Take a deep breath, dear reader, because this is about to get dark. We're looking today at those people who we as a society have decided are the absolute worst. Not "the absolute worst" as in "ugh, that boner reclines his seat on airplanes" but as in "evil that the courts decided redemption is impossible." Want to hear about inmates who were exonerated or turned their lives around and then went on to be inspirations to us all? That'll have to wait for some other time. Today, we're going to tell you about the inmate who ...
In the 1970s and '80s, Missouri was home to a white supremacist group known as The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. You may not have heard of the CSA before, because they never ended up pulling off any grand terrorist attack, but they certainly hoped to. By the time the FBI raided their compound in 1985, they'd stockpiled dozens of bombs, along with hundreds of guns and hundreds of thousands of ammo rounds plus one rocket capable of taking down a tank. Among their many aborted plans had been a 1983 plot to blow up Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Richard Snell was a member of the CSA, but before he could be arrested (and tried for sedition) on anything related to that, he went and murdered the owner of a pawn shop. His reason was that the man, William Stumpp, was evil and Jewish. Stumpp was in fact neither of those, and Snell followed up this murder by killing a black state trooper. In the years that followed, he didn't give the clemency board much to work with, quoting Hitler deputy Rudolf Hess during hearings and saying he'd do the murders again given a second chance.
Arkansas sentenced Richard Snell to death. And as the execution date -- April 19, 1995 -- drew closer, Snell made a prediction. He said there was "going to be a bomb, there was going to an explosion," and that it would be major enough that Middle Eastern terrorists would be blamed for it. He repeated this prediction four or five times in his final few days. Then when D-day came, a bombing did indeed happen. It was the deadliest US terrorist attack to date, and the target was the federal building Snell's group had set their eyes on a decade earlier.
The Oklahoma City bombing was clearly linked to Snell then, maybe even revenge by his associates for his execution? That's certainly what the prison officials who heard Snell's words thought. But it wasn't -- Timothy McVeigh had picked that date because it was the anniversary of the '93 Waco siege. Snell had no advanced knowledge of the attack, as far as we can tell. When he saw the news on TV, he chuckled, then got up and walked toward the execution chamber. His last words were, "Hell has victory. I am at peace."
A fair chunk of inmates on death row turn suicidal, which is a pretty good indication that something is going horribly wrong. You might ask, for example, why we offer these convicts the sweet release of death if that's apparently exactly what they want. Or, you might argue that if decades on death row drive inmates literally insane or are so bad that death is preferable, death row is even worse than execution, so we're unjustly inflicting a punishment we never assigned them.
But to those who consider execution a personal victory over evildoers, there's a simple explanation for these suicides. The condemned man is trying to escape the hangman's noose. Escaping and living freely, or death by his own hand ... it's all the same for the wily inmate who just wants to beat us, by whatever means necessary. And so we get the tale of William Kogut, housed in San Quentin in 1930 for stabbing a casino matron. Upon receiving his death sentence, Kogut said he'd choose his own way of dying, so the prison made sure he had zero access to any possible weapon.
They did allow him two decks of cards, so he could play in his cell, putting the solitaire in solitary. And with these cards, Kogut made a bomb. He shredded the cards, focusing on the diamonds and hearts, based on the belief that their red dye was especially volatile. He soaked the shreds in water and then stuffed the pulp in a hollow knob from his cot. He plugged the hole in the knob with a second knob and placed his contraption over the cell's heater. Then he kept his head close so the blast would kill him.
It's unclear whether Kogut was right about red cards containing ingredients for explosive pyroxylin, and you might raise an eyebrow at how San Quentin describes the result today, saying the coroner later found the ace of diamonds embedded in his brain. But Kogut's pipe bomb exploded all right, practically blowing his head off. The prison took days to figure out how he'd managed it, after which they made an important change to how death row operates: They started regularly checking inmates' playing cards for signs of bomb-making. Progress!
Of course, when prisoners make explosives, suicide is but one possible goal, and the others can be considerably deadlier. Take the wild story of the Mecklenburg Six. On May 31, 1984, inmates overpowered guards at Boydton, Virginia's Mecklenburg Correctional Center, a facility that officials proudly called a model "escape-proof prison." They opened all the cells in one block, and as staff fought to regain power, the control tower received a call from inside: The guards had found a bomb. They needed a van immediately so they could transport the device away before it killed people.
The requested van arrived. A group of uniformed men approached it from inside the complex, carrying a stretcher that bore some scary-looking electronic gizmo. While some of the guys held the stretcher, others doused it with fire extinguishers, apparently keeping it from detonating. Everyone who lacked specific explosives expertise gave these trained professionals a wide berth as they loaded the van up and drove away. And later, once the fracas was totally quelled, they found a bunch of staff tied up in closets wearing just their underwear. Those six men who'd walked out dressed as guards had been death row inmates.
Virginia Dept. of Corrections
They'd all got haircuts earlier that day to look as clean as possible, and the apparent bomb they'd escorted out had just been a TV. They'd overpowered guards with shivs and stolen their uniforms, but they pulled off this escape without hurting a single person. We're not saying to root for the escaped inmates in this story -- there were some seriously unrepentant murderers here, rapists, child-killers, and some allegedly wanted to rape a nurse and set the guards on fire -- but if you're going to break out of death row, man, this is how you do it with style.
It was the largest death row breakout in history. But though the six guys had planned their escape meticulously, that's kind of where their planning ended, and all wound up recaptured. Police nabbed two the next night in a laundromat eating snacks and drinking wine. Two others made it from Virginia to Vermont, where they were caught a couple days later robbing a jewelry store. The final two, ringleaders James and Linwood Briley, lasted the longest. They were caught at an uncle's, barbecuing chicken. (Soon enough, they were the ones barbecued, both in the electric chair.)
Let's return again to the subject of suicide on death row. Or, alternatively, just skip this entry and move on if reading about that doesn't sound like a fun time to you.
We're looking now at the case of Brandon Joseph Rhode, who killed three people when robbing a house when he was 20 and was sentenced to death. As his final day approached, Rhode decided he'd rather die by his own hand than be put down like a dog. In fact, he figured the chemicals they'd stick in him were worse than those used to euthanize dogs -- a theory supported by scientists who say lethal injection doesn't actually anesthetize the victim, just paralyzes them as they feel every second of their death.
So on the very day of his scheduled execution, September 21, 2010, Rhode slashed his arms and throat. Two guards were supposed to be watching him, but he covered himself with a blanket so they couldn't see him take a razor to every vessel he could find. When they found him, no one knew just how much time had passed. He'd loosed his bowels and gone into shock with blood loss. Rather than rush him to the execution chamber, they rushed him to the hospital to resuscitate him.
Which seems, if nothing else, like a waste of money, considering they wanted him dead that day anyway. That's not us been callous -- that's what Rhode himself said after he recovered. And in the days that followed, his lawyer tried to stay his rescheduled execution. Rhode's ability to slice himself open proved he'd been receiving treatment that was negligent and therefore inhumane, he argued, and the restraint device they kept him in afterward qualified as a "torture chair." Plus, his brush with death had added another wrinkle: The blood loss had left him brain damaged. You can't execute someone with brain damage, can you?
You can, said the state and Supreme Court. They left the decision till the last minute, though. Rhode was to die (again) at 7 PM on September 27, and the high court waited until 8 PM to reject his appeal. It then took half an hour to find a vein that could hold the needle. The drugs apparently took 15 minutes to kill him, and right before officials were about to declare him dead, he turned his head, showing off the bandage over his neck wound. Being killed after being saved was "surreal and incomprehensible," said his lawyer. Though not as surreal and incomprehensible as the guy who ...
Warning: If you skipped the previous entry because it was too grisly, you should surely skip this one too. Actually, just skip it regardless. No good will come of reading this.
Andre Thomas was very keen on Bible stories as a child. Which was good for a while, but then the voices started. He thought they were angels and demons arguing with each other. He tried to argue with the demons himself, and they just wouldn't shut up no matter what he said. His first tried to kill himself while still in elementary school. He tried numerous other times and never received any kind of counseling, though he did end up in juvie when he stole a car.
He got a little better and married at 18, but the voices came back. In 2004, he decided he had to kill his wife and her two children, using a separate knife for each of them to "allow the demons inside them to live." You know how we asked you to do yourself a favor and skip reading this story? That's so you wouldn't have to read about Andre killing his wife and two children, ages four and one, then cutting out their hearts and putting them in his pocket. He also cut himself open, and when he inexplicably didn't die alongside his family, he walked five miles to a police station and confessed to the crimes.
While in custody, he turned to that old reliable guide the Bible, and he came upon the verse where Jesus says, "If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and cast it away." Always one to follow instructions, and with some recent experience in organ extraction, he gouged out his eye with his bare hands. This did not impress the jury, who thought he was playing crazy to get off on an insanity plea, and they sentenced him to death.
In short, Andre Thomas was as mentally ill as any defendant could possibly be, but he landed on death row anyway. Which did little to help; a few years into his sentence, he plucked out his one remaining eye. And ate it. Andre is still on death row today, but his case is back in court. It's now up to a new set of judges to decide whether executing him on some future unspecified date will do anything to solve the issue of hidden demons hissing through the airwaves.
Lawrence Brewer was sentenced to death in 1999 for the murder of James Byrd Jr. Along with two other white supremacists, Brewer lynched Byrd by tying him to their back of their truck and dragging him three miles, and they dumped his mutilated body in front of a black church. The murder was so horrific that it (along with the murder of Matthew Shepherd) led the federal government to expand their definition of hate crimes. Brewer spent a little more than a decade on death row before the day for his execution came.
With your final day on this earth, traditionally, you get to choose your last meal. Some say this is a ritual meant to spare the prison from being haunted by the dead inmate's ghost, or maybe it's just an act of mercy. Some places place restrictions on exactly what you can request, like Oklahoma, which says the meal must cost $15 max and everything has to be obtainable nearby. But in Texas in 2011, no such restrictions existed. So Lawrence Brewer went all out.
He ordered a bacon cheeseburger, with three patties. He ordered a chicken-fried steak with onions and gravy -- no, make that two chicken-fried steaks with onions and gravy. Then a full meat-lover's pizza and three fajitas. And an omelet, with peppers and onions and ground beef, but also an entire pound of barbecued meat, with half a loaf of bread to eat with it. Plus some fried okra with catsup. For dessert, he wanted a pint of ice cream but also a slab of peanut butter fudge. And he wanted to wash it all down with three glasses of root beer.
Texas Dept. of Corrections
The prison put the massive meal together. Then when they laid it all out in front of Brewer, the man shrugged and said that on second thought, he wasn't really hungry. So he ate none of it. Texas legislators were so mad, they said fuck this shit and made it so no Texas inmates would ever get a last meal again.
Top image: California Dept. of Corrections