When do soldiers face execution?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 24 2003 3:48 PM

When Do Soldiers Face Execution?

Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi, the Air Force translator charged with espionage and aiding the enemy, could face the death penalty if convicted. Coverage of the case has mentioned that the last military execution took place in 1961. What were the circumstances of that case, and what military crimes are punishable by death?

Advertisement

John A. Bennett, an Army private, was hanged on April 13, 1961, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. In December of 1954, while stationed in Austria, he had raped and attempted to drown an 11-year-old girl. The execution was carried out despite pleas for clemency from the victim and her family, who opposed the death penalty on principle. President John F. Kennedy, however, ignored their entreaties, as well as a last-minute telegram from a frightened Bennett. According to a 1994 Los Angeles Times recap, the soldier's last words, directed toward the small gathering of witnesses who braved a downpour, were, "May God have mercy on your souls."

There are currently seven men on the military's version of death row, a high-security unit nicknamed "The Castle" at Fort Leavenworth's U.S. Disciplinary Barracks. All the condemned were convicted of murder. The closest to execution is Dwight J. Loving, convicted in 1989 of murdering two cab drivers in Killeen, Texas. Before the sentence can be carried out, however, Loving's death warrant must be personally reviewed by the commander in chief. His decision is supposed to be informed by a special Department of Defense recommendation, although the Uniform Code of Military Justice does not specify how that recommendation should be prepared.

The military death penalty was temporarily scratched in 1983, when the Armed Forces Court of Appeals ruled that judicial guidelines did not adequately define the aggravating factors that might justify a capital sentence. The penalty was reintroduced a year later, after President Ronald Reagan issued an executive order detailing exactly how capital courts-martial should proceed and listing 11 aggravating circumstances (such as killing for monetary gain) that can qualify a defendant for a death sentence.

The UCMJ lists 15 offenses that are potentially punishable by death, though the majority of the crimes must be committed during wartime in order to carry the maximum penalty. In addition to espionage, aiding the enemy, and murder, soldiers can also be executed for "misbehavior before the enemy" (including cowardice or throwing down one's arms), "improper use of countersign" (giving away a secret password), and, of course, mutiny. Military crimes not on the capital list: dueling, maiming, and "improper hazarding of vessel."

Popular lore holds that the first American soldier to be executed was Thomas Hickey, a personal guard of George Washington, who was convicted of plotting to kill the general and was put to death in 1776. (There's a myth that Hickey planned to poison Washington's green peas.) The last soldier to be executed during wartime was Pvt. Eddie Slovik, shot for desertion in 1945. He was later portrayed by Martin Sheen in a made-for-TV movie.

Explainer thanks the DeathPenaltyInformationCenter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?