Posts filed under 'Oklahoma'

1843: Jacob West, Ridge-Watie faction assassin

Add comment October 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1843, the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma hanged Jacob West for an election-related murder.

The affair was part of the bloody factional conflict among Cherokee following the Trail of Tears expulsion from ancestral homelands in the American southeast. We’ve touched previously on this conflict in our post on Archilla Smith, the first man executed in the new Cherokee lands. Indeed, West’s victim was the man who prosecuted Archilla Smith, a fellow by the name of Isaac Bushyhead.*

Both that previous hanged man Smith and this date’s principal, Jacob West, were affiliated to the RidgeWatie faction — Cherokee who had signed the controversial treaty acceding to removal. It’s a fair supposition that the growing U.S. would have ethnically cleansed the Cherokee in the east no matter what, but in the event, it was this treaty that supplied the legal basis for doing so. For obvious reasons, the faction aligned with it was not universally popular.

That’s especially so given their opposition by the Cherokee principal chief, John Ross — the nation’s great statesman in the mid-19th century who refused to sign off on removal. For several years in the early 1840s, recriminations between the Ridge-Watie and Ross factions boiled frequently over into violence.

No surprise, then, that we find in R. Michael Wilson’s Legal Executions in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma Including the Indian Territory: A Comprehensive History a deadly attack in the co

On August 8, 1843, following the biennial elections, Jacob West led a party of six men, including sons George and John West, in an attack on three election judges counting ballots in the Saline District. During the melee that followed George West stabbed Isaac Bushyhead, who had been the prosecutor of [Archilla] Smith, killing him, and all the men beat David Vann, treasurer, and Elijah Hicks, associate Judge of the Cherokee Supreme Court, but Vann and Hicks survived and recovered. A large crowd finally surged forward and captured Jacob and John West, but George and the other three men escaped.

West, a born U.S. citizen who had married into and long lived among the Cherokee, in his own turn appealed to the federal government for a writ of habeas corpus to escape his neighbors’ jurisdiction. It was a case potentially implicating many of the thorny questions of citizenship and sovereignty that have haunted federal-tribal relationships for generations.

Future U.S. president Zachary Taylor, then the commander of the frontier military district surrounding the Cherokee lands, forwarded West’s petitions sympathetically to the U.S. Supreme Court. The courts preferred the reply of the Cherokee official who wrote,

Jacob West has resided in the Cherokee nation, as a citizen thereof, between thirty and forty years, enjoying the benefits of the laws of the nation in every respect during the above period, and has raised a tolerable numerous family of Cherokee children since his residence among us; and although his wife is dead, he is still a citizen of our country, by virtue of our laws and customs … If Jacob West were nothing more than a transient citizen among us, the case would be different; but his expatriating himself from his own country, marrying among the Cherokees, raising a family, remaining among us, participating in our funds, enjoying the benefits of treaties, make it appear he is a citizen of the country.

Jacob West was hanged at Tahlequah on October 11. Four days later, his son John West was publicly flogged for the same crime. In between those two days, John Ross enacted packages of new legislation meant to control the destabilizing political violence abroad, authorizing new policing bodies and harsher penalties for hiding fugitives.

* There’s a recent biography about Bushyhead’s brother, minister Jesse Bushyhead.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Oklahoma,Power,Public Executions,USA

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2006: James Malicoat, little Pranzini

Add comment August 31st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 2006, James Malicoat was executed in Oklahoma for beating to death his 13-month-old daughter.

As a criminal case, the matter was open-and-shut. “Malicoat admitted hitting Leadford’s head on a dresser a few days before she died and punching her twice in the stomach the day she died, causing her to stop breathing,” the Oklahoma Attorney General’s statement noted. “Malicoat used CPR to revive her before lying down beside her to take a nap. When he awoke, Malicoat noticed Leadford was dead. He put her in her crib and covered her with a blanket before going back to sleep. When Leadford’s mother returned from work, the couple rushed the child to the emergency room, but staff there determined she had been dead for several hours.” The killer never attempted to deny what he had done; even at his clemency hearing, he didn’t request mercy.

While his case made its ponderous path through the judiciary, Malicoat came into the correspondence of a Benedictine monk from a nearby monastery.

“When I first saw the crime, I thought, ‘He needs a friend more than the others. Everyone is going to shrink back because the crime was so horrendous,'” said Brother Vianney-Marie Graham in this moving profile of the two men’s relationship, which spanned the last five years of Malicoat’s life.

In long letters and intermittent visits, Graham coaxed the already-penitent Malicoat towards a spiritual catharsis — often calling him “my little Pranzini” in reference to an inspiration for his mission, the condemned 19th century French murderer Henri Pranzini whose soul was famously won for God by the ministry of Saint Therese of Lisieux. By coincidence — or was it more? — Pranzini and Malicoat shared an August 31 execution date.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Oklahoma,USA

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2012: Michael Selsor

Add comment May 1st, 2020 Headsman

Al Jazeera journalist Josh Rushing witnessed the May 1, 2012 execution of Oklahoma murderer Michael Selsor, after having interviewed that inmate for a documentary two years prior. He filed this report:

The full 2010 interview Rushing excerpts is transcribed here, part of the presentation of the Fault Lines documentary that originally brought killer and scribbler together.

Selsor’s case was distinguished by a legal oddity concerning the shifting status of the death penalty since the time of his crimes way back in 1975: originally death-sentenced under a statute that was vacated in 1976, he was in non-death row prison when he won an appeal in 1998 — and the resulting retrial enabled Oklahoma to seek the death penalty again under its updated legal regime.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Oklahoma,USA

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1896: The Rufus Buck Gang, heaven-dream’t

Add comment July 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1896, the Rufus Buck Gang was hanged at Fort Smith, Arkansas for a two-week spree of violence against white Oklahoma settlers.

More about this novelization is available on this companion website.

After doing a 90-day turn in Judge Isaac Parker‘s jail for selling liquor, the half-Creek, half-Black teenager Rufus Buck emerged violently politicized — “enraged by what he considered the theft of Indian lands. He decided it was his duty to rid the land of those who, in his eyes, did not belong”

If his theory of resistance was naive, the grievance was real enough. Earlier that century the Creeks of the American Southeast had been made to quaff humiliation by the emerging United States, and expelled with many other indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands to present-day Oklahoma; in Buck’s own lifetime, this remnant Indian Territory was itself being positioned for takeover by white settlement.

Buck gathered four other youngsters to his banner and from July 28, 1895 — when they slew a U.S. marshal — until their capture on August 10 they gave vent to rage and despair in a spree of robberies, murders, and rapes consciously directed at white settlers. This hopeless paroxysm of violence, almost precisely contemporary with suppression of the Ghost Dance movement and the official closing of the American frontier, marks the passage of an era; even the famous Judge Parker was in his dotage and would pass away a few months after the Buck gang’s own execution.

After the young men went to the gallows for rape on July 1, 1896, a poem was discovered in Buck’s cell, scribbled on the back of a photograph of his mother.

Mi dreAM —
i, dremP’T i, wAs, in, HeAven,
Among, THe Angels, FAir:
i, d, neAr, seen, none, so HAndsome,
THAT TWine, in goLden, HAir:
TheY, Looked, so, neAT,
And; sAng, so, sweeT
And, Play, d, THe, THe, golden, harp
i, was, ABouT, To, Pick, An Angel ouT,
And, TAke, Her, To, mY HeaRT:
BuT, THe, momenT, i, BegAn
To PLea,
i, THougHT, oF, You, mY, Love,
THere, Was, none, I, d seen
so, BeAuTiFul,
On, eArTH, or, HeAven, ABove.
gooD! By, My Dear, Wife..anD MoTHer
All. so. My SisTers.
Rufus, Buck
Youse Truley

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Oklahoma,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,U.S. Federal,USA

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2010: John David Duty, the first pentobarbital execution in the U.S.

Add comment December 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2010, John David Duty reclined on an Oklahoma gurney with an apology for his victim’s family on his lips, and became a milestone: the first U.S. inmate executed using pentobarbital in the lethal injection process.

Already sure to die in prison via sentences from his 1978 convictions for kidnapping, rape, attempted murder, and robbery, Duty spared himself some time by recruiting the state to assist in his suicide.

His means of doing so was the murder of his new 22-year-old cellmate Curtis Wise, which Duty tried to tell Wise’s mother all about in a taunting letter that was confiscated before it hit the post:

Mary Wise,

Well by the time you get this letter you will already know that your son is dead. I know now because I just killed him an hour ago. Gee you’d think I’d be feeling some remorse but I’m not. I’ve been planning since the day he moved in last Friday. Tonight I finally pulled it off. Would you like to know how I did it? Well I told him I wanted to use him as a hostage. Hell he went right for it, thinking he was gonna get some smokes out of the deal. Well I tied him up hands and feet, then I strangled him. It’s not like the movies, it took awhile. But I really did him a favor as he was too stupid to live. I mean he didn’t know me 5 days and he let me tie him up like that, Please! Besides he was young and dumb and would’ve just been in and out of prison his whole life.So I saved him all the torment. I’ve been in 24 years, wish someone would have done me the same favor back then. I guess you’re thinking I’ll be punished for this. Well not likely in this county. The DA’s here are weak bitches and don’t give a damn about deaths of inmates. We’re all just scum to them. Besides I’m doing 2 life sentences so they can’t hurt me. But you can call them and tell them about this letter, but it wouldn’t do you any good. Well I’m gonna close for now and I’ll tell police in the morning about Curtis.

Even though Mary Wise argued against it in court, this horrific gambit secured him his desired death sentence — with the help of Duty’s credible vows to kill again if he didn’t get what he wanted. Perhaps entertaining second thoughts, Duty did pursue his appeals, however, and that meant that the legal journey of his case did not reach its end until almost a decade later — a new era in American lethal injection, as it turned out.

Ever since lethal injection debuted in 1982 it had taken over as the go-to execution method around the United States. But by about 2010, it was increasingly difficult to come by the first drug in the standard lethal injection “cocktail”, sodium thiopental.

The system has been adapting ever since, including switches to a variety of alternative drug combinations that sometimes have ghastly results.

And Duty’s was the very first execution* to so adapt.

To kill him, Oklahoma sedated him first not with sodium thiopental, but with pentobarbital — the very first use of this drug, which has gone on to become one of the most frequently deployed substitutes for thiopental in death chambers around the country. Although Duty fought the chemical innovation on appeal (again contradicting his original suicidal intent) pentobarbital wasn’t exactly experimental: it had been used for animal and human euthanasia for years.

“There were no apparent issues” with the execution, a Department of Corrections spokesperson said afterwards.

* Ohio on December 8 of 2009 conducted an execution using only sodium thiopental, deviating from the three-drug protocol while still using one of its standard constituents. Pentobarbital itself has also subsequently been used in single-drug executions; consult the Death Penalty Information Center for up-to-date information on the still-shifting landscape of lethal injection protocols in the U.S.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,Oklahoma,USA,Volunteers

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1966: James French, fried

1 comment August 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1966, James French went to the Oklahoma electric chair, clinching his spot in perpetuity on last-words listicles by cracking to the press pool, “Hey, fellas. How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? French Fries!”*

French had enjoyed five years to work out this chill fare-thee-well since the calculated murder of his cellmate in 1961, back when he, French, was already serving time for murder.

It’s alleged that French committed this ruthless deed in pursuit of the mercy seat, as a form of suicide by executioner; whether this is or isn’t so he had certainly embraced the consequence by the time he presented himself to the judiciary.

“He deserved to die,” the expansive French once informed an interviewer. “And now because of what I did, I deserve to die, too. I don’t want to die. Who does? But the rules are clear: to take a life is to forfeit your own.”

It’s just that his letters imploring speedy implementation of justice could not override procedural errors in his first trial (they biased the jury by presenting French in manacles) nor his second trial (bad jury instruction by the judge) until the third time charmed in 1965.

The man could have lived a long life punning on his surname — perhaps he would have insisted on going by James Freedom as a post-9/11 America blundered into Iraq? — had he chosen to fight his death sentence, for even then the law’s French frying apparatus was grinding to a halt. Just two more executions — Aaron Mitchell and Luis Monge, both in 1967 — would take place in all the land before capital punishment went into a decade-long hiberation during which all previously existing death sentences were invalidated. French’s was the last death by electric chair until John Spenkelink in 1979 and the last ever electrocution in Oklahoma (which has used lethal injection in the modern, post-1972 era).

* His actual, and better, last words in the death chamber were by way of declining to make a final statement: “Everything’s already been said.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Gallows Humor,Milestones,Murder,Oklahoma,USA

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1893: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment June 30th, 2017 Headsman


This headline tally from the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Gazette of July 1, 1893 omits an additional Georgia hanging on the same day (also overlooked by the Espy File index of U.S. historical executions), but mistakenly attributes the June 29 execution of Pietro Buccieri in Pennsylvania to the 30th; between the two contrary errors, it arrives at the correct total of noosings. A sixth execution occurred by musketry in the Indian Territory on the same day.

Indian Territory (Oklahoma): Joe Bird


Dallas Morning News, July 1, 1893

Maryland: Daniel Barber and William Pinkney


Baltimore Sun, July 1, 1893

Louisiana: Gus Albers


New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 30, 1893

Georgia: Sam Thorpe…


Macon Telegraph, July 1, 1893

… and George Summer Rachen


Macon Telegraph, July 1, 1893

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Louisiana,Maryland,Murder,Oklahoma,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,USA

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1992: Robyn Leroy Parks, botched lethal injection

1 comment March 10th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1992, Robyn Leroy Parks was executed by lethal injection for stabbing an Edmond, Okla. gas station minder to death 15 years before. Parks was afraid that Abdullah Ibrahim would call police to report the stolen credit card he was using to gas up, but he left behind at the murder scene a scratch pad on which Ibrahim had noted his license plate number.

Parks’s execution by lethal injection was very badly botched in a scene that anticipated the better-publicized tribulations this supposedly antiseptic execution process has inflicted in recent years.

Parks appeared to suffer a violent reaction, possibly allergic, to the execution drugs. “I’m still awake,” he said after the drugs were dispensed — said that “lightheartedly,” according to the New York Times.

Parks then endured what looked like a waking strangulation: “the muscles in his jaw, neck, and abdomen began to react spasmodically … [he] continued to grasp and violently gag until death came, some eleven minutes after the drugs were first administered,” in the words of Michael Radelet’s compendium of botched executions.

Tulsa World reporter Wayne Green, an official witness to the debacle, recounted events in the next day’s edition under the discomfiting headline “11-Minute Execution Seemingly Took Forever.”

It was overwhelming, stunning, disturbing — an intrusion into a moment so personal that reporters, taught for years that intrusion is their business, had trouble looking each other in the eyes after it was over.

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Entry Filed under: Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Oklahoma,USA

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1990: Charles Coleman, the first lethal injection in Oklahoma

1 comment September 10th, 2015 Headsman

Despite our occasional predilection for the odd “literally executed today” post, this macabre chronicle has never really aspired to focus on our subject matter’s breaking-news beat.

Nonetheless, the landscape of the death penalty has evolved noticeably in the years since we launched on Halloween 2007. Executions are down in China, but up in Saudi Arabia and Iran; India has ended a long death penalty hiatus; Pakistan began, sustained, and dramatically repudiated a death penalty moratorium.

And in the United States, the prevailing execution method, lethal injection, has fallen under a barrage of legal and political challenges.

Like the guillotine, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and weirder contraptions, the prick of the needle had once been sold as a Solomonic compromise between the executioner and his critics: you still get to kill a guy, but now he doesn’t feel a thing. This time we really mean it!

Lethal injection got some run in the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program but was first approved for regular judicial executions by Oklahoma in 1977, and first used by Texas in 1982. Where gas and electricity transferred industrial technology to the death chamber, with great metal chairs and huge switches like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, injection analogized medicine: silent and light, and so sterile that the technicians would hygienically swab the skin before they pushed in the death-dealing needle.

Most of all it was sterile for the viewers, who had occasionally been subjected under the other processes to nauseating botches: men who were supposed to be dying instantly instead thrashing wildly away, catching fire, gushing blood, or requiring jolt after jolt to finish off. The electric chair surely owes its iconic cultural position in part to its reputation for spectacular failures.

When capital punishment got its 1970s reboot, it only seemed natural to think about cleaning up the how along with the why. Nearly everyone now had the experience of anaesthetic; it was natural to think that you could just put a man down like the family dog and not have any mess to clean up afterwards.

“Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him,” future president Ronald Reagan had said in proposing the technology while he was still governor of California in 1973. “Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot and the horse goes to sleep. That’s it.”

As executions surged in the 1990s, lethal injection was thoroughly displacing America’s previous humane technologies to become the overwhelmingly predominant method.


Data via the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

And the state of Oklahoma, which had been first with a lethal injection law back in ’77, finally started rolling out gurneys — when it put murder Charles Troy Coleman to death with the needle on September 10, 1990. It was Oklahoma’s first execution in 24 years.*

It was Oklahoma’s medical examiner Jay Chapman who had formulated the three-drug cocktail that for a long time comprised the definitive lethal injection protocol: the short-acting barbiturate sodium thiopental, followed by the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, capped with potassium chloride to stop the heart. Why three drugs, Human Rights Watch later asked him? “Why not?” Chapman was not a pharmacologist and had little expertise with the drugs in question.

Nevertheless, his process “could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is merely the extreme of procedures done daily around the world for surgical procedures,” Chapman insisted when he proposed it. “It’s simply an extreme form of anesthesia.”

Extreme anaesthesia. Was it really?

Even at Coleman’s death, observers saw it differently.

“I saw him choke and gasp and struggle for air,” said Joe Ward, an investigator in the public defender’s office. “It looked like he was choking to death. He looked over … and mouthed the words, ‘I love you.’ Then he looked straight back up and started choking.” Reporter Art Cox, by contrast, viewed it as “a very easy death … a very cold death, very antiseptic.”

Oklahoma has executed well over 100 people since Charles Coleman but if anything the uncertainty about that “easy” and “antiseptic” death has only grown — in the Sooner state and elsewhere.

And the question has become quite urgent during the lifetime of this blog as political pressure on manufacturers has dried up the supply of sodium thiopental, forcing the many states using lethal injection to scramble for a variety of new drug sequences that are basically being invented on the fly and sussed out with live experimentation on the next death row prisoner in the queue.

Oklahoma’s version was to switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital; in January 2014, a man being executed with pentobarbital exclaimed, “I feel my whole body burning.”. Months later, the manufacturer of that drug also cut off the supply, unwilling to be party to the executions it facilitated.

So Oklahoma switched to a third anaesthetic, midazolam, a drug whose execution debut took place in Florida in 2013. The state has also tried to shield its suppliers from anti-death penalty campaigners with a secrecy law.

Proceeding on a mad catch-as-can basis, Oklahoma proceeded to horribly botch its midazolam executions, throwing its new procedure right back to the courts. Just this past June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court narrowly approved the continued use of its midazolam cocktail, which a dissenting justice savaged as “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.”

It’s a story still being written before our eyes — a long quarter-century after Charles Coleman premiered Oklahoma’s modern era of executions on this date in 1990.

* The last previous execution in Oklahoma was that of James French in 1966.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,Oklahoma,USA

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1894: Joe Dick, “allowed to go anywhere he desired”

Add comment February 16th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1894, a young Indian named Joe Dick was executed outside the courthouse of Eufaula in present-day Oklahoma.

At the time, Eufala was part of the Muscogee Creek jursidiction of Indian Territory. Until the 1898 Curtis Act, the tribal governments in Indian Country enjoyed full legal jurisdiction, up to and including application of the death penalty.

One interesting feature of that jurisdiction (previously noted in these annals) was the absence of standing jails to incarcerate death-sentenced prisoners. Joe Dick was only loosely guarded and on “Christmas week, he told the officers that were guarding him that he was of a lively nature and would like to attend some of the dances that were going on through the country.” They happily loaned him a horse and saddle, and Joe Dick was as good as his word: after dancing all night, he returned and “reported the next morning for breakfast.”

On another occasion, with firewood running short, an officer John Hawkins set Dick loose in the woods with a cart. The murderer came back three hours later, loaded with firewood. “After that, he was allowed to go anywhere he desired, if he would promise to report for duty at meal times.”

Hawkins and a fellow-officer named Bob Roberts conducted the execution by musketry — both shooting Dick dead through the heart from five yards’ distance as Dick stood against a large tree. (In the Indian Territory, only the Cherokee had enough death penalty cases to warrant a standing gallows; other nations generally carried out executions by shooting.)

Dick had opportunistically murdered a man named Thomas Gray against whom he held a grudge. Chancing upon Gray at work in an orchard one day, Dick simply shot him and rode away. Dick confessed the crime.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Oklahoma,Public Executions,Shot,USA

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