s first execution of a mentally impaired prisoner after the Supreme Court’s controversial Penry v. Lynaugh decision (since overturned) green-lighted the death penalty for developmentally disabled defendants.

Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr. and an accomplice had raped a mother of four, tied her to a tree, and stabbed her to death, an unquestionably horrific crime. A black man with a white victim deep in Dixie … well, his IQ in the high sixties wasn’t going to help him do anything but waive his right to remain silent. The jury at his trial didn’t hear about his borderline mental retardation — Penry would require that juries get that information in the future — and at least one juror later said that little tidbit would have made the difference in Dunkins’s case.

At any rate, the buzz in this morning’s papers wasn’t about the circumstances of Dunkins’s entry into the criminal justice system, but his clumsy exit from it into the great hereafter.

According to the account of a Dr. John Vanlandingham:*

I saw Dunkins in the electric chair and I heard the generator start…. After a short period of time the other doctor … and I were called into the execution chamber. I could see that Dunkins was breathing…. I checked his peripheral pulse, in his wrist, and it was normal. I listened to his heart and his heartbeat was strong with little irregularity…. I told an official that Dunkins was not dead. Dr. – and I returned to the witness room…. I again heard the generator begin.

“I believe we’ve got the jacks on wrong,” the prison guard captain called out. It was flatly not enough current to kill, although it apparently did the killer the favor of knocking him out.

From 12:08 to 12:17, Dunkins sat motionless and seemingly unconscious while the execution team went all MacGyver on Yellow Mama. Once they’d fit Tab A into Slot B into Lethal Electrode C, they were finally able to try again. The doctors pronounced death 19 minutes after the switch had first been thrown.

”I regret very very much what happened,” the Alabama Prison Commissioner, Morris Thigpen, said at a news conference after the execution. ”It was human error. I just hope that he was not conscious and did not suffer.” (The New York Times)

* Dr. Vanlandingham was participating in the execution despite an injunction by the American Medical Association, which considers it a violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Physicians’ involvement (or not) in executions is a thorny ethical issue of its own; Vanlandingham, however, is not the only doctor to break the taboo.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,Milestones,Murder,USA

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