Posted: 09/28/2008


Secrets of the Dead – Executed in Error


by Laura Tucker

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There’s a lot of interest here in the state of Illinois on the validity of capital punishment. There have been some people that have been convicted and sentenced to die, and later found to be innocent. Because of this, Governor George Ryan called for a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, not wanting to see any innocent people die. In 2003, just before leaving office, Governor Ryan pardoned four men that were on death row and announced clemency for the remaining men and women on death row, reducing all of their penalties to life in jail.

Secrets of the Dead – Executed In Error details a story nearly 100 years before in 1910. Doctor Hawley Crippen was convicted of poisoning and dismembering his wife, an entertainer. She had originally disappeared, and he wrote letters to his wife’s friends explaining she had taken sudden leave to visit her ill relations in America. A month later, he wrote again saying Cora Crippen herself was now seriously ill, and later he announced she had died and published an obituary. He declined to travel across seas to make arrangements for her funeral.

Cora’s friends became suspicious once it was found he had a mistress and contacted authorities. Dr. Crippen admitted to the authorities that he really didn’t know where Cora was. He now admitted to not really knowing where she was, saying she had gone to America to be with one of her lovers, and he had since taken up with his mistress. He claimed to create the elaborate story before in embarrassment. Dr. Crippen’s home was searched, and originally nothing turned up. In a last ditch effort, the coal cellar was dug up and a dismembered body was found below.

Forensic science back in 1910 was nothing like it is now. Detecting DNA was many, many years away, yet they were able to find a poison in the body, a drug known mostly only to doctors. Also found was a scar that matched the one that was known to be on Cora’s abdomen. This was all the evidence that the jury needed to convict Dr. Crippen, and he was later hanged.

Nearly 100 years later, the case was rousing suspicion, and with modern DNA work what it is, investigators decided to look into the case again. Executed In Error goes through the new investigation, showing the eventual findings, guilty or innocent. Family members of both Cora and Dr. Crippen are interviewed as they offer their own family history and wait to hear the news.

I can’t help but editorialize a little here. It’s too bad that Governor Ryan didn’t spend the same time to re-investigate all these capitol punishment cases before he granted the blanket clemency. While every minute detail of the Dr. Crippen case was gone over with a fine tooth comb, the governor had promised each case would be retried in front of a special commission and decisions would be made separately. Instead, he issued a blanket clemency for a variety of different cases.

I also have a vested interest in all this. My sister had been the victim of a heinous crime back on Good Friday 2001. A man had returned to a bar after being kicked out earlier, and had three separate guns and nearly 300 rounds of ammunition with him. Two died and 16 were injured by the gunfire. My sister was one of the 16, but luckily survived. This man fully admits that he committed this crime, and his pleas of innocence gave his drug and alcohol use that day as an excuse. The jury didn’t buy it, and they convicted him, then gave him the death penalty for the two murders. Later, the judge gave him 16 life sentences for the attempted murders.

DNA did not and could not clear this man, and he fully admits to committing the crime, so it’s unclear to me why his sentence was reduced. By changing his sentence to life in jail it seems like it fully negates the penalty he received for the two murders, since he already had life in jail with 16 life sentences. For the victims and victims’ families of this man, this decision was like a slap in the face.

I think the only issue with capitol punishment is with the morality of it, not with the legality of it. While there were people sentenced to die earlier that were later cleared with DNA evidence, it shouldn’t happen again with DNA being used more routinely. If we look back in history, people were convicted and hanged often with little to no hard evidence. The fact that we’re now reexamining all those old cases, such as Dr. Crippen’s, is a good thing. We apparently still don’t have the right system in place, but at least we’re headed in the right direction.

Laura Tucker is a freelance writer providing reviews of movies and television, among other things, at Viewpoints and Reality Shack, and operates a celebrity gossip blog, Troubled Hollywood. She is also an Associate Instructor and 1st dan black belt in tae kwon do with South Elgin Martial Arts.

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