Wrongful executions
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Wrongful executions


From: Mike Radelet , Some Twentieth Century Erroneous Executions

(From Michael L. Radelet, Hugo Adam Bedau, and Constance Putnam, In Spite of Innocence: Erroneous Convictions in Capital Cases. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992, and Bedau and Radelet, "Miscarriages of Justice in Potentially Capital Cases." Stanford Law Review 40 (1987): 21-179)


Adams, James (black). 1974. Florida. Adams was convicted of first-degree murder, sentenced to death, and executed in 1984. Witnesses located Adams' car at the time of the crime at the home of the victim, a white rancher. Some of the victim's jewelry was found in the car trunk. Adams maintained his innocence, claiming that he had loaned the car to his girlfriend. A witness identified Adams as driving the car away from the victim's home shortly after the crime. This witness, however, was driving a large truck in the direction opposite to that of Adams' car, and probably could not have had a good look at the driver. It was later discovered that this witness was angry with Adams for allegedly dating his wife. A second witness heard a voice inside the victim's home at the time of the crime and saw someone fleeing. He stated this voice was a woman's; the day after the crime he stated that the fleeing person was positively not Adams. More importantly, a hair sample found clutched in the victim's hand, which in all likelihood had come from the assailant, did not mach Adams' hair. Much of this exculpatory information was not discovered until the case was examined by a skilled investigator a month before Adams' execution. Governor Graham, however, refused to grant even a short stay so that these questions could be resolved.

 

Anderson, William Henry (black). 1945. Florida. Anderson was convicted of the rape of a white woman, sentenced to death, and executed in 1945 without an appeal having been made. The execution took place only five months after Anderson's arrest, perhaps in part because the sheriff wrote to the governor, "I would appreciate special attention in this case before some sym- pathizing organization gets hold of it." The victim had not resisted, screamed, or used an available pistol to resist Anderson's advances. Anderson's sister and one of his co-workers presented affidavits to the governor claiming that Anderson and the victim had been consensually intimate for several months before rape charges were filed. Anderson's attorney also wrote to the governor that "There exists well founded belief . . . that William Henry Anderson and the prosecutrix were intimate since August 1944. This belief is widespread among Negroes, but white people have been heard to express opinions likewise."

 

Appelgate, Everett (white). 1936. New York. Appelgate was convicted, with Frances Q. Creighton, of the murder of Appelgate's wife; both were sentenced to death in 1936. The conviction was affirmed on appeal. Creighton had been tried and acquitted on two separate occasions for similar murders a dozen years before she met Appelgate. In this case, she testified that she killed the victim (by arsenic poisoning) at Appelgate's instigation. During the investigation of the case, she also confessed to one of the previous murders. "Virtually no evidence against Appelgate existed beyond Mrs. Creighton's unsupported word." Appelgate had no previous criminal record, and Creighton's version of the crime changed somewhat during the investigation. Appelgate admitted having had sexual relations with Creighton's 15-year-old daughter; that fact did not earn him any sympathy from the jury. Governor Herbert Lehman, who had doubts about Appelgate's guilt, requested the prosecutor's support for clemency for Appelgate; it was not forthcoming, and clemency was denied. Appelgate was executed (as was Creighton) in 1936. A few weeks after the execution all investigation of Appelgate's innocence ended.

 

Bambrick, Thomas (white). 1915. New York. Bambrick was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. The conviction was affirmed on appeal. Evidence was later discovered that convinced Warden Thomas Mott Osborne and the prison chaplain that another man had committed the crime. Osborne knew who that man was. Although Bambrick also knew the man's identity, he refused to "squeal" on him. Osborne commented, "It is almost as certain that Bambrick is innocent as that the sun will rise tomorrow." Bambrick was executed in 1916.

 

Becker, Charles, and Frank ("Dago") Cirofici (both white). 1912. New York. Becker and Cirofici were convicted of murder; Cirofici was executed in 1914 and Becker in 1915. The victim, Rosenthal, was a gambling-house owner. Shortly before the homicide, Rosenthal had implicated Becker, a police lieutenant, in

gambling activities. Becker had earlier made the gambling world angry because of his vigorous work in suppressing their activities. He was convicted largely on the testimony of gamblers and ex-convicts in the glare of extensive newspaper publicity about police corruption. These witnesses, allegedly middlemen hired by

Becker, were given immunity for their testimony by an ambitious district attorney. The alleged motive was graft, although no evidence was produced to support the theory. Less is known about Cirofici, one of four gunmen put to death for the crime. The then warden of Sing Sing prison, James Clancy, allegedly believed that two of the executed gunmen were innocent. Another former Sing Sing warden, Thomas Mott Osborne, who knew the closest friends of the gunmen, stated that these friends all agreed Cirofici had nothing to do with the murder and was not even present when it occurred. Warden Osborne also believed that Becker was not guilty.

 

Collins, Roosevelt (black). 1937. Alabama. Collins was convicted of rape, sentenced to death, and executed in 1937. The conviction was affirmed on appeal. Collins testified that the "victim" (white) had consented, which caused a near-riot in the courtroom and led the woman's husband to pull out a gun and fire it at Collins. Collins was almost lynched and received only a perfunctory defense. The all-white jury deliberated for only four minutes. Subsequent interviews with several jurors revealed that although they believed the act was consensual, they also thought that Wilson deserved death simply for "messin' around" with a white woman. Even the judge, off the record, admitted his belief that Collins was telling the truth. "An innocent man went to his death."

 

Dawson, Sie (black). 1960. Florida. Dawson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. The victim was the two-year-old son of a white woman for whom Dawson worked. (Although the boy's mother was also murdered, Dawson was not tried for that offense.) The conviction by an all-white male jury was based on a confession obtained from Dawson after he had spent more than a week in custody without the assistance of counsel and on an accusation by the victim's husband. Dawson had an I.Q. of 64. At trial, Dawson repudiated his confession, claiming it was given only because "the white officers told him to say he killed Mrs. Clayton or they'd give him to 'the mob' outside." On appeal, the conviction was affirmed on a 4-3 vote. Dawson was executed in 1964. Years later, newspaper stories revived doubts that had surrounded the conviction from the beginning. Dawson had claimed that the victim's husband had committed the murders. There were no eyewitnesses and the circumstantial evidence was slight and inconclusive.

 

Garner, Vance, and Will Johnson (both black). 1905. Alabama. With Jack Hunter, Garner and Johnson were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, despite their claims of innocence. No appeals were undertaken. In 1905, Garner and Hunter were hanged. From the gallows Garner maintained his complete innocence, while Hunter admitted his own guilt and absolved both Garner and Johnson. In 1906, Johnson's sentence was commuted to life. A fourth man, Bunk Richardson, who was charged with perjuring himself in Garner's behalf, was lynched three nights after Johnson's death sentence was commuted.

 

Grzechowiak, Stephen, and Max Rybarczyk (both white). 1929. New York. Grzechowiak and Rybarczyk were both convicted of felony murder and sentenced to death. Co-defendant Alexander Bogdanoff insisted that neither Grzechowiak nor Rybarczyk had been involved in the crime, and that each had been mistakenly identified by the eyewitnesses. He refused, however, to reveal the names of his true accomplices. Grzechowiak and Rybarczyk executed in 1930, after their convictions were affirmed on appeal. In their final words, they

maintained their innocence, and Bogdanoff again declared that the two were innocent.

 

Hauptmann, Bruno Richard (white). 1935. New Jersey. Hauptmann was convicted of felony-murder-burglary, sentenced to death, and executed in 1936. He was infamous as the ransom- kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby. Hauptmann's is a classic case of conviction based on an intricate web of circumstantial evidence, perjury, prosecutorial suppression of evidence, a grossly incompetent defense attorney, and a trial in an atmosphere of near-hysteria. The trial followed a 2-year nationwide hunt for the kidnappers of the baby boy of "Lindy," the nation's favorite hero, whose wife was the daughter of the wealthy and socially prominent Morrow family. Hauptmann was the victim of over-zealous prosecutors, intent on solving the most notorious crime of the decade. Although Governor Hoffman believed that Hauptmann was framed, he chose not to halt the execution. There is no doubt that the conviction rested in part on corrupt prosecutorial practices, suppression of evidence, intimidation of witnesses, perjured testimony, and Hauptmann's prior record. In 1986, his aging widow brought suit against the prosecuting attorney and a dozen other defendants in a civil action.

 

Hill, Joe (originally known as Joseph Hillstrom) (white). 1915. Utah. Hill was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of two storekeepers. The prosecution was based on sketchy circumstantial evidence and was in part the result of collusion between the prosecution and the trial judge in an atmosphere of anti-union hostility. Despite several appeals from President Woodrow Wilson to the Utah authorities for a reprieve, Hill was denied a new trial. He was also denied executive clemency. His appeal to the Utah Supreme Court was unsuccessful and he was executed in 1915. Hill appears to have been an innocent victim of "politics, finance and organized religion, . . . a powerful trinity"; his conviction and death are "one of the worst traves- ties of justice in American labor history."

 

Lamble, Harold (alias George Brandon) (white). 1920. New Jersey. Lamble was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Testimony of an alleged accomplice and Lamble's admission on the witness stand of his previous convictions led to his conviction, which was affirmed on appeal. Lamble consistently asserted his innocence, but he was executed in 1921. After the execution, Governor Edward Edwards refused requests to appoint a special counsel to investigate the case, despite what the New York Times called a "rather widespread fear that perhaps" Lamble was innocent. Lamble's attorney was disbarred for mishandling the defense.

 

Mays, Maurice F. (black). 1919. Tennessee. Mays was convicted of murder in the killing of a white woman and sentenced to death. A white lynch mob terrorized the entire black community in Knoxville, and several blacks were killed by white rioters; the National Guard had to be called out. Mays's conviction rested on the testimony of a police officer who had disliked him for years and on the testimony of an eyewitness who never got a clear look at the killer. On appeal, the conviction was reversed because the judge, rather than the jury, had fixed the penalty at death. Mays was retried, reconvicted, and resentenced to death, and this conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal. In 1922, Mays was executed, still maintaining his innocence. In 1926, the real killer confessed in a written statement that revealed she was a white woman who had dressed up as a black man to kill the woman with whom her husband was having an affair. The authorities, however, never accepted this confession, no doubt because they had already executed Mays for the crime. Accepting the confession would have meant admitting an erroneous execution. Mays had been previously convicted in 1903 for killing a black man, but was pardoned for that crime.

 

McGee, Willie (black). 1945. Mississippi. McGee was convicted of the rape of a white woman and sentenced to death by an all-white jury that deliberated for only two and a half minutes. The conviction was reversed on appeal because a request to change venue was not granted. After a change of venue, McGee was retried, reconvicted, and resentenced to death by another all-white jury (this jury deliberated for eleven minutes). This conviction was also reversed because of the exclusion of blacks from juries in the indicting county. In 1948, McGee was reindicted, retried, reconvicted, and again resentenced to death; three blacks were on the jury but there was no change of venue. On appeal the conviction was affirmed, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. The chief evidence against McGee was a coerced confession that he gave after being held incommunicado for thirty-two days after his arrest; the victim's husband and her two children, asleep in the next room, never heard any commotion from the alleged attack. Investigation by journalist Carl Rowan revealed that the victim had been consorting with McGee for four years and was angry at his efforts to terminate their relationship. Nonetheless, local blacks were too intimidated to give this evidence in court, and local whites felt the woman's consent was impossible or irrelevant. An attempt to win a retrial on the basis of newly discovered evidence failed, and McGee was executed in 1951.

 

Sacco, Nicola, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (both white). 1921. Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted of murder in the course of armed robbery, sentenced to death, and executed in 1927. Their case is probably themost controversial death penalty case in this century. They were arrested and tried in an atmosphere dominated by "the Red Scare" of the early 1920s; the defendants---described as "anarchist bastards" in an-off-the bench comment during the trial by the judge--were on death row for six years. In 1925, another man also under thedeath sentence in Massachusetts confessed to the crime. Extensive investigation of the confession convinced many that he was, indeed, telling the truth. In 1926, the trial judge denied motions for a retrial based on theconfession, and his decision was sustained on appeal. In 1977, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the executions, Governor Dukakis signed a carefully worded proclamation intended to remove "any stigma and disgrace" from their names, declaring, in part, that their "trial and execution ...should serve to remind all civilized people of the constant need to guard against our susceptibility to prejudice, our intolerance of unorthodox ideas, and our failure to defend the rights of persons who are looked upon as strangers in our

midst...."

 

Sanders, Albert (black). 1917. Alabama. Sanders was convicted, with Fisher Brooks, of murder, and sentenced to death. The conviction was affirmed on appeal. Though he had nothing to gain by helping Sanders, Brooks testified at Sanders's trial that Sanders was innocent. Another fellow prisoner testified that he had heard Sanders confess, however, and both Brooks and Sanders were executed in 1918. In a statement from the scaffold, Brooks again insisted on Sanders's innocence, as did Sanders himself before he was hanged.

 

Sberna, Charles (white). 1938. New York. Sberna was convicted of first-degree murder of a police officer and was sentenced to death. His conviction was affirmed on appeal. Sberna's codefendant, Salvatore Gati, testified at the trial that Sberna was innocent, and in prison, both Gati and Sberna convinced Isidore Zimmerman (see Chapter 2) that Sberna was innocent. Gati also said the head of the New York Homicide Bureau (Jacob Rosenblum) had told him that he knew Sberna was innocent, and would clear his name if Gati would reveal the name of his real accomplices. Gati refused to do this. Later it turned out this police official had also been involved in wrongfully convicting Zimmerman. Sberna and Gati were both executed in 1938. The prison chaplain said of Sberna, "This is the first time I've ever been positive that an innocent man was going to the chair, and there is nothing I can do about it. If only people would make sure they know what they are talking about before they swear a man's life away."

 

Shumway, R. Mead (white). 1907. Nebraska. Shumway was convicted of the first-degree murder of his employer's wife on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to death. One juror, the only one to hold out against the death penalty for Shumway, told his friends he "had not slept well any night since the trial." He later left a note in which he expressed "great worry at the trial," and he then killed himself. Shumway was executed in 1909. His last words were: "I am an innocent victim. May God forgive everyone who has said anything against me." In 1910, the victim's husband confessed on his deathbed that he had murdered his wife.

 

Tucker, Charles Louis (white). 1905. Massachusetts. Tucker was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. The conviction, based on circumstantial evidence, was affirmed on appeal. More than 100,000 Massachusetts residents signed petitions on behalf of clemency. Among those convinced of his innocence was the county medical examiner (who lost his job because of his stand) and a clergyman who said a witness had told him she perjured herself at the original trial. Tucker was nonetheless executed in 1906.

 

Wing, George Chew (Asian). 1937. New York. Wing was convicted of first-degree murder (after a 30-minute trial) and sentenced to death. His conviction was affirmed on appeal. A participant in the killing testified against Wing and was sentenced to 20 years. While he was in prison awaiting execution, Wing convinced several observers that he had been falsely identified by eyewitnesses and that perjured testimony had been used against him. Warden Lewis Lawes also questioned his guilt, but Wing was nonetheless executed in 1937.


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© Peter Will, Update vom 1.10.1998