US Federal Executions, a worrying new trend?

The recent Federal executions of three prisoners are both a rarity and perhaps the start of a worrying trend. While individual states have long been executing convicts within their own jurisdictions the Federal Government has historically been far more restrained. Historically speaking Uncle Sam usually hands out long sentences but seldom executes.

The most recent, that of Dustin Lee Honkin on 17 July 2020, was the last of three Federal executions within a week. All were executed by lethal injection at the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, Daniel Lewis Lee died on 14 July and Wesley Ira Purkey on 16 July, making Honkin’s the third within a week. Not only were these the first Federal executions in 17 years, not since 1948 have so many Federal executions happened within such a short timespan.

3 December 1948 saw convicts Samuel Shockley and Miran Thompson die in the gas chamber at San Quentin for their parts in the failed escape from Alcatraz of May 1946. They were the last casualties of the ‘Battle of Alcatraz and were followed by Carlos Ochoa. Ochoa, gassed at San Quentin on 10 December, died for the murder of a Federal officer.

The first Fderal execution of the 20th century was of a Native American named Great Bear in South Dakota on 2 December 1901. Committed on a Native reservation in Minnehaha County, Bear’s crime fell under Federal jurisdiction. The second was also performed in Minnehaha, Allen Walkingshield also facing the gallows on 28 January 1902

If we define Federal executons as those conducted under Federal rather than state authority there have only been 40 such executions since that of bootlegger James Aldermon in Broward County, Florida in 1927. Aldermon, convicted of murder on the high seas after a shoot-out with the Coast Guard, was also hanged, that original Federal law providing only the gallows.

Within a decade of Aldermon’s death the rule changed. From then on the Federal Government would pay individual states for housing and executing Federal prisoners using whatever method the state used at the time. Those condemned in New York faced electrocution, California’s Federal condemned faced the gas chamber and so on. Not until the early 1990’s did Federal executions come under complete Federal control with a permanent lethal injection facility at Terre Haute.

Approximately eighty others died in Washington D.C’s electric chair, the District of Columbia being under Federal mandate at the time, the last being cop killer Robert Carter in 1957. Most, however, exclude DC Jail’s executions from the common definition and so shall we, with a few notable exceptions.

Since Aldermon the notorious serial killer Carl Panzram was hanged at Leavenworth on 5 September 1930. Panzram, convicted of murdering a member of the prisons staff, died insulting the hangman and cursing him for his tardiness. Arthur Gooch was the only convict hanged under the Lindbergh kidnapping law. Gooch, executed on 19 June 1936, was hanged despite Oklahoma having adopted electrocution twenty years earlier. State Electrician Rich Owens, an accomplished killer by several means, proved a poor hangman and botched Gooch’s execution terribly.

George ‘Diamond King’ Barrett was another notable victim. The first to die under a new law specificially mandating death for those hwo killed Federal agents (FBI Special Agent Klein in Barrett’s case) Barrett was also hanged despite Indiana having descarded the gallows for electrocution in 1915. Barrett died at the Marion County Jail on 24 March 1936.

!938 saw two Federal executions of note. Anthony Chebatoris was hanged in Michigan which had abolished the death penalty for murder and hadn’t executed anybody in almost a century. After a bitter dispute with the Federal Government over whether Chebatoris could be executed in Michigan at all (which had no execution facilities) the Feds prevailed. A gallows was specially constructed and Chebatoris paid his debt at the Federal prison in Milan, Michigan on 8 July 1938. He had been convicted under the Federal law making bank robbery a capital crime, the National Bank Robbery Act of 1934.

In the same year James Dalhover was executed in Indiana under a Federal death sentence. Perhaps resulting from the Chebatoris wrangling Dalhover died in Indiana’s electric chair at Michigan City, Until the 1990’s it became standard practice for Federel prisoners to die by the method of whichever state they were convicted. The Federal Government paid nominal fees to states in return for their holding and executing Federal prisoners.

1942 saw perhaps the second-most notable date in the Federal death row diary, 8 August 1942. Six German spies captured during Operation Pastorius (Werner Thiel, Herbert Haupt, Richard Quirin, Edward Keiling, Heinrich Heinck and Herman Neubauer) all died at D.C Jail for espionage. They sat in the electric chair one after another only two days after President Roosevelt had confirmed their death sentences. New York executioner Joseph Francel had the busiest day of his 140-execution career working not for the State of New York (his usual employer) but for the Federal Government.

It was perhaps the best-known Federal execution that caused Francel (the fourth of five men to be New York’s ‘State Electrician’) to quit his post. Both before and after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair at Sing Sing on 19 June 1953 Francel had received threats and far too much publicity since his debut in 1939. He was also dissatisfied about the standard fees ($150 for one inmate and an extra $50 per prisoner for double, triple or multiple electrocutions.

After only nine more executions Francel quit in August 1954 citing too many threats, too much publicity and not enough money, ending his career by electrocuting William Draper for New York State on 1 July 1954. New York’s last Federal execution was performed on 12 August 1954 by Francel’s successor Dow Hover. Gerhard Puff (armed robber, murderer of FBI Special Agent Joseph Brock and one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted) was Hover’s first (and New York State’s last) Federal execution.

The last for nearly four decades was Victor Feguer, also Iowa’s last execution. Feguer died on the gallows at the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison on 15 March 1963. After his death prison officials discovered an olive pit in one his pockets, Feguer had requested olives as part of his last meal, hoping that the olive pit would grow intoa tree after his burial.

After Feguer the Federal death penalty existed virtually in name only, at least until the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh on 11 June 2001. McVeigh was unfazed by his execution, perhaps preferring political martyrdom to decades behind bars. By then the new lethal injection facility at Terre Haute was up and running and McVeigh was first to die in it. SInce McVeigh only Juan Garza and Louis Jones had died by Federal order until Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey and Dustin Honkin died only days ago at the time of writing. Theirs, three lethal injections in only four days, were the first Federal executions for seventeen years.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that they died during the Presidency of Donald Trump. Trump, hawkish on capital punishment for decades, has proved embarrassingly hawkish even for some death penalty supporters. Only recently he refused to apologize for newspaper adverts calling for the return of New York’s death penalty in 1989, simultaneously demanding the executions of the Central Park Five who were later exonerated. Even today Trump continues to maintain their guilt regardless of legal decisions or, it seems, obvious facts.

Individual states have seen support for executions decline and executions themselves become gradually more infrequent. Days like 12 August 1912 when Sing Sing electrocuted seven men in one day are long gone and such grim records are likely never to be seen or even rivalled again. Even more hawkish states like Texas, Virginia, Florida and Missouri are finding it harder to execute their prisoners. The Federal death penalty, once the rarest death warant in the American penal system, might be bucking that trend.

Incidentally, the story of Miran Thompson, Sam Shockley and the Battle of Alcatraz can be found in my book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Northern California‘ due out on August 28. It can be pre-ordered now.

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