Friday, May 25, 2007

May 25

On this date in 1979, the state of Florida plugged in its electric chair for the first time in 15 years and executed John Spenkelink; this was the first involuntary execution in the United States since the Supreme Court restored the death penalty three years earlier. Spenkelink, a 30-year-old prison escapee from California, had been convicted killing Joseph Szymankiewicz in a Tallahassee hotel room in February 1973. The two men -- both of whom had extensive criminal records -- had been traveling together when Symankiewicz allegedly forced Spenkelink at gunpoint to perform an unspecified sexual act, then insisted the two play several rounds of Russian routlette. When the men arrived in Tallahassee, Spenkelink discovered that his money had been stolen. Enraged, Spenkelink waited until Szymankiewicz was asleep, then shot him twice and bludgeoned him with a hatchet.

At the time of the murder, Florida’s death penalty statute -- like every other such law in the nation -- had been thrown out by the Supreme Court, which ruled in Furman v. Georgia (1972) that capital punishment in the United States was administered “wantonly and freakishly” and that every law (as written) violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Florida was the first state to revise its death penalty code in line with the Court’s recommendations, and when a Tallahassee jury convicted him in December 1973, it recommended that Spenkelink be put to death. In 1976, the Supreme Court’s decision in Gregg v. Georgia allowed the Sunshine State -- along with Georgia and Texas -- to resume the killing.

John Spenkelink’s death warrant was first signed by Gov. Ruben Askew in 1977; after Spenkelink’s legal challenges proved fruitless, Askew’s successor Bob Graham finished the job. On 25 May 1979, Spenkelink was offered two swigs of whiskey before three massive jolts of electricity ended his life. According to legend, John Arthur Spenkelink’s last words were, “them without the capital get the punishment.”

Later that afternoon, an American Airlines DC-10 took off from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. As the plane sped down the runway, its left engine detached and tumbled across the wing, severing vital hydraulic lines that would otherwise have allowed the craft to land safely. After 31 seconds in the air, as the pilot struggled to stabilize the aircraft and return it to the ground, Flight 191 banked sharply to the left and plunged nose-first into a nearby field. The 271 passengers and crew died instantly, while two victims on the ground perished when debris from the wreck scattered into a mobile home park. The crash remains the deadliest accidental air disaster in US history.

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