BONNE TERRE, Mo. — Missouri has executed Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist killer who targeted blacks and Jews during a multistate crime spree from 1977-1980.
Franklin, 63, was put to death for the 1977 sniper killing of Gerald Gordon at a suburban St. Louis synagogue. The U.S. Supreme Court early Wednesday upheld a federal appeals court decisions overturning stays granted Tuesday by federal judges in Jefferson City, Mo., and St. Louis.
Mike O’Connell, of the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said the execution got the final OK from Gov. Jay Nixon at 6:05 a.m. By this time, Franklin was already strapped to a table in theh state’s death chamber at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, ready for the injection. He received a lethal injection at 6:07 a.m., and his death was confirmed at 6:17 a.m.
The execution was the first in Missouri using a single drug, pentobarbital. Three media witnesses said Franklin did not seem to express pain. He did not make any final written statement and did not speak a word in the death chamber. After the injection, he blinked a few times, breathed heavily a few times, and swallowed hard, the witnesses said. The heaving of his chest slowed, and finally stopped, they said.
Jessica Machetta, managing editor of Missourinet, who witnessed the execution, said Franklin did not seem to take a breath after 6:10 a.m.
Nixon said in a statement: “The cowardly and calculated shootings outside a St. Louis-area synagogue were part of Joseph Paul Franklin’s long record of murders and other acts of extreme violence across the country, fueled by religious and racial hate.” He asked that Gordon be remembered and that Franklin’s victims and their families remain in the thoughts and prayers of Missourians.
Judges in two U.S. court districts had ordered stays of execution for Franklin on Tuesday. But Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s office successfully appealed both of the orders to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey in Jefferson City granted the first stay Tuesday afternoon. She criticized the state for changing the plan just days beforehand for how the execution was to be carried out — using a lethal injection of pentobarbital produced by a secret compounding pharmacy — and then telling the defendant that “time is up” to challenge the method.
Then, Tuesday night, U.S. District Judge Carol E. Jackson in St. Louis granted a second stay, based on Franklin’s claim that he is mentally incompetent to be executed. She wrote that Laughrey’s stay “does not moot the necessity to address the petitioner’s motion in this case.”
Laughrey wrote that neither Franklin’s lawyers nor the court had been able to address the question of whether the state’s execution method passes constitutional muster, “because the Defendants keep changing the protocol that they intend to use.”
Whether the use of pentobarbital constituted cruel and unusual punishment was among the issues raised in the request for a stay filed by Franklin and other plaintiffs.
The stay was meant to “ensure that the Defendants’ last act against Franklin is not permanent, irremediable cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment,” Laughrey’s ruling said.
Last month, Nixon delayed the execution of another man because of issues surrounding the state’s plan to use the widely used anesthetic propofol. Most of the supply of propofol comes from drug makers in the European Union, which opposes the death penalty and has said it would cut off supplies to the U.S. if the drug were used for executions.
Nixon ordered the state to find a new drug, and the Department of Corrections settled on pentobarbital, which is commonly used to euthanize pets, to be provided by a compounding pharmacy. The name of that pharmacy is a secret, under a law passed by the Missouri Legislature that bans making public the identity of anyone on the execution team.
“The Department has not provided any information about the certification, inspection, history, infraction history, or other aspects of the compounding pharmacy,” the judge’s order noted.
Koster’s office argued in a motion to vacate Laughrey’s order that “the use of sufficiently potent pentobarbital, in the dose planned, will lead to a rapid and painless death” and that the Supreme Court has said that some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution.
The office also argued that Franklin had not exhausted his administrative appeals, and thus had no right to relief from the court.
The plaintiff’s expert, the judge’s order said, noted that the American Veterinary Medical Association recently discouraged the use of compounded drugs such as pentobarbital because of the “high risk of contamination.”
In the competency appeal, Jackson ruled that a stay was necessary to investigate a defense expert’s claim that Franklin was insane. She noted that he “has routinely stated that he makes decisions based on idiosyncratic associations of meaning to particular letters or numbers or messages he receives in dreams.”
Koster’s office responded in a motion that said Jackson relied on anecdotes and abused her discretion.
“There is nothing inherently delusional about these things. Many people are superstitious or ascribe meaning to the symbols in their dreams. None of the anecdotes shows Franklin does not have a rational understanding of the State’s basis for his execution, and the district court offered no explanation or analysis to the contrary.”
The Missouri Supreme Court had denied Franklin’s appeals earlier Tuesday.
Franklin did not eat a final meal before his death, preferring to fast. In addition to the three media witnesses, six people witnessed the execution for the state. Franklin’s four witnesses left the prison about 4 a.m. and were not present for his death.
While prison guards cordoned off an area near the prison for demonstrators for and against the execution, none arrived.