John Spenkelink

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John Spenkelink
John Arthur Spenkelink

(1949-03-29)March 29, 1949
DiedMay 25, 1979(1979-05-25) (aged 30)
Cause of deathExecuted (electric chair)
Resting place Rose Hills Memorial Park Whittier, California
Parent(s)Lois Spenkelink
Criminal chargeMurder
Penalty Death (1976)

John Arthur Spenkelink (March 29, 1949 – May 25, 1979) was a convicted American murderer. He was executed under controversial circumstances in 1979, the first convicted criminal to be executed in Florida after capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, and the second (after Gary Gilmore) in the United States.

Gary Gilmore (criminal) American murderer

Gary Mark Gilmore was an American criminal who gained international attention for demanding the implementation of his death sentence for two murders he committed in Utah. After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a new series of death penalty statutes in the 1976 decision Gregg v. Georgia, he became the first person in almost ten years to be executed in the United States. These new statutes avoided the problems under the 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia, which had resulted in earlier death penalty statutes being deemed as "cruel and unusual" punishment, and therefore unconstitutional. Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in 1977. His life and execution were the subject of the 1979 nonfiction novel The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, and 1982 TV film of the novel starring Tommy Lee Jones as Gilmore.



Spenkelink was a drifter who was convicted in California for armed robbery and had been sentenced to five years-to-life. [1] He had just escaped from the Slack Canyon Conservation Camp when he shot and killed a small-time criminal named Joseph Szymankiewicz in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1973. [1] He claimed that he acted in self-defense—that Szymankiewicz had stolen his money, forced him to play Russian roulette, and sexually assaulted him. However, evidence and witness testimony from a co-defendant indicated that Spenkelink left their shared motel room, returned with a gun, and shot Szymankiewicz in the back. [2] He turned down a plea bargain to second-degree murder that would have resulted in a life sentence. In 1976 he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. His co-defendant was acquitted. [2]

California State of the United States of America

California is a state in the Pacific Region of the United States. With 39.6 million residents, California is the most populous U.S. state and the third-largest by area. The state capital is Sacramento. The Greater Los Angeles Area and the San Francisco Bay Area are the nation's second and fifth most populous urban regions, with 18.7 million and 9.7 million residents respectively. Los Angeles is California's most populous city, and the country's second most populous, after New York City. California also has the nation's most populous county, Los Angeles County, and its largest county by area, San Bernardino County. The City and County of San Francisco is both the country's second-most densely populated major city after New York City and the fifth-most densely populated county, behind only four of the five New York City boroughs.

Fire camp

A fire camp is a campsite for firefighters and support personnel. It is typically set up for a large project fire which requires a large amount of manpower, organisation and logistics. According to the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a fire camp is one of five predesignated temporary facilities. Fire camps provide certain essential auxiliary forms of support, such as food, sleeping areas, and sanitation for Wildland firefighters. Fire camps may also provide minor maintenance and servicing of equipment.

Tallahassee, Florida Capital of Florida

Tallahassee is the capital city of the U.S. state of Florida. It is the county seat and only incorporated municipality in Leon County. Tallahassee became the capital of Florida, then the Florida Territory, in 1824. In 2017, the population was 191,049, making it the 7th-largest city in the U.S state of Florida, and the 126th-largest city in the United States. The population of the Tallahassee metropolitan area was 382,627 as of 2017. Tallahassee is the largest city in the Florida Panhandle region, and the main center for trade and agriculture in the Florida Big Bend and Southwest Georgia regions.

Death Penalty

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court had banned the death penalty, ruling that it had been applied unfairly. Florida and other states rushed to rewrite less-arbitrary laws. Spenkelink would be the first man executed in Florida since the 1972 ruling. [3]

Spenkelink appealed his sentence, but in 1977, Governor Reubin Askew of Florida signed Spenkelink's first death warrant. [4] In 1979 Askew's successor, Governor Bob Graham, signed a second death warrant. Spenkelink continued to appeal, earning stays from both the U.S Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, but both stays were overturned, [5] meaning that Spenkelink would be the first man to suffer the death penalty involuntarily (Gilmore had insisted he wanted to die) [6] since executions were resumed in the U.S. in 1976.

Reubin Askew American politician

Reubin O'Donovan Askew was an American politician, who served as the 37th Governor of the U.S. state of Florida from 1971 to 1979. He led on tax reform, civil rights, and financial transparency for public officials, maintaining an outstanding reputation for personal integrity.

Bob Graham 38th Governor of Florida

Daniel Robert Graham is an American politician and author who served as the 38th governor of Florida from 1979 to 1987 and a United States senator from Florida from 1987 to 2005. He is a member of the Democratic Party.

United States courts of appeals post-1891 U.S. appellate circuit courts

The United States courts of appeals or circuit courts are the intermediate appellate courts of the United States federal court system. A court of appeals decides appeals from the district courts within its federal judicial circuit, and in some instances from other designated federal courts and administrative agencies.

Spenkelink's case became a national cause célèbre , encompassing both the broader debate over the morality of the death penalty and the narrower question of whether the punishment fitted Spenkelink's crime. His cause was taken up by former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, actor Alan Alda, and singer Joan Baez, among many others. [1] Also at issue was the assertion that capital punishment discriminated against the poor and underprivileged—Spenkelink often signed his prison correspondence with the epigram, "capital punishment means those without capital get the punishment." [7]

A cause célèbre is an issue or incident arousing widespread controversy, outside campaigning, and heated public debate. The term continues in the media in all senses. It is sometimes used positively for celebrated legal cases for their precedent value and more often negatively for infamous ones, whether for scale, outrage, scandal or conspiracy theories.

LeRoy Collins American politician

Thomas LeRoy Collins was an American attorney and politician, the 33rd Governor of Florida, serving a special term in 1955, and being elected to a four-year term in 1956, serving through 1961. He was previously elected to several terms in the Florida House of Representatives and Senate. He was the first governor of the South to promote the moral necessity of ending segregation. Counseling "progress under law", he took a moderate course during the civil rights movement and is remembered as a voice for civil rights.

Alan Alda American actor, director, and writer

Alan Alda is an American actor, director, screenwriter, comedian and author. A six-time Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award winner, he played Hawkeye Pierce in the war television series M*A*S*H (1972–1983). He has also appeared on television programs such as Scientific American Frontiers, The West Wing, and 30 Rock, and in films such as Same Time, Next Year (1978) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). He also experienced success as a director with 1981's The Four Seasons. In 2004, Alda was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in The Aviator.

The execution was finally carried out on May 25, 1979, in "Old Sparky", the Florida State Prison electric chair. [8] That morning, Doug Tracht, a popular Jacksonville disc jockey, aired a recording of sizzling bacon on his radio program and dedicated it to Spenkelink. [9] [10]

Old Sparky

Old Sparky is the nickname of the electric chairs in Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Old Smokey was the nickname of the electric chairs used in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. "Old Sparky" is sometimes used to refer to electric chairs in general, and not one of a specific state.

Florida State Prison (FSP), otherwise known as Raiford Prison, is a correctional institution located in unincorporated Bradford County, Florida.. It was formerly known as the "Florida State Prison-East Unit" as it was originally part of Florida State Prison in Raiford, Florida. The facility, a part of the Florida Department of Corrections, is located on State Road 16 right across the border from Union County. The institution opened in 1961, even though construction was not completed until 1968. With a maximum population of over 1,400 inmates, FSP is one of the largest prisons in the state. FSP houses one of the state's three death row cell blocks, and the state's execution chamber. Union Correctional Institution also houses male death row inmates while Lowell Annex houses female death row inmates.

Doug Tracht American DJ

Doug "The Greaseman" Tracht is an American radio, television, and movie personality.


Abuse allegations

Shortly after Spenkelink's execution and burial at Rose Hills Memorial Park, another Florida death row inmate alleged that prison officials had manhandled and assaulted Spenkelink during preparation for his execution. Several decisions lent credence to these allegations: corrections officials had obscured the death chamber's viewing window while Spenkelink was strapped to the electric chair, citing anonymity concerns;the county did not perform an autopsy on Spenkelink (in violation of state law) because the county coroner considered it a redundant and prohibitively expensive policy; and the prison superintendent had limited visits from family and clergy on Spenkelink's execution day, citing fear of a suicide attempt.

Governor Graham commissioned an investigation, which in September 1979 concluded that Spenkelink had been "taunted" and had loud exchanges with prison guards and staff immediately before his execution, but had not been physically abused. [11] Florida corrections officials responded by allowing witnesses to see the complete execution process going forward. [1] Florida's counties now perform autopsies on all executed inmates. [12] [13]

Murder allegations

In spite of the state's investigation, a rumor began that Spenkelink had been murdered prior to his being brought into the death chamber. [14] The rumor reached Spenkelink's mother Lois, who, after encouragement from a spiritual advisor, paid to have her son's body exhumed for a post-mortem examination. [15] On March 6, 1981, Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi announced his finding that the cause of Spenkelink's death was the result of electrocution. [16]

See also

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  1. 1 2 3 4 Von Drehle, David. Among the Lowest of the Dead: Inside Death Row. New York: Fawcett Crest (imprint of Ballantine Books), 1996. ISBN   0449225232 pp. 49-51
  2. 1 2 Nash, Jay Robert (1992-07-10). World Encyclopedia of 20th Century Murder. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN   9781590775325.
  3. "Happy Anniversary, Sparky". NBC 6 South Florida. Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  4. "John A. SPENKELINK, Applicant, v. Louie L. WAINWRIGHT et al. No. A-1016". LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  5. Times, Special To the New York (1979-05-25). "2 Courts Lift Stays, Clearing Way For Execution of Florida Murderer". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  6. BEECHAM, BILL (1987-01-11). "'Let's Do It'". Los Angeles Times. ISSN   0458-3035 . Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  7. John Spenkelink: archive Retrieved April 28, 2011.
  8. Curry, Bill (1979-05-26). "Convicted Murderer Executed by Florida". Washington Post. ISSN   0190-8286 . Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  9. Michaud S, Aynesworth H (1999): The Only Living Witness. Penguin Putnam, ISBN   0-451-16372-9, p. 10.
  10. "Florida Wields Death Law". The Daily Oklahoman. 26 August 1979. Retrieved 5 January 2014.
  11. "Panel Says Killer Was Taunted Before Execution". The New York Times. 1979-09-23. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  12. "Timeline: 1979 - A History of Corrections in Florida". Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  13. Quigley, Christine (2013-09-13). The Corpse: A History. McFarland. ISBN   9781476613772.
  14. AP. "AROUND THE NATION; Body of Executed Murderer Is Exhumed in California" . Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  15. "The results of an autopsy on the exhumed body..." UPI. Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  16. "Detroit Free Press from Detroit, Michigan on March 6, 1981 · Page 18". Retrieved 2018-03-25.

General references

Preceded by
Gary Gilmore
People executed in USSucceeded by
Jesse Bishop