History of the Death Penalty

Pioneers in Efforts to Defend Death-Penalty Cases, End Capital Punishment Remembered in New Book, Obituary

The legacies of Scharlette Holdman (pictured) and Marie Deans—two women who changed the landscape of capital punishment in the United States—are memorialized in a recent story in the Marshall Project and a new book scheduled for release in August. Maurice Chammah's article, We Saw Monsters. She Saw Humans, marks the July 12, 2017 passing of mitigation pioneer Scharlette Holdman and tells the story of her forty-year fight on behalf of capital defendants and death-row prisoners. The forthcoming book by Todd Peppers and Margaret Anderson, A Courageous Fool, tells the story of a similarly pioneering woman, Marie Deans, who long worked to save defendants and prisoners facing the death penalty and whose efforts to give voice to family members, like herself, whose relatives had been murdered, led to the creation of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. Holdman used her background in anthropology to develop the practice of death-penalty mitigation—conducting a multi-generational social history investigation to tell the story of a client's life in a way that would humanize him or her to a jury or a judge. “What she saw is that killers are not just born,” said lawyer George Kendall, who represents death-row prisoners. “They have had unbelievably abused and neglectful lives, and that history is relevant. You become your client’s biographer, you speak to the 60 most important people in that person’s life—friend and foe.” She approached this difficult work with creativity and humor. In one case, she attempted to discredit a psychiatrist's testimony that a severely impaired defendant was competent to be executed because he had beaten the doctor at tic-tac-toe, by locating a tic-tac-toe playing chicken to present in court. The judge “felt that bringing the chicken into the courtroom to play tic-tac-toe would degrade the dignity of the court,” Holdman later told This American Life. “I thought that the dignity of the court was degraded by executing a mentally retarded, mentally ill person.” In 2011, she described mitigation investigations, saying, “As we in local communities began to look for mitigation, we saw it as presenting the narrative of someone’s life, and we became acutely aware that it was a very specialized, complex undertaking. That narrative is not there for the asking. It requires not just knowledge and skill but experience in how you search for, identify, locate, recognize, and preserve the information.” Her work was profiled in the book Among the Lowest of the Dead, an account of Florida's reinstatement of the death penalty. A Courageous Fool describes the work of mitigation expert and anti-death penalty activist Marie Deans to defend death-sentenced prisoners, to free the wrongfully convicted—including Virginia death-row exoneree Earl Washington—and to try to end the death penalty. Virginia Senator Mark Warner called A Courageous Fool, "A powerful story of a Virginia heroine." Deans passed away in 2011. 

Journal of Psychiatrist Who Presided Over 14 Texas Executions Reveals Mental Toll That May Have Contributed to Suicide

As a psychiatrist in the Wayne Unit of Texas' Huntsville prison from 1960 to 1963, Dr. Lee Hartman presided over 14 electric-chair executions. When his grandson, Ben Hartman, a journalist, began investigating Dr. Hartman's life, he discovered journals that chronicle those executions and the psychological toll they took, possibly contributing to Dr. Hartman's suicide in 1964. Dr. Hartman's journals contain basic data on the men who were executed, including their names, race, a summary of the crime, and notes on the execution itself. More profoundly, though, they capture Dr. Hartman's reactions to his experiences and how they shaped his views on the death penalty, leaving him—in his grandson's words—"a determined opponent of capital punishment." In 1962, Dr. Hartman wrote, "The death penalty is irreparable." After the highly-publicized execution of Howard Stickney, a 24-year old who professed his innocence, Dr. Hartman wrote, "Very shook up and angry over whole cruel mess." He had been with Stickney on his scheduled November 10, 1961 execution date as they neared the door to the execution chamber. The journal reports that the phone rang at 12:32 a.m. with news that a judge had granted a 10-day stay of execution. This was "[a]pparently a complete surprise to Stickney," the journal entry says, "who broke down, prayed and wept.” In May of 1962, still professing his innocence, Stickney exhibited "[d]ignity and grace, shook hands with several guards while waiting, didn’t want to take coat off.” The journal reports: "At 12:24, warden returned–no stay, Stickney quietly sat in chair." Three separate jolts of electric current were sent through his body, "1st shock at 12:25–dead at 12:30.” Elsewhere in the journal, Dr. Hartman wrote 19 pages on arguments for and against capital punishment, clearly setting out his views. “The death penalty has a brutalizing and sadistic influence on the community that deliberately kills a member of its group,” he wrote, permitting the public “to vicariously indulge in vicious and inhumane fantasies under socially-acceptable guises.” He wrote: "The death penalty is not applied impartially. There is such surfeit of these cases that to mention them would be redundant. The poor defendant is obviously at a disadvantage and frequently receives the extreme penalty while the wealthier accused escapes a prison term. There is well known discrimination on racial or class lines." Dr. Hartman struggled with depression for many years, spending several months in a mental hospital after working in the prison. In 1964, he committed suicide by taking an overdose of pentobarbital, a drug now used to execute prisoners in Texas.

Equal Justice Initiative Report on Lynchings Outside the Deep South Suggests Links to Capital Punishment

Lynching has long been regarded as a regional phenomenon, but in an updated edition of its landmark 2015 report "Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror," the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has now documented more than 300 lynchings of African Americans in states outside the Deep South. "Racial terror lynching was a national problem," said EJI Director Bryan Stevenson (pictured). More than six million African American migrants fled "as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South," but the racial terror often followed them. "Hundreds of lynchings took place outside the American South," he said. The original EJI lynching report documented more than 4000 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states, and described the historical link between lynching and the modern-day death penalty. The new edition tracks lynchings in eight states in the Midwest and Upper South: Oklahoma (76), Missouri (60), Illinois (56), West Virginia (35), Maryland (28), Kansas (19), Indiana (18), and Ohio (15). The pattern of lynchings suggests a continuing link to modern capital punishment: Oklahoma and Missouri rank second and fifth in the number of executions in the U.S. in the last fifty years and have executed far more prisoners than any other states outside the Deep South. Working with Google, EJI has created an interactive website providing audio, video, and maps to tell the stories of the victims of racial terror and illuminate the geographic patterns of lynching. “These lynchings were intentionally barbaric, torturous, gruesome,” Stevenson said, and often whole communities actively participated in the public spectacle. "Our collective failure to acknowledge this history has created a contemporary political culture that doesn't adequately value the victimization of people of color today," he said. In an interview with The Washington Post, Stevenson explained how the legacy of lynching affects today's criminal justice system, and the death penalty in particular. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld capital punishment in 1976, Justice Potter Stewart justified capital punishment as an advance from "self-help, vigilante justice, and lynch law." “They started trying people inside." Stevenson said, "and they had the same kind of unreliable verdicts and the same kind of death sentencing and the same kind of abuse of people of color in the courtroom that existed outside the courthouse during the lynching era."

BOOKS: "The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado"

When University of Colorado Boulder sociology professor Michael Radelet began doing research on the death penalty in the 1970s, the noted death-penalty scholar tells Colorado Public Radio, he didn't have an opinion about capital punishment and "didn't know anything about it." After researching issues of race, innocence, and the death penalty, he came to have grave reservations. "I believe the death penalty is about making god-like decisions without god-like accuracy," he told Colorado Matters interviewer Andrea Dukakis. Radelet's latest book, The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado, chronicles the historic use of capital punishment in a state in which the practice is currently under scrutiny. Proponents and opponents of the death penalty both invoke "justice" in support of their positions, Radelet told Colorado Matters. "There's a debate about what 'justice' really means," he said, noting that Governor John Hickenlooper raised important questions about the fairness and accuracy of the death penalty when he imposed a moratorium on executions in Colorado in 2013. Commenting on the book, Hickenlooper said, "Professor Radelet reminds us we are not unique in asking whether our 'experiment with the death penalty' has worked: we have asked this question since our territorial days. The History of the Death Penalty is an insightful examination of the death penalty and whether it has a place in our state." Radelet's book documents each execution in the state since 1859 and explores the systemic concerns that have affected its implementation throughout Colorado's history. A Denver Post book review says: "In what could have been a dismal treatise, Radelet turns this fact-filled book into an absorbing history of Colorado’s flirtation with legal killing."

Florida House Issues Apology for 1949 Lynchings and Wrongful Convictions

In 1949, Norma Padgett, a white 17-year-old, falsely accused four young black men in Groveland, Florida of kidnapping and raping her. Nearly 70 years later, the state of Florida is apologizing to the families of the "Groveland Four," two of whom were murdered and two of whom were wrongly sentenced to death. After the false accusations, enraged white residents of Lake County went on a violent rampage, shooting at and burning the homes of black residents. The Governor sought help from the National Guard to quell the violence. One of the falsely accused young men, Ernest Thomas, escaped from the county jail and was shot dead by an angry mob of 1,000 men led by Lake County sheriff Willis V. McCall. Thomas was shot 400 times. The three others who had been falsely accused were beaten into giving false confessions, then quickly tried and convicted by an all-white jury. The youngest, Charles Greenlee, who was only 16 years old, was sentenced to life in prison. Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, both Army veterans, were sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed their convictions and ordered a new trial. During their transport from the county prison for court proceedings, Sheriff McCall claimed the pair tried to escape and shot both men, killing Shepherd. Irvin played dead, survived the shooting, and was again tried and sentenced to death. Irvin received a last-minute reprieve from execution and his sentence was commuted by the Governor. Greenlee and Irvin were both granted parole in the 1960s. Irvin died in 1970 and Greenlee in 2012. The Groveland Four, as the men came to be known, were finally given a formal apology from the Florida House of Representatives on April 19, 2017, nearly 70 years after they were first accused. Rep. Bobby DuBose (D-Fort Lauderdale), sponsored the bill and said, "This resolution, while seemingly minute, symbolizes the great state of Florida looking those families in the eyes — families, with children, who grew up not knowing their fathers but only knew their records. This resolution is us simply saying, ‘We’re sorry’ — understanding we will never know or make up for the pain we have caused." The resolution, which says the Groveland Four, “were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history,” and calls on Gov. Rick Scott to expedite posthumous pardons, passed the House unanimously. The Senate is expected to vote soon on its version of the bill.

BOOKS: "The Death Penalty As Torture: From the Dark Ages to Abolition"

In his newest book, The Death Penalty As Torture: From the Dark Ages to Abolition, John Bessler chronicles the historical link between torture and the death penalty from the Middle Ages to the present day and argues that both are medieval relics. The book, released on February 17, 2017, asserts that capital punishment is itself a form of torture, despite modern legal distinctions that outlaw torture while permitting death sentences and executions. Bessler draws on the writings of philosophers such as Cesare Beccaria and Montesquieu, who condemned both practices and concluded that any punishment that was harsher than absolutely necessary was unjustifiable. Bringing these historical threads to the modern day, Bessler writes that the availability of highly-secure penitentiaries has made the death penalty unnecessary as an instrument of public safety. He argues that with more than 80% of the world's nations either not conducting executions or barring the death penalty outright, it is time for international law to recognize a norm against the use of the death penalty. Bessler is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law whose previous books on capital punishment include Cruel and Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders' Eighth AmendmentThe Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution, and Against the Death Penalty.

Fifty Years After Australia's Controversial Final Execution, Opposition to Death Penalty Is Strong

On February 3, Australia marked 50 years since its last execution. That execution—the hanging of Ronald Joseph Ryan on February 3, 1967 for the murder of a prison guard during an escape attempt—came at a time in which support for capital punishment in the country was already waning. The state of Victoria, where Ryan was executed, had not had an execution since 1951. Though certain crimes carried a mandatory death sentence, the state government cabinet had commuted 34 of the other 35 death sentences imposed in the intervening 16 years. The Australian High Court had overturned the one other death sentence. A man who served on Ryan's jury said none of the jurors believed he would actually be executed, and seven of them wrote to the cabinet in favor of clemency. The Melbourne Herald, a conservative-leaning newspaper, editorialized against the execution in January 1967, saying, "The state government's insistence on this final solution is causing the deepest revulsion. It is punishment in its most barbarous form. And experience has shown it gains nothing but dishonour for the community which inflicts it." Eight years later, Victoria abolished the death penalty, and every Australian state repealed it by 1985. Since that time, Australians have grown more opposed to the death penalty. According to the BBC, the most recent national poll, conducted in August 2009, found 23% of Australians support the death penalty and 64% oppose it. In 2010, the national government, in keeping with an international treaty, passed laws banning the reintroduction of capital punishment. The Australian giovenment has been active in calling for the global abolition of capital punishment. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company at the time of the 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Oslo, Norway in June 2016, Australia's Special Envoy for Human Rights, Philip Ruddock, described his efforts to persuade U.S. and Chinese officials to move away from capital punishment. "I believe when your friends suggest that maybe there's time for a change, you do start to think a bit more seriously about it," he said. "I think many Americans are embarrassed that they continue to have some states that maintain capital punishment." 

On 100th Anniversary of Notorious Waco Lynching, Research Shows Link Between Lynching and Capital Punishment

100 years ago, Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old black farmhand accused of murdering his white female employer was lynched on the steps of the Waco, Texas courthouse (pictured), moments after Washington's trial ended and only seven days after the murder had occurred. The gruesome lynching took place in front of law enforcement personnel and 15,000 spectators, none of whom intervened to end the violence. Washington, whom reports indicate may have been intellectually disabled, initially denied involvement in the murder, but then purportedly confessed to police. A mob of 500 vigilantes searched the county prison in an unsuccessful attempt to find Washington, whom the sheriff had moved to other counties for his safety. An estimated 2,500 people—many carrying guns and threatening to lynch Washington—packed the courtroom during the short trial. As the jury read the guilty verdict and before the judge could record its death sentence, a man reportedly yelled, “Get the n****r,” and the crowd descended on Washington, carrying him out of the courthouse with a chain around his neck, while others attacked him with bricks and knives. The incident became a turning point in anti-lynching efforts and contributed to the prominence of the NAACP. Ignored for decades, Washington's lynching recently gained local attention and prompted a condemnation by the Waco City Council and McLennan County commissioners in 2006. Studies have shown that counties that historically have had high numbers of lynchings continue to have higher levels of homicide, police violence against racial minorities, disproportionate sentencing of black defendants, and more frequent use of capital punishment. A 2005 study in the American Sociological Review found that the number of death sentences, and especially the number of death sentences for black defendants, was higher in states with histories of lynching. “What the lynching proved about our community was that African-American men and women were not viewed as humans or equal citizens,” Peaches Henry, president of the Waco NAACP said. “While they no longer hang people upon trees, we do see situations where African-American lives are not valued.” McLennan County, where Washington was lynched, ranks among the 2% of U.S. counties that are responsible for more than half of all death sentences in the United States. 

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