Pvt. John Bennett is the Only U.S. Soldier Executed for Rape in Peacetime. He Was Mentally Troubled and Black. Six White Murderers Were Also on Military Death Row. They Were Spared.
Richard A. Serrano is a Staff Writer in The Times’ Washington, bureau. He last wrote for the magazine about the bombing of the Oklahoma, City federal building, which was also the subject of his book, “One of, Ours,” published in 1998 by W.W. Norton
“Rain always frightened him, and on the night he was hanged in a military prison in Kansas, a rolling prairie thunderstorm was kicking up outside. That was four decades ago. Pvt. John Bennett had just turned 26. He went to his death perhaps more terrified of the thunder and lightning than of the gaunt hangman waiting upon the gallows.
News of the hanging scarcely made the papers. Executions then, like today, were commonplace, so much so that his story has never been told. But he is the last member of the U.S. Armed Forces to be executed. And he is the only serviceman hanged for rape during peacetime.
America is once again examining the death penalty, spurred by the most damning evidence in history that innocents have been sentenced to die. Advances in DNA testing and other revelations have overturned scores of death sentences in recent years, raising fresh doubts about American criminal justice, especially for minorities, who make up the majority of death row prisoners.
As a result, the death penalty issue looms larger in presidential politics than it has for a generation. Both major party candidates favor death sentencing, and Republican nominee George W. Bush has given it special emphasis. He expresses confidence in his state’s handling of capital cases and says that not one innocent man has been executed on his watch as governor of Texas.
The issue also has landed in the Oval Office, where President Clinton delayed by four months the federal government’s first scheduled execution since 1963. Juan Raul Garza will now have until Dec. 12–a date notably after the presidential election–to seek clemency. Garza’s attorneys say they will argue that the criminal justice system discriminates against minorities.
Amid the chatter, national opinion polls have found that while most Americans still favor death sentencing, the support is diminishing. Even its proponents question the role that race, mental illness, poverty, politics and the quality of legal representation play in death penalty cases. All those factors were present on that stormy night in April 1961 inside the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth. Was the system broken back then? Has it been fixed since?“
Read more from Richard A. Serrano (LA Times) here or here and check out Serrano’s book ‘Summoned at Midnight: A Story of Race and the Last Military Executions at Fort Leavenworth’ here.
Pvt John Arthur Bennett (April 13, 1961)
Pvt. John Bennett is the Only U.S. Soldier Executed for Rape in Peacetime
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