When do soldiers face execution?

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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?

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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.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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