Let’s talk about death. No matter how brave a face we wish to put on it, nor however strong, tough–super macho fearless!–we at times pretend to be, all of us are terrified by the idea. Even the suicidal, those who blindly walk towards the inevitable, do so as punishment. This is all I deserve, they tell themselves, not actually thinking. I even doubt that those committed to killing themselves wish to burn in an eternal pit (assuming such a person has a standard religion), forever reliving the moment that caused them to seek this way of escaping their pain. And I cannot imagine a suicide wishes to help anything–weeds for example–to grow out of the mulch of their corpse.
We can talk about suffering, the terminally ill, and the honest, yet still questionable morality euthanasia provides to a person who lives in perpetual agony. In cases such as this, death is a relief, the moment someone can finally forget for a moment about all they are feeling and think, in their final seconds, just how much joy they once experienced in their life, happy memories flashing into a morphine induced goodbye.
What about the death penalty, something that surely many of you believe is legitimate? Myself, I am torn. I mean, yes, someone we know is guilty of the most hideous sort of crime, I honestly don’t care about them at all. I believe they should suffer for all the suffering they have caused. I have no sympathy if they are repeatedly beaten, raped–even beaten to death with a pillow case filled with bars of soap. They do not deserve to be on this earth alongside the rest of us.
However, when speaking about state sponsored murder there are a number of things to take into account. Such as, well, what if someone is innocent? We all know that this has happened at least at some point in the past. I’ll simply take America, even disregarding horrible crimes like the drowning and burning and hanging of so-called witches, because at the time the United States was still quite a ways away from its founding. But consider a few instances after revolution:
In 1805 two Irish immigrants, Dominic Daley and James Halligan were walking from Wilbraham, Massachusetts all the way to New Haven, Connecticut. At roughly the same time, outside of Wilbraham, a man named Marcus Lyon was found with his skull bashed in on an open road. Encountering the two admittedly drunken men shortly thereafter, a citizen’s arrest was made, which granted the captor five hundred dollars. The two immigrants spent several months in jail without being granted an attorney and, just two days before the trial, they had an overworked public defender assigned to their case. The trial lasted less than fifteen minutes, which saw the terrified and baffled men convicted. Their lawyer claimed that there was no evidence whatsoever and that the conviction was based entirely on bigotry. The two men were executed the next day, which was St Patrick’s Day. It took nearly 180 years for governor Michael Dukakis to exonerate the two men.
On December 31, 1843, another Irish immigrant, John Gordon, was arrested for the murder of a much despised textile factory owner named Amasa Sprague. This case went through three trials, the first conviction, a mistrial at the first appeal, and a rejected final appeal, all featuring the same judge, Job Dufree, who told the jurors that they should “give greater weight to Yankee witnesses” than to “Irish Papists.” This conviction was also overturned, in 2011.
In 1872 William Jackson Marion was convicted of killing his friend John Cameron. The two had lived a nomadic existence, wandering the country in search of work. They both finally wound up in Nebraska, working on the railroad. When Cameron disappeared after other workers had heard the two of them fighting, it was assumed that Marion had killed him and buried the body somewhere along the empty plains. After a cursory search, Marion was arrested. He spent fifteen years on death row until he was finally hanged. Four years later Cameron turned up, claiming that he had left to seek new adventures in Mexico, Colorado and Alaska. On the 100th anniversary of his death, the state of Nebraska overturned his conviction.
This list goes on and on, including Oscar Neebe, arrested in 1886 and charged with being one of the main anarchists involved with the Haymarket Riot. Neebe was not actually present, and he did not hear about the bombings until the following day when it was all over the news. But Neebe had been a well known socialist union leader, and he was rounded up, had a shotgun and red flag taken from his home, and was rapidly convicted and sentenced to death. Unlike the earlier cases, Neebe’s conviction was overturned just seven years later, after having taken harsh beatings nearly every day in prison. And while he was freed, no apology was ever given, people believed that Neebe had somehow gotten out on a technicality, and he was hounded and accused over and over again until he died, homeless, a few years later.
Charles Hudspeth was hanged in 1892 after the victim’s wife, Rebecca Watkins (with whom Hudspeth was having an affair) accused him of murdering her husband George. A few months after Hudspeth’s execution, George Watkins was discovered living in Kansas, stating that he had discovered his wife’s adultery and had simply left town.
The Twentieth Century has a different sort of history of wrongful execution, mostly carried out by Southern racists who believed a black person had committed a crime, or who simply selected one as a scapegoat for their own wickedness. Take this example: Ed Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape of a white woman. The victim initially stated that she did not know the race of her attacker, but when the reward was increased and another man identified Johnson as the attacker, she decided to follow suit for a payment of her own. Johnson was severely beaten by the sheriff (this all took place in Tennessee), the demands made with every blow that he confess to the crime. Johnson maintained his innocence. This case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, Johnson claiming that his Constitutional rights had been violated, that there should have at the very least been a change of venue, and that it was wrong for blacks to have been excluded from the jury pool. He was granted a stay of execution to prepare his appeal. The Supreme Court also stated that rape was not an executable crime (while having no sympathy whatsoever with perpetrators of such a crime, I have to wonder about the same premise. If justice is ‘an eye-for-an-eye’ shouldn’t the state have government rapists ready to mete out the punishment?). Within days the sheriff moved most of the prisoners to another cell block, doubled the guard population, and assisted in the lynching of Ed Johnson in his cell. The sheriff then blamed the Supreme Court for the murder, stating that their interference was the cause of death.
The wealthy Griffin brothers, Thomas and Meeks, were executed in the electric chair in 1915. Thomas and Meeks were the richest farmers in Chester County, South Carolina, and they were black, subjects of enormous rage and resentment. After an 75 year old white man was murdered, a black man named John Stevenson, a thief who happened to be holding the gun of the victim, stated that the Griffins were the ones behind the murder. Stevenson’s sentence in the crime was life in prison. The Griffins, along with two other black men, were burned in the chair. After great reluctance and much protest, the governor finally ‘pardoned’ the brothers in 2009.
Leo Frank, a Jewish man and factory owner, was convicted on no evidence of the murder of 13 year old employee Mary Phagan in 1913. Once the death sentence was commuted to life in prison, guards marched Frank out into the swamps of Georgia and lynched him, leaving him dangling from a tree close enough to the water for crocodiles to take bites out of him. Leo Frank was pardoned in 1998.
George Stinney–a 14 year old black boy–was convicted in 1944 of the murder of an 11 and an 8 year old girl. The only evidence in this case was the fact that the two girls were seen talking to Stinney and his sister a few hours before the murder. Three white police officers beat a confession out of him. He was murdered in the electric chair. George Stinney is the youngest person sentenced to death in United States history. This sentence was also overturned, in 2014, by a circuit court judge who had reviewed the case on request and declared it a “miscarriage of justice.”
In 1977 a man named Brian Baldwin was convicted of raping and murdering a 16 year old girl. Baldwin confessed, although he later claimed that his confession was coerced via cattle prod. Later forensic evidence stated that the murder was committed by a left-handed person. Baldwin was right-handed. After the execution, all evidence was rapidly destroyed. Another innocent black man murdered by the state for someone else’s crime.
Thomas Thompson was convicted of rape and murder in 1981 based upon the say so of two prison informants who claimed that Thompson had boasted about this crime in prison. The two informants later became widely known for fabricating crimes against their in house enemies. Just prior to his execution, the prosecutors charged and convicted another person of the crime. They did not inform the judge or Thompson’s lawyers of this. The execution went on as planned. This sentence was never overturned.
In 1991 Cameron Willingham was convicted of murder and quickly executed because his three children died in a house fire. It was stated before the arson investigation even began that Willingham had started the fire. Years later, as allegations that “flawed science” had been used to quickly convict another person emerged, a commission was started to reopen the investigation. Then Governor Rick Perry was not interested, as he was preparing to break the all time record for state executions in a single year, and replaced two people on the commission with capital punishment yahoos, who refused to continue the investigation.
I do not even mention the numerous people later found innocent who died in prison, nor the more than thirty years some once young men spent behind bars before being told that they were innocent after all.
The reason I am against the death penalty is not because, as I stated earlier, I have sympathy or even human rights consideration for the actual barbarians and murderers that stalk the shadows of our midst. Cellmates–drown them in the toilet bowl without flushing. Hopefully the person was so horrible that your new crime will be ignored. But if the state does it . . . if this is a government mandated killing–a murder meant to cure murder, then if a single innocent person has been put to death under such a system, it is completely invalidated as a form of justice.