1945: Henry William Hagert

Add comment October 3rd, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1945, twenty-year-old Henry William Hagert died in Ohio’s electric chair for the murders of thirteen-year-old twins James and Charles Collins two years earlier.

Hagert, who was only seventeen at the time of the crime, had shot the boys in cold blood and for no reason at all.

The young murderer was from Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland. He was a bit of a bad seed; those who knew him said he started to go bad when he was about seven years old, after a bout with double pneumonia and “brain fever.” After his recovery from the illness, he became unstable and aggressive. In 1942, after a high-speed police chase, he was arrested on multiple charges of auto theft and sent to the Boys’ Industrial School for a year.

Typically, this experience in reform school failed to reform him, and he returned home worse than ever.

John Stark Bellamy II, writing about him in the book The Killer in the Attic: and More True Tales of Crime and Disaster from Cleveland’s Past, noted that Hagert’s formal education stopped after his 1942 arrest, but he earned “a graduate degree in sexual perversion” from his stint in juvy.

Hagert’s mother, unable to handle him, had him committed to the psychiatric ward in Cleveland City Hospital in early July 1943. There he was diagnosed as having a “psychopathic personality” and released on August 9. (Just why is unclear; Hagert’s mother claims she begged the chief staff physician not to release him, and the doctor denied this and said, on the contrary, she had begged for him to let her son go.)

Just two days later, Hagert was driving his blue Chevy around when he picked up a nine-year-old boy, the son of a city aide. His plan had to been to sexually assault and murder the child, but he later claimed he was moved by the boy’s crying and pleas and decided to spare his life. This didn’t stop him from keeping his victim in the car overnight, torturing and sexually abusing him. The next day, Hagert drove the boy to a wooded area, tied him to a tree, and placed a series of anonymous calls to the child’s parents with clues as to his whereabouts. The police found the little boy where his abductor had left him.

The following afternoon, for reasons best known to himself, Hagert returned to the spot where he’d left the abduction victim and encountered a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter and a photographer.

As Hagert made small talk with the photographer, the reporter became suspicious of his behavior and remembered the old cliché about the killer returning to the scene of his crime. He scribbled down a physical description of Hagert and took note of the license plate number on his Chevy. Later, he turned his notes over to the police.

A compliant Hagert was taken in for questioning. Unaccountably, two hours passed before anyone realized he had a loaded gun under his shirt. When an officer removed Hagert’s shirt, the gun fell to the floor. As the officer picked it up, the young man said casually, “The gun you have in your hand is the one I shot the other two with.”

James and Charles Collins had been missing since noon the previous day and law enforcement agents were frantically searching for them. They were last seen hitchhiking to their jobs as caddies at a local golf course. Hagert calmly confessed to killing the Collins twins and lead authorities to their bodies. The dead boys were about 300 feet apart and each had been shot at the base of the skull — that is, “execution style.”

If anyone doubted by now that Hagert was a monster, they would have been convinced by what he had to say about the double murder:

It’s pretty serious, you know. I kidnapped one kid and killed two others … I just felt like killing them, so I killed them. Now it all seems like a bad dream … I had the urge to kill before but I always managed to suppress it by running. I’d run down the street because I felt I had too much energy. The Collins boys were just victims of circumstance. I would have killed anyone at that time. It just happened to be them … I’m not especially sorry for any of those folks I have hurt … The whole thing is just like a smashed fender … When it’s done, it’s done — that’s all.

While in custody he also confessed to a third murder, but this statement turned out to be a fabrication.

An initial panel of three psychiatrists unanimously agreed that Hagert was insane. This would not do: the state could not risk the possibility that this incredibly dangerous psychopath would be committed to a hospital, only to escape later on, or be released like before, to walk the streets again.

Five more psychiatrists were appointed to examine the defendant and this group said he was sane. In spite of this, the defense went with an insanity plea anyway. There wasn’t much of an alternative, given the evidence against their client.

Testifying before the jury, one of the doctors described Hagert as “a petulant, cruel, ruthless, determined, egotistical young man with no respect for God, man or the Devil.” Another said Hagert had told him that, if he were set free, the first thing he would do was track down and kill the newspaper reporter whose tip had led to his arrest.

The tearful testimony of his mother, who said Hagert had often complained of seeing “little midgets” who mocked him, carried little weight.

The jury took only two hours to find Henry Hagert guilty without a recommendation of mercy. In his book, Bellamy opines, “Most of the jurors, one suspects, thought Henry was insane by any imaginable standard of common sense, but they knew not what else to do with such an incorrigible monster.”

Hagert’s conviction was overturned on a technicality in December 1944, but his second trial, held before a three-judge panel in March 1945, resulted in the same inevitable guilty verdict. Hagert himself didn’t seem to care much. His last words were, “Do a good job of it now. Give me a good dose — it’s good for what ails for me.” He did donate his corneas, possibly the only contribution he ever made to society.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,Murder,Ohio,Other Voices,USA

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2001: Jay Scott, trend-setter

1 comment June 14th, 2012 Headsman

Not Ohio’s first execution in the “modern” era — that distinction belongs to Wilford Berry, who voluntarily waived his appeals to hasten a 1999 execution — Jay Scott, who was put to death by lethal injection on this date in 2001, stands at the headwaters of Ohio’s 21st century death penalty binge.

Prior to Scott’s death, Ohio had carried out only that one execution, Berry’s, in all the previous 48 years.

But it’s made up for lost time with another 45 executions in the eleven years since Scott died.

A paranoid schizophrenic and career criminal, Scott entered an East Cleveland deli in May 1983, ordered bologna and crackers, and then shot the 74-year-old proprietess at point-blank range after she served him. Then he went for the restaurant brace by gunning down a security guard at another restaurant. (That death sentence was eventually reversed; technically, Scott died for the first murder only.)

By the time he paid for the crimes, Scott had gotten to know the fledgling Ohio execution process pretty well.

Scheduled death dates on April 17 and May 15 had both been stayed at the last moment over legal appeals around his mental competency — on that latter date, he was three minutes from execution with the shunts that would carry the lethal chemicals already stuck in his arms.

Laborious as it was to finally consummate, Scott’s was the only Ohio execution in 2001.

But the state conducted three the next year — and it’s never carried out fewer than two in any year since then.

Part of the Themed Set: Ohio.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,Ohio,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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1975: Olga Hepnarova, tram spotter

Add comment March 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1975, 23-year-old Olga Hepnarova was hanged at Prague’s Pankrac Prison.

On July 19, 1973, a splenetic Hepnarova had lived out the road rager’s fantasy by barreling her three-ton Praga RN lorry into a tram stop* — killing eight elderly commuters.

Caught on the scene where her Truck of Death came to rest, Hepnarova’s authorship was not in question — only her culpability.

Three days after the bloodbath, she was telling police about her hatred of and alienation from her “brutal” fellow-beings, of beatings from her father and every form of humiliation and disrespect among her peers. This had been a lifelong theme with Hepnarova; the wounds of the world pierced her deeply, and she had spent time in a psychiatric institution after a teenage suicide attempt. In her short working life, she’d been unable to hold down any job for long. Truck-driving, tragically, was only her latest (and last) gig.

About the same time the tormented Hepnarova was owning her actions to the authorities, editors at two newspapers received nearly-identical letters she had posted before she made herself famous, touching much the same themes.

I am a loner. A destroyed person. A person destroyed by people… I therefore have a choice – to kill myself or to kill others. I choose – TO AVENGE MY PERSECUTORS. It would be too easy to leave this world as an unknown suicide. Society is too indifferent, rightly so. My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to the death penalty.

Doctors who examined her did not find her sufficiently off her rocker to have not known what she was doing, and the remorseless Hepnarova accepted the court’s verdict and sentence with equanimity. There are reports, however, that by the last day her placidity had crumbled and that she fought the execution team and had to be dragged, swooning, to the noose.

For this documentary, have your Czech handy. (And the same — or the online translator of your choice — for this Czech website about Olga Hepnarova’s life and legal case.)

Hepnarova was the last woman ever hanged in Czechoslovakia. (Or either of its death penalty-less successor states, if you want to count it that way.)

* The street where this shocking scene was enacted is today named for Milada Horakova, who preceded Hepnarova on Pankrac’s gallows.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Women

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2009: Akmal Shaikh, mentally ill drug mule

8 comments December 29th, 2009 Headsman

This morning, China confirmed (to London’s fury) the dawn execution of British national Akmal Shaikh.

As tweeted @executedtoday, Shaikh has been at the eye of a media firestorm the past week, though without himself being aware of his impending (and publicly announced) execution until family members who had raced to China to plead for mercy met with him within the past day.

“He was obviously very upset on hearing from us of the sentence,” said the clan’s post-meeting (under)statement.

The 53-year-old Shaikh had been homeless in Poland and apparently duped into schlepping some cargo to China as part of a wild goose chase to become a pop star and bring world peace.

In any case like this (and certainly on any blog like this), the mystery parcel invariably contains drugs, doesn’t it? In this instance, our courier was busted at Ürümqi airport with 4 kg of heroin, some 80 times China’s death-sentencing threshold. He swore he knew nothing about it.

If “carry suspicious package for shady central Asian contact to usher in Age of Aquarius” sounds a bit daft … well, mental illness was the basis of Shaikh’s family’s appeal for his life. Shaikh seems to have been severely bipolar and to “may also have … delusional psychosis.”

“Insufficient,” said China; it never gave him a formal psychological evaluation.

So this morning, Akmal Shaikh became the first European executed in China in some 50-plus years … and the lone casualty of a lonely quest to somehow save the world.

Update: China flexes its muscle in the diplomatic row: “We hope that the British side can view this matter rationally and not create new obstacles in bilateral relations.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Drugs,England,Execution,Milestones,Pelf,Ripped from the Headlines

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1997: Pedro Medina, en flambe

5 comments March 25th, 2009 Sarah Owocki

The electric chair has gotten a bad rap in recent years, and nowhere is this more evident than in the 1997 Florida execution of Cuban refugee Pedro Medina.

The improper application of an electricity-conducting sponge caused a “crown of foot-high flames” to shoot from Medina’s head, in a botched execution that caused Florida to reexamine its use of the electric chair and accelerated the trend towards lethal injection as the preferred method of execution — modern, sanitary and humane. But electrocution was once preferred for just those very reasons — well, that, and politics.

The thought of designing an apparatus to stimulate death by electrocution first came to dentist Dr. Albert Southwick in 1881, who watched an drunk man touch the terminal of an electricity generator in Buffalo, New York. Impressed at how quickly and painlessly the man died, he mentioned the incident to his friend, a state senator, who promptly brought the matter to the attention of the governor. The state legislature was then asked to consider how modern day electricity might emerge as an alternative to the often grisly process of hanging, in which incompetent executioners often inadvertently subjected prisoners to slow deaths by strangulation or decapitation.

Several years later, an inventor by the name of Harold Brown, an employee of the famous Thomas Edison, designed the first electric chair, deliberately adopting the Alternating Current (AC) form of electricity because Edison did not want his Direct Current (DC) form associated with the gruesome business of death — a sordid chapter in the history of public relations. The first execution was carried out in New York State in 1890, but the novel method was far from foolproof: it took two attempts, and the inmate was reported to have gone down in the same sort of smoke, flames, and smell of Medina’s over a hundred years later.

Still, the method caught on, and over the course of the 20th century, the electric chair became an indelible symbol of the death penalty in the nation’s consciousness.

“The chair” didn’t begin to decline until the mid-1980s, when newspaper accounts about botched executions, together with the emerging technology of lethal injection, again prompted some states to reexamine their death penalty statues.

It was around this time that Pedro Medina first came to the US from Cuba, part of the Mariel boat lift of 1980, in which Fidel Castro “permitted” some 125,000 Cuban prisoners and mentally ill to depart from the Mariel harbor for the fertile shores of America. (Medina himself had been released from a psychiatric hospital in Cuba and diagnosed with illnesses including paranoid schizophrenia and major depressive disorder with psychosis.) The boatlift polarized public sentiment in the United States.

These factors combined to lend Medina, a black man, a low status indeed in the eyes of prosecutors and jurors when, two years after his arrival on American shores, he was convicted of murdering his neighbor, Dorothy James.

Medina was executed in Albert Southwick’s brainchild 15 years later, despite pleas from James’ daughter, Lindi James, who said that she did not believe Medina had killed her mother and that her mother would not have wanted him executed regardless, and from Pope John Paul II, who also made a public call for mercy on Medina’s behalf. Medina’s lawyers also filed a petition claiming he was insane and thus incompetent to be executed, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that, while he had mental problems, he could still be executed.

Early in the morning on March 25, 1997, Medina went out in flames.

A crown of foot-high flames shot from the headpiece during the execution, filling the execution chamber with a stench of thick smoke and gagging the two dozen official witnesses. An official then threw a switch to manually cut off the power and prematurely end the two-minute cycle of 2,000 volts. Medina’s chest continued to heave until the flames stopped and death came. (From the Death Penalty Information Center’s botched executions page.)

The source of the malfunction was not immediately apparent; prison officials claimed the fire had been caused by a corroded copper screen in the electric chair’s headpiece, but later investigation revealed that it was due to improper application of an electricity-conducting sponge to Medina’s head. Attorney General Bob Butterworth hailed the deterrent value of malfunctions: “People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair.”

Others, including the warden conducting the execution, were not as sanguine.

The debacle of Medina’s execution caused a media sensation and led to a case by another Florida death row inmate, Thomas Provenzano, claiming that lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.

Provenzano lost his case, but with the release of bloody photographs of the 1999 execution of Allen Lee Davis, more states began moving against the use of the electric chair. Of the six states that today retain it (Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and, yes, Florida), none currently use it as their only method of execution.

Rather, lethal injection has become the norm.

But for how long? There may be no AC/DC marketing gambit in the new, modern business of death, and no crown of flames. But maybe all we’ve really done by moving to the needle is render invisible ongoing Medina-like botches.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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2004: Mamoru Takuma, for the Osaka school massacre

1 comment September 14th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 2004, Mamoru Takuma was hanged for one of the most notorious crimes in modern Japan — the Osaka school massacre.

On June 8, 2001 — a day the 11-time arrestee was due in court for assaulting a bellhop — Mamoru Takuma (English Wikipedia entry | Japanese) entered the Ikeda Elementary School in Osaka and knifed 20-plus people, killing eight young students.

Even when taking on 7- and 8-year-old children, that’s an astonishing body count for a guy packing only a blade. Some staff at the school finally tackled the guy.

“I want others to know the unreasonableness that high-achieving children could be killed at any time.”

Takuma had been institutionalized even more often than he had been arrested, so the shocking crime pitted public outrage against the judiciary’s capacity for handling mentally ill offenders.

Guess which won out. In the wake of the crime, in fact, the government toughened laws on crimes committed by mentally ill offenders.

Takuma was hanged barely three years after the attacks, and even though he pushed for his own execution, the lightning-fast completion of the sentence (most death penalty cases in Japan drag on for decades — here’s an extreme example) raised misgivings both domestic and international.

Though his case remains an outlier, those concerns already seem a bit passe: Takuma also turned out to presage the distinctly more aggressive pace of executions in Japan in recent years.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Hanged,Infamous,Japan,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Volunteers

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1898: Joseph Vacher

2 comments December 31st, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1898, “the French Ripper” Joseph Vacher was guillotined for a three-year homicidal spree through the French countryside.

Less renowned to posterity than the unidentified British contemporary to whom his nickname alluded, Vacher was thoroughly infamous in his day. The New York Timesreport of his beheading noted that “[t]he crimes of Joseph Vacher have surpassed in number and atrocity those of the Whitechapel murderer.”

After release as “completely cured” from a mental hospital to whose hapless mercies a failed murder-suicide — both murder and suicide failed — involving his unrequited love had left him, Vacher drifted through rural France from 1894 until his arrest in 1897 killing randomly, frequently, and savagely.

He left at least 11 victims, and possibly several dozen, often atrociously mutilating the bodies. The seeming sang-froid of his murders — one story has him coolly misdirecting a police officer in a frantic chase for the killer of a body he has left behind minutes before — and their horrific nature and extent threw his case into the eye of a public already fearful of “drifters”.

If it is likely that the murders themselves demanded their author’s execution regardless, Vacher’s claim that madness — “simulated insanity”, the Times called it — drove the killings and negated his culpability remained a challenging medical and judicial issue. As Susan A. Ashley writes in The Human Tradition in Modern France:

The … judicial proceedings centered on his mental competence. Could he be held responsible for his actions? He claimed that he acted on impulse, that he was driven to kill and maim by fits of uncontrollable rage. The court-appointed experts, however, concluded that he had carefully planned and carried out the killings, and the jury agreed.

Medical experts and legal authorities seriously disagreed over Vacher’s mental state and over the limits of his legal responsibility. They examined his past and his behavior after his arrest and drew very different conclusions about his sanity.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Serial Killers

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