2017-07-05 16:08:19 UTC
My grandfather was a death row doctor. He tested psychedelic drugs on Texas
inmates----An Austin-based writer's quest to learn his grandfather's story
leads to death row - and a little-known series of experiments that involved
giving hallucinogens to inmates in the early 1960s.
[In this special contribution to The Texas Tribune, Austin writer Ben Hartman
tells the story of his search for the truth about his late grandfather, a
prison psychiatrist on Texas' death row who performed little-known medical
experiments on inmates in the 1960s.]
Eusebio Martinez was polite - even happy - as he entered the death chamber that
August night in Huntsville in 1960. He may not have understood his time was up.
A few years earlier, Martinez had been convicted of murdering an infant girl
whose parents had left her sleeping in their car while they visited a Midland
nightclub. He???d been ruled "feeble-minded" by multiple psychiatrists and had
to be shown how to get into the electric chair.
As he was strapped in, a priest leaned in and coached him to say "gracias" and
a simple prayer. Just before the first bolt knifed through his brain, Martinez
grinned and waved at the young Houston doctor who would declare him dead a few
That doctor was my grandfather.
For 3 years at the end of his life, Dr. Lee Hartman worked as a resident
physician and psychiatrist at Huntsville's Wynne Unit. From 1960 to 1963, he
witnessed at least 14 executions as presiding physician, his signature scrawled
on the death certificates of the condemned men. All of them died in the
electric chair - "Ol' Sparky" - a grisly method that left flesh burned and
bodies smoking in the death chamber as my grandfather read their vital signs.
I had always known from my father that his dad, who died before I was born,
worked for the prison system as a psychiatrist.
But I had no idea that he'd worked in the death chamber, witnessing executions.
Or that he'd been involved in testing psychedelics on prisoners to see if drugs
like LSD, mescaline and psilocybin could treat schizophrenia. Or that he'd been
hospitalized repeatedly during his lifelong struggle with depression.
And I didn't know the truth about his death at age 48, when he was found on the
staircase of his house in Houston's exclusive River Oaks neighborhood.
My obsession with my grandfather's life grew from my father's sudden death from
a stroke at his Austin home in 2014. Last summer, I came back to Austin after
14 years overseas and began searching for clues about my grandfather - in the
state archives, in Huntsville and in boxes of old family keepsakes kept by my
I reported on crime and police and prisons for several years as a journalist in
Israel, and now I wanted to investigate a mystery in my own family tree. I
wanted to learn about the man whose story had always seemed more literary than
real - a Jewish orphan from the Deep South who fought in World War II, sang in
operas and became a successful doctor before tragedy cut the story short.
I wanted to know the man my father was named for, and to use the search as a
way to beat a path through my grief over my own father's death.
Through my grandfather's personal papers, newspaper clippings and long-buried
state records, I found a man - brilliant, thoughtful and sensitive - who
witnessed great human drama and suffering in the Death House, and in the
process became a determined opponent of capital punishment. He outlined his
thoughts in a collection of diary entries and a 19-page handwritten treatise I
found in my grandmother's old keepsakes.
"The death penalty," he wrote in 1962, "is irreparable."
My grandfather was born in Greenville, Miss., in 1916, 1 of 2 twin boys placed
in foster care after their father died of yellow fever and their mother moved
The boys ended up at the New Orleans Jewish Children's Home and attended the
elite Newman School down the street, just like hundreds of other Jewish orphans
of their day.
My grandfather and his brother went on to graduate from Louisiana State
University's medical school. Along the way, my grandfather trained as an opera
singer, met my grandmother, started a family, served in the Army Air Corps as a
flight surgeon during World War II, then returned home to his family and
started his medical career. For a decade he worked as a small-town general
practitioner in Louisiana and East Texas.
In 1957, he moved to Houston and enrolled in the Baylor College of Medicine to
study psychiatry, a major mid-life career move that, according to my father,
was partly motivated by my grandfather's desire to understand his own battles
Within a few years, he had gone to work in Huntsville as part of a contingent
of Baylor College of Medicine psychiatrists sent to the Wynne Treatment Center,
a diagnostic unit for mentally ill inmates that had opened the previous year.
It was part of an agreement between Baylor, the Houston State Psychiatric
Institute and the state prison system: The schools provided psychiatrists who
could treat and counsel troubled inmates, and the prison supplied inmates for
For 3 years my grandfather shuffled back and forth between Huntsville and
Houston, where he'd established a part-time psychiatry practice in Bellaire and
in his spare time sang on stage as part of the chorus of the Houston Grand
Early in my research, I was searching an online newspaper archive for my
grandfather's obituary when an unrelated article stopped me.
The United Press International wire report from May 1962 is headlined:
"Stickney Dies In Electric Chair."
"At 12:26 a.m. Stickney was strapped into the chair. He made no last statement,
so to speak. 3 charges of 1,600 volts charged through his body. At 12:30 a.m.
Dr. Lee Hartman, the prison doctor, pronounced him dead."
20 executions were carried out in Huntsville in the 3 years my grandfather
worked there, and he wrote about the 14 he presided over.
He has the same erudite, wordy writing style of my father, peppered with
historical references and written in handwriting eerily similar to that of his
son. Each entry begins with the date and the dead man's name, race, crime and
victim. In small print above the list, he wrote "1500 volts X 15 sec - 200
volts X 30 sec - 1000 volts X 15 sec - 200 volts X 30 sec" - a morbid list of
the fatal series of shocks in the death chamber.
All 14 of them seem to have had an effect on him, but none more than the
execution of 24-year-old Howard Stickney, charged in May 1958 with the murder
of Clifford and Shirley Barnes in Galveston. Stickney fled the country, only to
be arrested the next month in Canada and extradited to Texas, where his youth,
his flight from justice and his fight to clear his name made him an instant
His death row file at the state archives is testament to his celebrity -
letters and postcards from admirers, clergymen and students at the University
of Texas Law School who filed appeals on his behalf.
My grandfather's diaries are full of entries about Stickney. On Nov. 10, 1961,
he wrote "Howard Stickney - tonite" followed by an entry further down the page
detailing the throng of reporters crowded outside the death chamber.
"Stickney in shroud before door to execution room and we were all on our way to
execution chamber when phone rang," the entry reads. "Apparently a complete
surprise to Stickney, who broke down, prayed and wept."
The call, at 12:32 a.m., came from a judge who had granted a 10-day stay of
My grandfather's diary entries at times combined the grisly and the mundane. On
April 18, 1962, he detailed the execution of Adrian Johnson, a 19-year-old
black man convicted of murder who asked "Is there a hood for my head?" before
he was strapped in.
"Johnson said 'Hi, how ya doin' to one of the prison guards in the room before
the 1st shock came through, causing his head to smoke and leaving 3rd degree
burns on his leg," the entry says.
Above this entry he wrote in all caps "SEDER?" - perhaps remembering plans for
the Passover meal that night.
The horrors of execution by electric chair dart across his pages in language
that is sparse and direct. Such as in the case of "Howard Draper, Jr. - Negro -
rape of white woman - heart beat 5 min. after final shock," or George Williams,
a young black man executed for murder, whose heart beat 2 minutes after the
In November 1961, he witnessed the execution of Fred Leach - a 40-year-old
schizophrenic who he examined and diagnosed as severely disturbed. My
grandfather's assessment of Leach's sanity appears on a bench warrant contained
in the condemned man's file in the state archives, but it wasn't enough to
spare Leach's life.
He witnessed back-to-back executions in 1962 on frozen January nights. And the
entries in his diary and the treatise became longer and more detailed,
revealing a sense of growing anger and distress.
First came Charles Louis Forgey ("only white man I know of executed for rape -
rare") put to death on Jan. 10, 1962, on a 14-degree night that saw
Huntsville's streets covered in ice and sleet.
My grandfather wrote that Forgey was "hyperventilating so greatly that he
staggered before sitting in chair ... Few tears on face as he entered room.
Said 'wait a minute' before gag placed in mouth and then said 'God bless you
all' after being strapped into chair. 1st shock at 12:02 - pronounced dead (by
me) at 12:06 - very livid - 2nd and 3rd degree burns on scalp and left leg and
much smoke, more than usual from crown (of head) possibly due to cold. Crown
still hot on roller after death. Everyone in good humor and rather jocular."
The next was Roosevelt Wiley, a 29-year-old black man convicted of murder, who
was electrocuted on "the coldest day in 25 years."
"Lord bless all these men," Wiley said, as he prayed while being strapped into
the chair, and moments later: "Forgive them God for what they are doing," and
"God I pray that someday this will be over."
Finally, in late May 1962, comes the diary entry on Stickney's last night on
earth. The newsmen were kept outside the chamber; my grandfather was one of
several men inside with Stickney, including a priest who visited with the
condemned man as he smoked a cigarette in his final moments.
"I kidded about tranquilizers I had in my packet and he asked for some 'if I
make it.' At 12:24, warden returned - no stay, Stickney quietly sat in chair. -
1st shock at 12:25 - dead at 12:30."
In a margin above the entry, he wrote: "Dignity and grace, shook hands with
several guards while waiting, didn't want to take coat off."
After the execution, my grandfather consented to interviews by TV and radio
stations before making his way home to try and sleep, with the aid of a
"Very shook up and angry over whole cruel mess," he wrote.
In the 19-page treatise, my grandfather laid out arguments for and against the
death penalty - and made it clear where he stood.
"The death penalty has a brutalizing and sadistic influence on the community
that deliberately kills a member of its group," he wrote, adding that it allows
law-abiding citizens "to vicariously indulge in vicious and inhumane fantasies
under socially-acceptable guises."
"The death penalty is not applied impartially. There is such surfeit of these
cases that to mention them would be redundant. The poor defendant is obviously
at a disadvantage and frequently receives the extreme penalty while the
wealthier accused escapes a prison term. There is well known discrimination on
racial or class lines."
He ends with a rhetorical flourish: "It behooves us all to remember that we are
all singly and collectively responsible for the execution of capital offenders
and we should solemnly ponder the striking words of [English poet] John Donne -
Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore,
never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee."
State approved psychedelic experiments
In the photo, a man lies strapped to a gurney, with wires running from his head
and body to a large, table-sized machine covered in knobs and switches. A
heavyset doctor with glasses stands next to the foot of the gurney, observing
the readings on the machine. The caption reads: "Bodily functions of 'insane'
convict are measured. Dr. Lee Hartman, Baylor Psychiatrist, injected inmate
The photo accompanied a Houston Chronicle article from May 15, 1960, headlined,
"New Drug That Causes Insanity Used on Prisoners Who Volunteer."
The article is a fascinating window into a time before LSD became synonymous
with hippies, when it was "being explored as a boon to mankind" - in the words
of the newspaper reporter - and even the Texas prison board apparently saw
potential therapeutic benefits to using hallucinogens on problematic and
Dr. C.A. Dwyer, a prison psychiatrist at Huntsville and a colleague of my
grandfather's, is quoted in the article saying that the tests were meant to
figure out what part of the brain LSD affected, in hopes that it would lead
them to the location where mental illness also resided. If LSD mimicked mental
illness, the doctors reasoned, then finding a drug to counteract its effects
might also lead to what Dwyer described as a "vaccine for schizophrenia." They
used a machine called a physiograph, which recorded prisoners' brain waves,
heartbeat, electrical skin resistance, pulse, blood pressure and respiration.
Dwyer said they would need tests from thousands of subjects to complete their
work, and while the inmates who volunteered received no credit on their
sentence or monetary reward, "a letter, detailing their efforts, is made a part
of their records, and will be considered, I am sure, by the pardons and paroles
Dr. Lee Hartman's diary included a notation to "bring LSD" to Huntsville, a
reference to experiments approved by the state of Texas in which inmates were
given LSD and other psychedelics.Ben Hartman
Details on the extent of the program or the results of the testing appear
nowhere in my grandfather's papers. In fact, the only mention of it amid his
voluminous accounts of the death chamber is a 1-line diary entry: "Go to
Huntsville tomorrow Bring LSD."
Around the same time that he wrote that, he submitted an application to join
the Texas Medical Association in October 1962. On the line for "research
activity," he wrote: "clinical investigation of new drugs for the treatment of
mental and emotional illness."
An open records request I filed with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice
seeking more information about the LSD tests and other experiments in Texas
prisons was answered with a letter saying there was "no information responsive
to your request."
In the end, it turned out almost everything I was looking for was at the state
archives in Austin and in boxes of family keepsakes.
In the state archives, I found the minutes of a prison board meeting held on
May 9, 1960, at the Rice Hotel in Houston - just 6 days before the article
about the LSD program appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
The document is titled "Experiment: Baylor School of Psychiatry," and describes
how Dr. Marvin Vance of the Baylor program presented a plan to use 4 inmate
volunteers to test LSD. The Baylor doctors "have stated that there is no
organic or physiological danger in using the drug," the minutes note. The board
approved the hallucinogen experiments - which eventually involved giving
inmates LSD, psilocybin and mescaline.
My aunt and my father both told me my grandfather sampled drugs before he gave
them to his patients to gauge their safety - though I suspect this was also a
means of self-medication. My aunt told me that after my grandfather's death in
1964, she and my grandmother disposed of the medications he kept at home -
including a vial of liquid LSD they poured down the sink.
Finding Dr. Charalampous
Over the past several months I've tried to find people who worked with my
grandfather in Huntsville, or descendants of those people who may have records.
I've come up empty, save for one man who made a passing acquaintance with him
at the prison, an encounter that left a powerful impression.
Dr. Kanellos Charalampous was a psychiatrist and professor at Baylor in the
early 1960s who worked at the Wynne Unit with my grandfather and authored a
large number of psychiatric studies, including several dealing with
hallucinogens and illicit drugs and their potential as therapeutic agents.
When I called him at his home in Houston, the 86-year-old doctor said he only
remembered meeting my grandfather once, when Charalampous first arrived in
Huntsville one night in January 1962. They stayed up late at my grandfather's
house, drank a beer and visited some, but the next day Charalampous left for
Houston and said he never saw my grandfather again.
His memory seemed spotty, but he told me my grandfather was a manic depressive.
"It was obvious if you were around him," he said. Then he pointed me to his
biography, which had been published online in 2015.
Halfway through the book, Charalampous recalls his first night in the Wynne
Unit and his visit with the psychiatrist in residence at the prison.
"We had a pleasant visit, enjoying a beer until, at midnight he explained he
did rounds on the inmates at 2 am; during the day the temperature rose making
the place unbearable. Obviously, I did not accompany him and going to the
prison only once a week I did not meet him again until the trustees told me a
few weeks later that he had stopped making rounds. I learned this talented man,
also a great musician and vocalist, was a manic-depressive who injected himself
with large doses of Thorazine to achieve a euthymic state in the days before
lithium. A year later, this unfortunate colleague committed suicide."
There has always been uncertainty about my grandfather's death. He had suffered
from heart problems earlier in his life and my aunts had always blamed heart
disease for his death. My aunt, Marie Geisler, remembers very clearly watching
the Beatles' American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show the night before my
grandfather died, and how cold and weak he seemed.
It had only been a year since he finished his stint at the prison, and a few
months since his stay at a mental institution in Galveston - one in a series of
hospitalizations for the depression that haunted him.
My aunt told me she came home from school to find him lying dead on the landing
of the stairs in their River Oaks home, a bottle of morphine on the floor next
to him. A few days before, he sang in a performance of Verdi's "Otelo."
I don???t know what role his time in Huntsville played in my grandfather's
death. On his headstone in Austin are four simple words: "scholar and
compassionate healer." That was the man I set out to find after my father's
death, and what I've pieced together is a picture of a troubled, brilliant man
who showed great care for others - if not always for himself.
My grandfather's obituary in the April 1964 Journal of the American Medical
Association cites "acute myocardial failure." His Harris County death
certificate tells a different story: It lists the cause of death as
"barbiturate poisoning (pentobarbital) ... decedent took an overdose of
Decades later, that very drug would be used in lethal injection executions in
Texas and more than a dozen other states.
(source: Ben Hartman, Texas Tribune)
Philly judge: OK to seek death penalty in trial of cop's accused killers
After denying a final defense motion to bar prosecutors from seeking the death
penalty, a Philadelphia judge has set a trial date for next year for 2 brothers
accused of the 2015 slaying of police Sgt. Robert Wilson III
Common Pleas Court Judge Kathryn Streeter Lewis denied the defense motion as
"without merit" following a hearing Thursday for brothers Carlton Hipps, 31,
and Ramone Williams, 27.
Lewis, who handles pretrial issues on all city homicide cases, then assigned
the case to homicide trial Judge J. Scott O'Keefe for a 3-week trial beginning
April 23, 2018.
O'Keefe set a "trial readiness conference" for Monday.
Defense attorney Daniel R. Stevenson, 1 of 4 public defenders working on
Williams' case, filed a 45-page motion and legal memorandum arguing that
Pennsylvania's death penalty violated both the U.S. Constitution and
The defense motion called Pennsylvania's death penalty law overly broad,
arbitrary, and racially discriminatory, adding that "as applied in Pennsylvania
it is so arbitrary and capricious and therefore, cruel and unusual in the same
way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual."
The defense motion also challenged prosecutors' decision to seek the death
penalty against the brothers, citing last week's bribery guilty plea and
resignation of Seth Williams, the district attorney first elected in 2009.
"How can any decision to seek the death penalty coming from this polluted,
ethically challenged source contain the indicia of credibility and reliability
required?" the defense motion read.
Michael Coard, the lawyer for Hipps, also asked Lewis to bar prosecutors from
seeking the death penalty.
In the response by Assistant District Attorney Branden J. Albaugh and Brian
Zarallo, chief of the homicide unit, the prosecutors maintained that the
defense motion was filed too late under state court rules and their
constitutional challenges to the death penalty were therefore waived. The
prosecutors also called the defense challenge "patently meritless."
The prosecutors argued that the brothers met 4 aggravating factors that might
persuade a jury to sentence them to death: killing a police officer on duty,
killing during commission of another felony, creating a grave risk of death to
someone other than the victims, and a significant history of convictions for
Only 3 people have been executed since Pennsylvania reenacted capital
punishment in 1978 - 2 in 1995 and 1 in 1999.
In February 2015, Gov. Wolf issued a moratorium on executions pending the
report and recommendations of a 6-year-old legislative task force studying if
the death penalty can be fairly and efficiently used in Pennsylvania.
It was about 5 p.m. on a snowy March 5, 2015, when Wilson, 30, an officer for 8
years and the father of 2 young sons, asked his partner, Officer Damien
Stevenson, to stop at the GameStop store at 2101 W. Lehigh Ave. in the
Swampoodle section of North Philadelphia. Wilson wanted to buy a new
PlayStation 4 and game for his 9-year-old son as a birthday gift and reward for
doing well in school.
While Stevenson stayed in their cruiser, Wilson went into the store and was
being waited on when 2 gunmen entered and started shooting. Wilson returned
fire but, with nowhere to duck or cover, was hit by 6 shots and collapsed.
After the 30-second gunbattle, prosecutors said, Hipps tried to run, exchanged
shots with Stevenson and was wounded in the leg. Williams was arrested hiding
behind the store counter with employees he tried to convince them to tell
police he was 1 of them.
Overturned S.C. Sentence Tracks with Decline of Death Penalty
William Henry Bell was convicted of the murder of Dennis Hepler in 1989. The
jury handed down a death sentence. Now, after almost 30 years, Bell has left
his cell on death row after a decades-long effort to vacate Bell's execution
ended with the attorney general exhausting the state's appeals process.
The vacated sentence underscores the continuing decline of the death penalty in
In 1988, after working late, Hepler left the Anderson County elementary school
where he'd just been made principal. His body was found at 1 a.m. on Sept. 1 of
that year - shot twice with a .25 caliber pistol, once in the back and once in
the back of the head. Witnesses placed Bell and 2 other men near the scene.
Bell was 20 years old at the time.
Following his arrest, Bell maintained his innocence to authorities, at one
point stating 1 of the other men shot and killed Hepler. But after 4 days in
jail, Bell confessed to the murder, saying he took a jammed gun from 1 of
Hepler's other assailants, cleared it and delivered the killing shot.
When Bell started the long wait on death row, he also began appealing the
sentence. His legal counsel at one point tried to have Bell's execution thrown
out due to "significant disparity in the prosecutor's decision to seek the
death penalty where the defendant is black and the victim was white," as shown
in one particularly study.
Nothing proved effective for more than 25 years until November of 2016, when
Bell's lawyer provided sufficient evidence to a judge that he was
intellectually disabled and could not be executed under the Eighth Amendment,
which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. In May, the South Carolina attorney
general's office concluded that they could not appeal the judge's decision.
Bell's death sentence cannot be reimposed. Now, he awaits resentencing, 10th
Circuit Solicitor David Wagner told WYFF in Greenville. A punishment of life in
prison is likely.
Emily Paavola was part of the legal team that got Bell's sentence overturned.
"It is increasingly hard to justify retaining the death penalty in South
Carolina," Paavola wrote in a 2016 essay. "Prosecutors rarely seek it, juries
more rarely impose it, and even when the rare individual is sentenced to death,
the odds are that the defendant will not be executed. We can no longer afford
the financial and social costs of such a broken system."
In Bell's case the prosecutors were seeking to keep the original death
S.C. Deputy Attorney General Donald Zelenka, who represented the prosecution
against Bell, says his office did not agree with the judge's decision because
the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs concluded that
Bell was not intellectually disabled. In the end, the judge accepted the expert
claims on Bell's side, ending the attorney general's ability to appeal.
Bell's vacated sentence tracks with a steep decline of the death penalty in the
United States since the mid 1990s, a downward trajectory that's fallen even
faster in the last 5 years. South Carolina's death sentences follow the same
"[In 2016] states imposed the fewest death sentences in the modern era of
capital punishment, since states began re-enacting death penalty statutes in
1973," a report by The Death Penalty Information Center reads. "The numbers
continued to demonstrate the geographic isolation of the death penalty and its
disproportionate overuse by a handful of jurisdictions."
New death sentences peaked in 1996 with 315 people sent to death row. In 1999,
a historic amount of executions in the U.S. took place - 98 people made the
final walk out of their cells. In 2016, by contrast, courts handed down only 30
new death sentences and only 20 people were executed. State courts in Florida
and Delaware even determined their death sentencing statutes unconstitutional.
In South Carolina, death sentences have been on the decline since 1985. Between
2011 and 2016 only 1 new death sentence was imposed - that of Ricky Lee
Blackwell, who was convicted and sent to death row for the kidnapping and
murder of 8-year-old Brooke Center in Spartanburg County. The last execution in
South Carolina happened in 2011 when Jeffrey Brian Motts, a man convicted of
strangling fellow inmate Charles Martin, was put to death by lethal injection.
"State-level polls found declining support for the death penalty across the
country," the DPIC report says, "and a growing preference for sentencing
alternatives like life without parole, even in heavy-use death penalty states."
Even in the case of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine black
citizens in Charleston, a 2016 poll by the University of South Carolina found
state residents divided on the death penalty. As reported by the Rock Hill
Herald, the poll found that 64.7 % of African-Americans thought Roof should
face life without parole instead of execution while 64.6 % of whites believed
he should face death.
But one of the most personal stories demonstrating the decline of the death
penalty comes from Sharon Risher, daughter of Ethel Lance, one of the people
murdered by Roof.
"Despite the anger I am still coping with from my mother's death, I don't
believe in the death penalty, even for the man who killed her," Risher wrote in
a piece for Vox.com.
Convicted killer set to die nearly 30 years after conviction
A white supremacist convicted of a 1987 murder is set to be executed for the
crime, nearly 30 years after his conviction.
Florida Governor Rick Scott signed the execution order for Mark James Asay on
Asay was sentenced to death for the murders of Robert Lee Booker and Robert
McDowell in 1987 in Jacksonville. He was convicted in 1998.
According to police and court records Asay was drinking with friends, and they
decided to look for prostitutes after the bar closed. One of Asay's friends was
asking Booker about where to find prostitutes when Asay called Booker a racial
epithet and shot him in the stomach. Booker ran off and was later found dead.
Asay and a friend continued looking for prostitutes and agreed to pay McDowell,
who was dressed as a woman, for oral sex. But Asay then shot McDowell 6 times.
Booker was black and prosecutors said Asay believed McDowell was black, even
though he was actually white.
Asay's execution had been scheduled for 2016 but was delayed after Florida's
Supreme Court decided to review the constitutionality of Florida's death
Governor Scott set Asay's execution for August 24 at 6 p.m.
How Ronell Wilson executed 2 cops and escaped death
Federal prosecutors announced last week that they will not appeal a ruling
that, for the 2nd time, overturned a death sentence meted out to Ronell Wilson
for the cold-blooded execution of 2 New York City police detectives on Staten
Island 14 years ago.
Ronell Wilson was associated with "The Stapleton Crew," a violent gang that
committed robberies, sold drugs and owned several guns. On March 3, 2003, 1
week before the murders, 2 gang members sold 1 of the guns, a .357 caliber
revolver, for $780. They didn't know, however, that the buyer was actually
Detective James V. Nemorin. The officer did not make an arrest at the time
because he wanted to infiltrate the gun-sale operation. To that end, he made
arrangements to purchase another of the gang's guns the following week.
Detective Rodney J. Andrews offered to accompany Nemorin as a backup for the
On the night of March 10, Wilson and another gang member got into the back of
the undercover officers' car, and directed Detective Nemorin to drive to
Tompkinsville. There, Wilson shot Detective Andrews in the head and demanded to
know from Nemorin the whereabouts of the gun-purchase money. While the
detective was pleading for his life--he had a wife and three children--Wilson
murdered him too. During their escape, one of the gang members asked Wilson why
he had shot the 2 men. Wilson replied, "I don't give a f--k about nobody."
Seeking the death penalty
After Wilson was indicted by a Richmond County grand jury for 1st degree murder
in March 2003, the Staten Island District Attorney's office formally indicated
that it would seek the death penalty. That effort was aborted, however, when,
in a controversial ruling handed down in June 2004, the New York Court of
Appeals declared the state's death penalty statute unconstitutional. That led
to the federal government's obtaining an indictment against Wilson for five
counts of capital murder, including two counts of murder in aid of racketeering
and 2 counts of firearm murders during a robbery. On December 20, 2006, a jury
convicted Wilson on all counts and, after the ensuing penalty phase, sentenced
him to death.
Although the penalty phase lasted nine days, saw some 40 witnesses testify, and
produced a transcript of almost 1800 pages, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the
2nd Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, overturned Wilson's death sentence on the basis
of less than 60 words uttered by a prosecutor during summation. But as Judge
Debra Ann Livingston pointed out in a well-reasoned dissent, those words, taken
in context, actually constituted fair comment regarding a belated claim by
Wilson of remorse and acceptance of responsibility.
In any event, there was no reasonable likelihood that the prosecutor's
challenged comments could have affected the jury's conclusion that Wilson
should die for brutally murdering 2 police officers and leaving their
respective families heartbroken. Poignant testimony to that effect came from
Detective Andrews' 16 year-old son, and Detective Nemorin's widow and mother of
his 3 children. It's also worth noting that despite his earlier claim of
remorse, Wilson stuck his tongue out at the families of his victims after he
was sentenced to death.
So, courtesy of the appellate court ruling, the grieving families had to endure
the anguish of yet another death-penalty phase, this time without the brief,
challenged comments from the prosecution. Vindicating the dissent in the
earlier appeal, the new jury also decided that Wilson should die. Wilson and
his attorneys weren't finished, however. Citing an intervening, controversial
5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hall v. Florida, they asked trial
judge Nicholas G. Garaufis to set aside the second death sentenced he had
imposed on Wilson on the grounds that he suffered from an "Intellectual
disability" that manifested itself in "significant defects in adaptive
Garaufis acknowledged that most mental health professionals would not consider
Wilson to have any such intellectual disability. Still, he felt himself bound
to set aside Wilson's death sentence on the basis of the Supreme Court's
expanded definition of that term beyond what most professional clinicians have
long recognized it to be. Last week, prosecutors decided not to appeal that
ruling by Garaufis.
Those philosophically opposed to the death penalty are pleased with that
outcome, of course, notwithstanding the fact that Wilson's life was spared, and
the will of 2 separate juries frustrated, by the tortured legal reasoning of
activist judges. Since capital punishment's foundation in America's
constitutional history is rock solid, it's not likely to be struck down by bold
declaration anytime soon. So its opponents, both in and out of the judiciary,
have been slowly whittling away at it, on a case-by-case basis, in
contemplation of the day when its implementation becomes so difficult, complex,
expensive, and time-consuming that it's no longer feasible to even try. The
frustrating, ultimately abortive effort to execute Ronell Wilson for murdering
two police officers moves the nation another step closer to that day.
Let's be crystal clear about something. Nobody, anywhere, knows the New York
City Civil Court better than Judge Philip S. Straniere.
Still, the native Staten Islander will be leaving the court at the end of this
year because state law mandates that he retire at age 70. Thus, while New York
holds itself out as a progressive icon, it openly impresses age discrimination
on its judges. And it utilizes the same 70-years-of-age standard by which
judges were required to retire all the way back in 1869, a time when Andrew
Johnson occupied the White House, Colorado was still a territory, and, most
important, life-expectancy was half of what it is today. It's of no consequence
to this bastion of liberalism that the entire federal judiciary, as well as
judges in many other states, are not bound by any retirement age at all. No,
New York is perfectly content to remain mired in the dark ages, evaluating its
judges not fairly by their ability, but summarily by their age.
Forcing judges to retire at age 70 is facially absurd because it lacks a
rational basis and furthers no compelling government interest. In Straniere's
special circumstances, however, it's downright bizarre. To understand why,
let's take a closer look at who, precisely, Judge Straniere is and what he's
meant to the court and the community it serves.
A graduate of Curtis High School and Wagner College, he was elected to the
Civil Court in 1996 and is currently it's Supervising Judge. He was named an
Acting Supreme Court Justice in 2004, a designation he's maintained
Judge Straniere has lectured extensively about the various actions and
proceedings handled by the Civil Court. He's been a frequent speaker at
continuing legal education seminars, an honor reserved for the brightest, most
knowledgeable legal minds. He's also devoted his time to educating lay people
about the court, speaking before audiences ranging from Rotarians and Chambers
of Commerce to school children. Judge Straniere's talent for writing
interesting legal opinions, and the lively, colorful style in which he does so,
are legendary. He does much of his own legal research too, a testament to his
commitment to being both thorough and accurate.
Unlike opinions issued by most appellate courts, those written by trial-level
judges are rarely submitted for publication in the law books and even more
rarely accepted. Judge Straniere, on the other hand, has had so many of his
opinions accepted by the Official Reporter that he's among the most published
jurists in the entire state. There is no better indicator of a judge's
Straniere has a pleasant, amiable personality, which, combined with his
continuing involvement in numerous community activities, makes him a beloved
figure on Staten Island. It's not surprising, therefore, that he earns high
praise from lawyers and court personnel for displaying a consistently exemplary
judicial temperament on the bench.
All of this works to the enormous benefit of Staten Island, a community he
knows so well and serves so splendidly. Judge Straniere's forced retirement is
not only an insult to Staten Islanders, however. It's also an indefensible
assault on common sense and, quite possibly, a violation of federal law.
There is, you see, a single exception to mandatory judicial retirement at age
70. Justices of the state Supreme Court, a trial-level tribunal of general
jurisdiction, may remain on the bench until age 76 by being so certified in
2-year increments. Remember now, Judge Straniere has been an acting Supreme
Court Justice for the last 13 years. In that capacity, he not only does Supreme
Court work, but has his own Supreme Court Part. Nevertheless, state law
precludes his seeking certification simply because he was elected as a Civil
A preposterous scenario thus emerges. 2 judges of the exact same age,
exercising the exact same jurisdiction, treated disparately, solely because of
the method by which they got to their courtrooms. That's not just arbitrary and
capricious; that's just plain nuts.
Although the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act contains a general
provision against mandatory retirement, a 1991 decision by the U.S. Supreme
Court held that the statute doesn't apply to "policy-making" appointees such as
state judges. Still, the lone exception created by New York law for Supreme
Court Justices, and the manner in which it is implemented, could render the
state's mandatory-retirement scheme vulnerable to attack under federal law.
Given all he brings to the table, Judge Straniere could well emerge as the
(source: Commentary, Danial LEddy----Staten Island Advance)
Good Old-Fashioned Nostalgia----Scott McLemee highlights another round of
titles from next season's offerings from university presses.
With a steady stream of death-penalty convictions overturned by improved
forensic methods, capital punishment has come to exemplify "how inept
lawyering, overzealous prosecution, race discrimination, wrongful convictions
and excessive punishments undermine the pursuit of justice," as Brandon L.
Garrett put it in End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive
Criminal Justice (Harvard, September). In many places, capital punishment has
been replaced with "what amounts to a virtual death sentence -- life without
possibility of parole." But arguably worse than that is the confinement Terry
Allen Kupers documents in Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and
How We Can Abolish It (University of California Press, September), based "some
of the thousand inmates he's interviewed while investigating prison conditions
over the last 40 years." (I wrote about another book on this subject here last
(source: Inside HIgher Ed)
Kidnap suspect fails to enter plea in court
The man charged with kidnapping visiting Chinese scholar Zhang Yingying only
said he understood his rights in his first court appearance in Urbana, Illinois
on Monday, with the student's family demanding the death penalty.
Brendt Christensen is expected to return to court on Wednesday, when the court
will decide whether to grant him bail, China Central Television (CCTV) reported
Christensen barely said anything and did not enter a plea during his 9-minute
appearance at the courthouse in Urbana, NBC News reported.
Zhang's family attended the hearing and met with prosecutors, inspectors and
members of the federal court, where Zhang's family suggested that prosecutors
pursue the death penalty against Christensen, CCTV reported.
"This is the 1st time Zhang's family saw the suspect, so their anger and pain
was self-evident," Wang Zhidong, a lawyer who provides legal assistance to
Zhang's family, told CCTV, adding that during the short meeting prosecutors
said they would take the suggestion of Zhang's family into consideration.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told a daily press conference
on Tuesday that the ministry and China's Embassy in the US will follow
developments and stay in close contact with the US, urging the US side to bring
the murderer to justice.
Christensen was questioned twice before he was arrested, but his 2nd testimony
was different from the 1st, CCTV reported on Monday.
On June 29, agents overheard Christensen, who was under law enforcement
surveillance, saying that he kidnapped Zhang, which led to his arrest.
(source: Global Times)
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
DeathPenalty mailing list