Showing posts with label Capital Punishment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Capital Punishment. Show all posts

10 January 2018

Criminal Curiosities: Twelve Remarkable reprobates you've probably never heard of.



Out now for the Amazon Kindle.


As a crime writer with a long-time interest in crime's more unusual aspects, I often try to find some of its more overlooked stories. Who needs yet another rehash of Jack the Ripper or JFK reshuffling old evidence while seldom offering anything new? Apart from accountants at publishing companies wanting bestsellers to boost their quarterly balance sheets, at any rate?

All walks of life have their pioneers, those who stand out as the first, last or only example in thier field. Crime is no exception., but crime's stand-outs are seldom as widely acknowledged as, say, the first Moon landing or the discovery of the New World. It's time that changed. Criminal Curiosities is a small step toward that.

Some readers will have heard of William Kemmler or Herbert Rowse Armstrong. Kemmler was, after all, the first convict ever to be legally electrocuted. Armstrong was (and remains, the UK having abolished capital punishment) the first and only British lawyer to be hanged for murder.

But who was the first convict to face the guillotine? Why were legendary figures Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse so closely entwined with William Kemmler and he with them? Whose murder trial saw the victim's body transported to the scene of the crime, then used in a live reconstruction in front of the jury? And how on earth did Dutch art forger Han van Meegeren get away with trading a fake Vermeer for 137 genuine paintings (today worth around $60 million with, of all people, Gestapo founder and Luftwaffe commander Herman Goering? 

You probably don't know. Criminal Curiosities is where you find out.

They're all singular in their own particular way. All have a fascinating tale to tell of their own misdeeds and how they sometimes forever changed the world around them. All of them are often overlooked and some are barely historical footnotes, if that.

Criminal Curiosities is currently available for the Amazon Kindle.






09 January 2018

James Wells, America's worst botched execution.



(Wikipedia).


Call it whatever you want. Old Sparky, Old Smokey, Sizzlin’ Sally or Gruesome Gertie, the electric chair has always had a troubled history. From its very first use (executing murderer William Kemmler on August 6, 1890) it’s been dogged by failures, mechanical and human

Initial problems involved untried equipment, new ideas and inexperienced executioners. Limited knowledge of inflicting humane electrocution spawned a series of experimental executions. Successive inmates endured different numbers of electrodes, different voltages applied for different durations, electrodes placed on different body parts and so on.

In 1892 Charles McElvaine’s hands were placed in tubs of brine to conduct the voltage. He suffered horribly before the now-standard head and leg electrodes were used instead. Malfunctioning or ill-prepared equipment (in the case of Willie Francis and so many others) has also caused horrific scenes in America’s death chambers.

What happened at the former Arkansas State Penitentiary in Little Rock (since demolished and replaced by public buildings) on March 10, 1922 made Kemmler’s suffering look comparatively minor. Murderer and escapee James Wells endured perhaps the worst-botched execution in American history.

Wells, born in 1904 and hailing from Drew County, was an African-American farmhand. Convicted of murdering white Arkansas farmer Peter Trenz (his former employer) on May 18, 1921 Wells was never likely to avoid Old Sparky. He was a poor, black defendant convicted of murdering a respectable white victim. In those less-enlightened times, many whites considered that reason enough.


(Arkansas Department of Corrections).

Arkansas introduced electrocution in 1913, the State also taking over executions from individual counties. During the chair’s lengthy tenure Arkansas executed 195 prisoners. Of these two were Native American men, one white woman, one Hispanic male and 57 white males. The rest, 143 men, were all African-American. Warden Luther Castling had resigned rather than electrocute the ten men then waiting to die. His successor Warden Dempsey didn't have similar qualms.


(From the Daily Ardmorite). 

Aside from being poor, black and convicted of murdering a white when lynching and legal execution was equally likely for that crime, Wells hadn’t exactly done himself any favors after his conviction. On December 9, 1921 condemned killer, bank robber and serial escaper Tom Slaughter managed a spectacular escape from ‘The Walls’ and Death Row itself.

Overpowering guards, Slaughter took the Warden’s family hostage, escaping in Warden Dempsey’s car. Dempsey, whose job it had been to carry out executions, soon found himself unemployed. That in turn caused an excruciating death for Wells.

Slaughter had invited the other condemned inmates to join him. Wells, believing his appeal would almost certainly fail, escaped with him. Slaughter survived only a day before being shot by fellow-escaper Jack Howard. Howard claimed to have escaped only to help bring Slaughter to justice, a claim accepted by Arkansas authorities. Howard was never charged over Slaughter’s death, being pardoned and released several years later.

Wells, soon recaptured, returned to Death Row. He’d escaped on December 9, been recaptured within days and his appeal was denied on Christmas Eve, 1921. A foolish time to attempt escape and humiliate the Arkansas justice system. Not much of a Christmas present, either. That said, nothing can justify what happened at his execution.

On March 10, 1922 all the usual preparations had been made. All that remained was for the executioner to do his job competently and professionally. With Warden Dempsey gone, the new executioner was an Englishman, a former car salesman whose sole qualification and experience consisted of having (as he himself put it) taken ‘a correspondence course in electricity.’ The State of Arkansas had entrusted a delicate, potentially dangerous task to a man utterly lacking expertise, training or experience. It was suggested at the time that the nameless volunteer arrived drunk.


(Arkansas Department of Corrections).


Wells entered the penitentiary’s death chamber singing a hymn. He was still singing as he sat in Old Sparky and the straps and electrodes were applied. He remained singing right up until the executioner threw the switch. As the Dallas Express described it:

“Going to the chair singing, Wells continued to sing until the first charge of electricity was sent through his body.”

Wells was certainly silenced by the first jolt, but he wasn’t dead. Either the first jolt was far too brief or the voltage far too low. Still alive, Wells needed another. Shocked again, he remained alive. A third jolt was called for.

The witnesses began looking uncomfortable. Inmates were supposed to sit down quietly, say their last words and die. A second jolt might be delivered to make sure, but seldom more than that. The executioner shocked Wells repeatedly. Repeatedly the current crackled, doctors checking between jolts. Wells simply wouldn’t die.

After the first jolts had failed horrified witnesses began leaving the execution chamber. With every unsuccessful jolt the remaining witnesses’ disgust grew. By the eleventh jolt everyone involved just wanted it to end. For the twelfth time the switch was thrown, the current crackled and Wells leapt against the restraints. The power was shut off while doctors checked yet again.
James Wells was finally dead.

As the Dallas Express described it, the execution succeeded at:

“The twelfth attempt, according to witnesses, after terrible suffering on the part of the boy.”

The disaster was publicised in Arkansas, Utah, California, Texas, Tennessee and numerous other States where executions, especially of African-Americans, seldom garnered more than a line or two.
Even the New York Tribune covered it, stating:

‘Wells was examined by the State physicians who pronounced him still alive. Another charge of electricity was sent through his body, with the same result. Witnesses began to leave the death room and only a few were still present when the last charges were sent through his body and Wells finally was pronounced dead. Fully twenty minutes were consumed in putting him to death.’


(www.executedtoday.com).

Had Arkansas employed an expert like New York’s Robert Greene Elliott, the nightmarish exhibition would almost certainly have never happened. Elliott performed 387 executions in six States, perfecting the ‘Elliott Technique’; 2000 volts for three seconds, 500 volts for 57 seconds,, 2000 volts for another three seconds, 500 for 57 seconds and a final burst of 2000 volts. Very rarely did he need to deliver more than one cycle.


A bitter irony that, as his executioner, Wells couldn’t have been in safer hands.







Sources:

www.executedtoday.com

The Daily Ardmorite, Oklahoma.

Arkansas Department of Corrections.

The New York Tribune.

The Dallas Express

www.deathpenaltyusa.org

Gruesome Spectacles; Botched executions and America's Death Penalty, Austin Sarat, 2014, Stanford Law Books.

10 April 2017

80 years ago: NYPD detective fatally shot

Detective Michael J. Foley
On this date in 1937 - Gunmen attempting to rob the Cafe Boulevard restaurant in Manhattan fatally shot Police Detective Michael J. Foley.

The incident led to the wrongful conviction and nearly to the execution of New York resident Isidore "Beansy" Zimmerman.

In 1938, Zimmerman and four other men were convicted of the murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The case against Zimmerman rested on testimony of alleged accomplices who received immunity from prosecution, a common occurrence in high-profile cases handled by the office of District Attorney Thomas Dewey. Those witnesses stated that, while Zimmerman was not present when Detective Foley was shot, he had planned the armed robbery that resulted in the fatal shooting.

On the day scheduled for execution, Governor Herbert Lehman commuted Zimmerman's sentence to life in prison. "Beansy" was taken from Death Row and evaluated for emotional problems by medical staff before being moved to the prison's general population. He spent the next twenty-three years in penitentiaries - Sing Sing, Auburn, Dannemora and Green Haven. Bitter over his treatment and emotionally scarred from his near-execution, Zimmerman was an uncooperative prisoner and frequently served disciplinary terms in solitary confinement.

Isidore 'Beansy' Zimmerman
Later investigations revealed improper actions by Dewey assistant Jacob Rosenblum. Rosenblum was found to have hidden evidence of conflicting statements by the witnesses used against Zimmerman.

In January 1961, the New York State Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Zimmerman. Prosecutors decided not to retry the flawed case. Zimmerman was released from prison in February 1961. The original indictment against him was dismissed in March 1967.

In 1981, two decades after he was released from prison, New York Governor Hugh Carey agreed to permit a Zimmerman lawsuit. Zimmerman won a court judgment of $1 million in the late spring of 1983. He was left with $660,000, after paying off his large legal expenses. He had little time left to enjoy the money. He bought a new car and took a short vacation in the Catskills before he died.

Sources:
  • “Detective is slain battling 4 thugs,” New York Times, April 11, 1937, p. 21.
  • “Indicted in police death,” New York Times, April 23, 1937, p. 2.
  • “Five are convicted in police killing,” New York Times, April 15, 1938, p. 11.
  • “5 young bandits sentenced to die,” New York Times, April 23, 1938, p. 32.
  • “3 die, 2 are spared for hold-up death,” New York Times, Jan. 27, 1939, p. 42.
  • Howard, Jane, “Wrong man in jail,” LIFE, May 15, 1964, p. 57-64.
  • “Resigns as Dewey aide,” New York Times, Dec. 31, 1941, p. 20.
  • Isidore Zimmerman v. City of New York et al., Supreme Court of New York, Special Term, New York County, 1966, ny.findacase.com, accessed May 5, 2016.
  • “Jacob J. Rosenblum dead at 73; Dewey homicide bureau chief,” New York Times, Jan. 24, 1971, p. 65.
  • Zimmerman v. State of New York, Court of Claims, 76 Misc. 2d 193, 1973, casetext.com, accessed May 5, 2016.
  • “What price a Zimmerman?” New York Times, June 5, 1983.
  • McFadden, Robert D., “Isidore Zimmerman, 66, man unjustly jailed for a murder,” New York Times, Oct. 14, 1983.


26 November 2016

'Wrongly Executed?' book now available

Sing Sing Warden Lewis Lawes had no doubt on the evening of January 5, 1939: He had just presided over the electric-chair-execution of an innocent man. The prison chaplain and many guards also felt that convicted cop-killer Charles Sberna had been sent to his death unjustly.

Lawes made his feelings known in a published book a short time later. Syndicated Broadway columnist Walter Winchell also called attention to the flawed case against Sberna in the summer of 1939 and again early in 1942. According to Winchell, the government knew that District Attorney Thomas Dewey's office had sent an innocent man to the chair and was providing "hush money" payments to Sberna relatives. Since then, opponents of capital punishment have included Sberna's name in collections of those deemed "wrongly executed" and have used the case as a somewhat vague example of the possibility of death penalty error. Still, little is known about Sberna or the circumstances that led him to the electric chair.

The story is a complex and controversial one, involving celebrity attorneys, Mafia bosses, violent political radicals, media giants and ruthless establishment figures, all set in a period in which Americans sought stability and government-imposed order after years of political upheaval, economic depression and Prohibition Era lawlessness.

Dust jacket for 'Wrongly Executed?' hardcover

I first became aware of Charles Sberna's story during research into U.S. capital punishment errors. Archived newspaper columns by Winchell revealed a tale worthy of retelling. Sberna and Gati both were convicted and executed for the 1937 murder of Patrolman John H.A. Wilson. Gati admitted his role but insisted that Sberna was not present for the crime. Names of other possible Gati accomplices were revealed, but prosecutors made little effort to check into them.

Email conversations with publisher Rick Mattix relating to the startup of the On the Spot Journal of "gangster era" crime history led me to assemble an article on the Sberna case for the journal's December 2006 issue.

That first article noted the relation by marriage of Charles Sberna and the Morello-Lupo-Terranova clan, which had been a major influence in early New York organized crime. Sberna took as his bride Carmela Morello, daughter of former Mafia boss of bosses Giuseppe Morello and niece of New York City rackets leaders Ignazio "the Wolf" Lupo and Ciro "Artichoke King" Terranova.

Sberna's own family background remained a mystery until later research into Amedeo Polignani of the NYPD shed light on the involvement by Charles Sberna's father Giuseppe in the anarchist-terrorist bombings of the 1910s. Giuseppe Sberna was a vocal leader in the East Harlem-based Bresci Circle, the nation's largest anarchist organization. Local, state and federal authorities hunted Giuseppe Sberna, but he escaped to his native Italy, leaving his wife and children behind in New York. Learning this, I began to wonder whether Charles Sberna, so closely connected to so many fearsome public enemies, possibly could have received a fair trial. My decision to fully explore the Sberna case soon followed.

Accused cop-killers Charles Sberna (left)
and Salvatore Gati (right) in court.

I examined court documents, the careers of prosecutors and elected officials, the history of law enforcement efforts against the early Mafia and the American anarchist movement, the questionable philosophies and courtroom tactics of D.A. Thomas Dewey and his assistants, and the known and suspected crimes of the men who might have committed the murder attributed to Sberna. Much of what I found was deeply troubling.

A fair trial may have been denied to Charles Sberna. Given the mood of the time, the background of the defendant and the circumstances of the case, a truly fair trial may have been impossible.

Wrongly Executed? - The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution is now available in hardcover, paperback and ebook formats. For more information and purchase options, visit the Wrongly Executed? website.

(I wish to express my appreciation to Christian Cipollini, C. Joseph Greaves, Ellen Poulsen and Robert Sberna for their support and assistance on this project.)

22 October 2016

'Wrongly Executed?' You decide


I have been finishing up a manuscript relating to the 1939 electric-chair execution of convicted cop-killer Charles Sberna. Sberna's name is frequently mentioned by opponents of capital punishment as an example of a wrongful execution. 

I first wrote an article on the subject years back for the On the Spot Journal published by the late Rick "Mad Dog" Mattix, and I have been accumulating additional information since that time. 

My original article (a version can be found on my American Mafia history website) touched on the trial evidence and Sberna's criminal background. It argued that the evidence of Sberna's involvement with two other men in the killing of Officer John H.A. Wilson appeared inconclusive but that it would be a misuse of the word "innocent" ever to apply it to Sberna, who was a habitual wrongdoer. 

The data acquired since then - trial testimony and evidence, legal appeals, witness statements and tons of background material - has done little to clear up the questions. But it has produced an exciting story, involving domestic terrorism, organized crime, corrupt politicians and crusading prosecutors.

Sberna and codefendant Salvatore Gati were brought to trial before authorities arrested a third suspect in the killing. At trial, Gati took the witness stand to admit his own guilt and to insist that Sberna was not present at the time and place of the crime. He refused to provide identifications for his two accomplices, but stated that Sberna was not one of them. When Sberna testified on his own behalf, he provided names of known criminals Gati reportedly revealed as his accomplices. 

A jury decided that Sberna and Gati were both guilty and that neither should not be shown mercy. An appeals court upheld the verdict. A generally liberal-minded governor refused to commute or even to delay Sberna's trip to the electric chair. The warden and chaplain of Sing Sing Prison grew convinced that Sberna had no part in the killing of Officer Wilson, but they had no authority to interfere with the execution. 

Over time, prosecutors spoke of their suspicion that one or both of the men named by Sberna were, in fact, involved in the killing of officer Wilson, but neither man was ever charged. With Sberna and Gati already dead, it appears it did not suit the interests of justice to reveal that there still remained two suspects for a three-man crime. 

There are many reasons to be concerned about the Sberna case. And it is tempting, from our perspective almost eight decades later, to condemn involved groups or individuals. But each was a product of his era and his environment. And each deserves to be judged within his unique context. 

I have called the book, Wrongly Executed? The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution. After completing the great fun of researching and writing the book, I will soon begin the laborious chore of trying to find a publisher for it.

- Thomas Hunt