When I'm feeling cynical about well-publicized criminal trials, I sometimes use the timeworn phrase "they've never hung a millionaire in the U.S." Certainly I can't think of one. But is it true?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
If the expression “You simply cannot hang a millionaire in America,” attributed to politician and orator William Bourke Cockran (1854-1923), is timeworn, Tim, it’s not from overuse — Google turns up a big four hits. That tells you something about U.S. attitudes right there, because the fact is, while a few millionaires have gone to the gallows (chair, whatever), we haven’t hanged many. Let’s count:
Labor racketeer Louis “Lepke” Buchalter made millions in the 1920s and ’30s. Under investigation for extortion and murder, Lepke — head of the notorious organized-crime hit squad nicknamed Murder, Inc. — waged a “war of extermination” against potential informants. Dozens died, but the scorched-earth policy backfired, encouraging targets to take their chances with the law; one witness at Buchalter’s eventual murder trial in 1941 agreed to testify only after being shot in the head on Buchalter’s instructions. Buchalter was convicted despite spending an estimated quarter million on his defense. He appealed as far as the U.S. Supreme Court but was finally electrocuted in 1944. That’s one.
Perhaps other executed crime bosses were millionaires. One candidate is drug kingpin Juan Garza, exact worth unknown, executed by the feds in 2001 for murder. Call that two.
After that pickings are slim. Dr. John Webster was a professor at the Massachusetts Medical College. Not a millionaire strictly speaking, Webster inherited $50,000 (today worth about a million) but had squandered it by 1849, when a creditor came to collect a debt and the strapped Webster killed, dismembered, and partially cremated him. Still, he had rich friends who pledged $2,000 for his defense. Disclaiming all knowledge of the body parts found in his laboratory, however, Webster could find no lawyer to defend him, and his appointed attorneys couldn’t save him. He confessed before he was hanged.
Philip Spencer, son of the secretary of war, was acting midshipman on the U.S. brig-of-war Somers when accused of fomenting mutiny in 1842. Commander Alexander Mackenzie, fearing more crewmen would turn mutinous and having no place to securely hold them, hanged Spencer, only 18, and two others at sea without a legitimate trial. Though probably not a millionaire in 1842 dollars, Secretary Spencer could have mounted a defense for his son worthy of O.J. Because the hangings were extralegal, Mackenzie was later court-martialed for murder but got off with a verdict of “not proved,” possibly because he had influential supporters of his own — his brother had recently been elected to Congress.
In 1780 Americans captured Benedict Arnold’s British handler, Major John André. He wasn’t a millionaire but his father had been, adjusting for inflation. André, not considering himself a spy, voluntarily testified without counsel before a board of officers. Conclusion: spy. Recommendation: death. The British spurned a proposed André-Arnold exchange, and the major hanged.
So the tally is one or two crime bosses and a few long-ago toffs lacking funds. You say the rich don’t commit murders as often? True, but even a partial list of well-off, well-connected defendants who could have hanged but didn’t is impressive:
- Congressman Dan Sickles, found temporarily insane in the 1859 killing of his wife’s lover.
- Harry K. Thaw, son of a railroad baron, found insane in the 1906 slaying of architect Stanford White.
- Wealthy college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb; pleaded guilty to the 1924 thrill killing of a boy in Chicago and imprisoned but spared the noose.
- Texas oilman T. Cullen Davis, acquitted of the 1976 murder of his estranged wife’s daughter.
- Real estate heir Thomas Capano, convicted of the 1996 murder of his girlfriend in Delaware; death sentence reduced to life without parole.
- Robert Durst, another real estate heir, acquitted of the 2001 murder of an elderly drifter in Texas.
And many more. Prosecutors often don’t even pursue the death penalty against the rich — think O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake, Phil Spector, and John du Pont (of the chemical du Ponts). You needn’t hire a Johnnie Cochran or a Clarence Darrow to get the treatment. An analysis of Georgia cases showed that prosecutors were almost twice as likely to ask for the death penalty when the defendant couldn’t afford a lawyer. Nationwide an estimated 90-plus percent of those arrested for capital crimes are too poor to retain experienced private counsel. In Kentucky, a quarter of death row inmates were defended by lawyers who were later disbarred (or resigned to avoid disbarment); other states are similar. A few states have offices dedicated to providing a proper defense for capital defendants, but a Texas jurist summed up the attitude elsewhere: “The Constitution does not say that the lawyer has to be awake.” So is it cynical to oppose the death penalty on such grounds? Nah. Just realistic.
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