05 January 2017

Sberna goes to The Chair

On this date in 1939, Charles Sberna was sent to The Chair. Though he had been convicted of participating in the killing of a New York City police officer, many believed - and many still believe - he was innocent. 

At trial, codefendant Salvatore Gati took the witness stand to confess his own involvement in the incident that led to Police Officer John H.A. Wilson's death. But Gati insisted that Sberna was not present. Gati named two other men as his accomplices. Prosecutors from District Attorney Thomas Dewey's office apparently did not give serious consideration to the testimony or to Sberna's alibi.

Some of the evidence collected at the scene
of the killing of Police Officer Wilson.

The only witness who connected Sberna to the killing of Wilson had serious credibility problems of his own. He likely would have been on trial himself for a number of offenses if Dewey's office had not needed him to testify against Sberna. Did public officials have an anti-Sberna bias that prevented them from dealing even-handedly with the case?

Only much later, after Sberna had been executed in Sing Sing Prison's death device, did journalists wonder about other men who were suspected of involvement in Wilson's killing but never faced trial for it. Were those men released because bringing them to justice would have exposed a terrible injustice done to Sberna?

Excerpt from Wrongly Executed? The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution

"...Thursday, January 5, 1939, was the 457th consecutive day that Charles Sberna and Salvatore Gati spent behind bars. It was also the last. The Death Row prisoners were granted the luxury of selecting their afternoon and evening meals. Sberna requested an early meal of lamb chops, mashed potatoes, salad, rolls and butter with coffee. He also asked for Chesterfield cigarettes. His requests for cigars and some other items were refused. Gati made no request for his early meal other than to be allowed to eat a can of pork and beans from his own supply. Sberna placed an additional large request for his supper. He ordered roast chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, fresh tomatoes, rolls and butter, coffee, ice cream and cake. Gati’s requested supper was just another can of pork and beans. The condemned men may have hoped for a last-minute reprieve from Governor Lehman, though Lehman had made it clear by then that he did not intend to interfere with their punishments. They must have understood the reality of the situation as their heads were shaved to allow for direct connection of an electrode with their scalps. During the day, Sberna was visited by his wife, and Gati was visited by his mother Teresa..."


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