1951: The first four of the Martinsville seven

2 comments February 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1951, the first of two batches comprising the “Martinsville Seven” — black, all — went to the Virginia electric chair for gang-raping a white woman. (The remainder were executed on Feb. 5)


Newspaper scan (click for larger image) via Mr. Beaverhousen (cc).

Somewhat forgotten today, the Martinsville Seven were in their day the locus of radical activism against Jim Crow in the South — very much like Willie McGee, who was put to death in Louisiana later that same year.

In fact, this case generated a bit of a legal milestone: a month before the executions began, the U.S. Supreme Court declined an appeal seeking relief on the then-novel grounds of equal protection — rather than due process.

The argument was that the Old Dominion’s superficially race-neutral rape statute was anything but; that argument was buttressed by data showing that Virginia had executed 45 black men for raping white women from 1908 to 1950, but never once in that period executed any white man for raping a black woman. (The high court only declined to take the appeal; it wouldn’t get around to explicitly ruling equal protection claims based on racial patterns out of bounds until 1987’s McCleskey v. Kemp.)

This seems to be the debut use for this gambit, bound to become an increasingly powerful one both in and out of the courtroom during the civil rights movement.

And it was available — and necessary — here because the Martinsville Seven basically looked guilty as sin. Their confessions and the victim’s accusation and the testimony of a young eyewitness said that, drink-addled, they had opportunistically grabbed a white Jehovah’s Witness housewife when she was proselytizing on the wrong side of the tracks.

Eric Rise, author of The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment, noted in a scholarly article,*

certain striking characteristics distinguished the proceedings from classic “legal lynchings.” The evidence presented at trial clearly proved that nonconsensual sexual intercourse with the victim had taken place. All seven defendants admitted their presence at the scene, and although some of the men may not have actually consummated the act … The prosecution emphasized the preservation of community stability, not the protection of southern womanly virtues, as the dominant concern of Martinsville’s white citizens. Most significant, the trial judge made a concerted effort to mute the racial overtones of the trials. Although white juries decided each case, blacks appeared in every jury pool. Race-baiting by prosecutors and witnesses, notably evident at Scottsboro and other similar trials, was absent from the Martinsville proceedings. By diligently adhering to procedural requirements, the court attempted to try the case “as though both parties were members of the same race.”**

The standard playbook for fighting a “legal lynching” case was leveraging outrage over a plausibly innocent convict and an outrageous kangaroo court.†

Paradoxically, by taking these elements out of the mix (relatively speaking), the Martinsville Seven perfectly isolated the extreme harshness of the penalty and the structural discrimination under which it was imposed. The NAACP took up the case on appeal strictly for its discriminatory characteristics, steering for its part completely clear of any “actual innocence” argument.

These challenges posed discomfiting questions that jurists shrank away from. The Virginia Supreme Court, in denying an equal protection application, fretted that actual legal relief could mean that “no Negroes could be executed unless a certain number of white people” were, too. Timeless.

Though a later U.S. Supreme Court would completely overturn death-sentencing for rape, based in part on its overwhelming racial slant, justices have generally avoided meddling to redress broad statistical patterns rather than identifiable process violations specific to particular cases.

Those questions of substantive — rather than merely procedural — equality in the justice system remain potently unresolved, still part of Americans’ lived experience of the law from death row to the drug war to driving while black. As if to underscore the point in this instance, just two days prior to the first Martinsville executions, the Wall Street bankster acting as American proconsul in conquered Germany pardoned imprisoned Nazi industrialist Alfried Krupp, and restored him to the fortune he had amassed working Jewish slaves to death during the war. It was a very particular quality of mercy the U.S. showed the world in those days. (The Martinsville case was known, and protested, worldwide.)

Carol Steiker (she used to clerk for liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall, who as an NAACP lawyer worked on the Martinsville case) argues‡ that the Martinsville Seven’s legacy is linked to their later obscurity, for “[t]heir attempt to present statistical proof of discrimination in capital sentencing represents a ‘road not taken'” — neither in 1951, nor since.

The road taken instead had Joe Henry Hampton, 22, Howard Hairston, 21, Booker Millner, 22 and Frank Hairston, 19 electrocuted one by one this morning in 1951. Their three co-accused, John Clabon Taylor, 24, James Luther Hairston, 23, and Francis DeSales Grayson, 40, followed them on February 5.

* “Race, Rape, and Radicalism: The Case of the Martinsville Seven, 1949-1951” in The Journal of Southern History, Aug., 1992.

** This quote an actual trial admonishment of the judge, Kennon Whittle.

† Graded on a curve: this is still Jim Crow Virginia. Six trials were wrapped up at warp speed in 11 days, with a total of 72 jurors — each one white. The implied comparison is something along the lines of, all seven tried together in the course of an afternoon, with a good ol’ boy defense attorney mailing it in.

‡ Review of Rise’s book titled “Remembering Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment” in the Virginia Law Review, Apr., 1997

On this day..

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

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

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

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

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: , , , , , ,


Calendar

December 2018
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31  

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!