A Botched Execution in Alabama

On the history of punishment.


Sara Mayeux has a fascinating review-essay in Public Books on the history of executions and incareration, and on whether and how to judge the past from the perspective of the present. There's too much here to summarize in a brief blog post, but I can at least give you a sense of the article's flavor by quoting her concluding anecdote. This section of the story stars the infamous Alabama governor George Wallace and a pragmatic liberal Democrat, neither of whom takes the position you might expect. It ends on a note that foreshadows last week's slapstick snuff-film of an execution in Oklahoma.

The context is

That's him. That's the guy.

the execution, in Alabama in 1983, of one John Louis Evans, who, in the course of "a two-month crime spree" of "nine kidnappings and thirty armed robberies," killed a Mobile pawnshop owner in front of his two children. George Wallace was beginning his final term as Alabama's governor when he was asked to sign Evans's death warrant. Wallace's notoriety, of course, rests primarily on the day in 1963 that he stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to keep black students out. But it is also worth noting that his 1968 third-party presidential campaign perfected the "tough-on-crime" sloganeering that would dominate much of American electoral politics into the 1990s.

Privately, George Wallace had long harbored doubts about capital punishment. In 1964, he told his law clerk that he thought it should be ruled unconstitutional. By 1983, Wallace had survived a shooting, converted to born-again Christianity, and recanted his segregationism. In Mandery's words, his "reservations about the constitutionality of capital punishment had evolved into full-blown opposition." The night before Evans was due to be executed, Wallace telephoned his lieutenant governor "in tears," Mandery recounts. Wallace said that "he had been up all night 'praying the Bible,' and couldn't bring himself to sign the warrant." That lieutenant governor was the former law clerk, Bill Baxley, with whom Wallace had shared his reservations 20 years before. Baxley was a liberal Democrat—as Alabama's attorney general, he had earned the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan for his investigation and prosecution of civil rights cases—who supported the death penalty. He convinced George Wallace that there was no political choice but to sign the warrant. Mandery ends the anecdote here, but I looked up what happened next….Evans was strapped into an electric chair and, after two botched jolts that left him burned but alive, was shocked to death on the state of Alabama's third attempt.

Read the rest here.