It’s quite unlikely that many people, even DC residents, remember cop-killer Robert Carter. Arrested for murdering police officer George Cassels on 11 July 1953, Carter was never likely to win clemency from the courts or from the President who had sole pardoning authority within the District of Columbia. On 27 April 1957 Carter would be the District’s last convict to walk the fifteen feet between his third-floor cell at DC Jail and the electric chair. After that, Old Sparky would be permanently retired.
That Carter had just committed armed robbery did not help his case. That Carter had shot Cassels when Cassels was off-duty and unarmed made his execution a virtual formality in spite of the District’s comparatively small number of executions. When Carter squeezed the trigger of his Luger (probably a war souvenir that he later claimed to have found just lying around) he killed himself as surely as George Cassels.
Palatable or not, Carter being an African-American probably didn’t do him any favours either. DC had discarded the gallows in 1925, replacing it the electric chair. Since the chair’s introduction Carter was the 51st person to sit in it. Of the previous fifty, six had been German spies all executed on 8 August 1942 and all of them had been white. The spies executed after Operation Pastorius comprised the largest single execution day on the 1872 jail’s history.
Of the forty-five others (including Carter himself) thirty-nine had been African-American and only six had been white. Of the six executed for rape only one (Earl McFarland) had been white and McFarland was also a murderer. Since DC began executions there had been 118 in total of which eighty-three had been African-American, thirty-six white and two listed as unknown. When Carter arrived at DC Jail in 1953 he had virtually no chance of getting out alive and he knew it. It was Carter’s first criminal act of his life, but would also be his last.
That said, unemployed labourer Carter was undoubtedly guilty. He murdered an unarmed, off-duty police officer who was also a husband (albeit recently separated) and father. Even with no previous criminal record Carter knew the risks when he committed armed robbery, stealing little more than fifty dollars from Gems Cleaners. He knew when he fired his gun that he would likely be executed if he was caught. Desperate for money and with a family he couldn’t support any other way Carter took his chance. DC Jail’s electric chair would be the result.
Cassels had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fellow officer George Berti had asked him to help move a table into his home only doors away from the robbery and Cassels just happened to be there when Carter fled Gems Cleaners with his tiny haul. Both officers chased Carter and Cassels (according to Berti) had his badge in his hand when Carter shot him. Carter probably assumed that the badge would quickly be followed by a gun so shot first. Cassels died soon afterward and DC’s police officers were determined to see him caught or killed.
Caught he very quickly was. DC’s police lost no time and spared no effort or expense bringing him in. Unsurprisingly they wanted him very badly. A native of South Carolina, Cassels had been on the force for only a couple of years and only twenty-seven years old when he died. He had also been a fellow lawman, one of their own. Within eight hours Carter was tracked down and safely under lock and key. Cassels died the next day.
The principal reason for that lay uncomfortably close to home. Carter’s wife had been at home during the robbery and murder looking after their two children and expecting their third. She didn’t know where he was when police came to question her, but did supply a list of places where he might be found and at one of them Carter was arrested. The charge was first-degree murder. The mandatory penalty was death.
His trial was a mere formality, a temporary delay of the inevitable. Carter had confessed, the weapon had been found, there were no other suspects still at large. Robert Carter had nobody to blame but himself. As his own confession reads:
“I run around to Church Street, crossed 16th Street, then I heard him holler at me, I don’t know what he said, I turned around and pulled the gun out of my shirt and I think I just shot him one time… …That’s all. I’m sorry I did it.”
If he had hopes of leniency for confessing they were entirely misplaced. Whether he had shot Cassels once or a dozen times made no difference, Cassels was still dead. Whether he was sorry or not cut no ice whatsoever, it had been his finger on the trigger. When his case went to trial he would almost certainly be convicted. If convicted Carter would definitely be condemned and under the circumstances he would almost certainly die.
Case 1158-53 was tried in February 1954 taking only three days. The jury wasted little time deliberating even though Judge James Morris had made clear that death was the mandatory punishment. Morris had made it clear after they initially rendered their verdict and they took little more than another hour to return their final decision after his warning. With so clear-cut a case the best the jury could offer was to recommend mercy.
In some states, New York for instance, that recommendation might have seen his sentence commuted. In DC it counted for nothing. Carter’s case ran its course for the next several years, his appeals being filed and denied and each denial nudging him closer to the end. On 27 April 1957 the end finally came for Carter and the District’s death penalty. By the time he died the gap between Carter’s execution and the previous one had been the longest in District history.
While in the death cell Carter had developed a solid religious faith. He walked the fifteen steps between his cell and the chair accompanied by Catholic Chaplain Carl Breitfeller, a small religious medal slung around his neck. He smiled nervously as he entered the room and the straps and electrodes were adjusted. William Burden covered the rare event for the Washington Post, later writing:
“Carter walked firmly to his death with a prayer on his lips. He smiled briefly at the Rev. Carl J. Breitfeller, Corrections Department Chaplain, who baptized him as a Catholic on Christmas Day, but showed no other emotion.”
Next to the switch printed instructions told the executioner exactly what to do:
“For the first 6 seconds, give 2000 volts, followed by 50 seconds of 500 volts. Then, 3 seconds of 1000 volts, 50 seconds of 500 volts, and, finally, 6 seconds of 2000 volts. Total elapsed time: slightly less than 2 minutes.”
That was all it took. The executioner was an experienced professional who probably had little need for written reminders of how to do his job. Professionally and without mishap Robert Carter was quickly dead. In time so was DC’s mandatory death penalty, Carter being the last DC convict to die under it. DC had been the last jurisdiction in the country to retain a mandatory death penalty for murder. All the others had already removed it and the Federal Government seldom executed prisoners anyway.
From 1962 DC’s mandatory death penalty was abolished, life imprisonment becoming an option. Life could be imposed either by a unanimous jury recommendation or by the trial judge if the jury couldn’t agree. From then on the chair sat silently gathering dust at DC Jail until it was eventually moved to the state archives and put in storage.
Its dreaded dynamo would hum no longer.