The next U.S. execution is scheduled for 12:01 a.m. Wednesday in Bonne Terre, Mo. If the execution survives legal challenges filed in federal and state courts, it will be watched closely because of the high profile of the condemned inmate and state’s controversial method to kill him.
Joseph Paul Franklin, 63, is condemned to die for the 1977 sniper killing of Gerald Gordon, 42, the father of three young daughters, outside a Richmond Heights synagogue. Authorities have convicted the avowed racist of, or linked him to, 18 killings and other crimes, including the murder of two black men in Utah, two black teens in Ohio and an interracial couple in Wisconsin. He admitted to the nonfatal shootings of Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt and civil rights leader Vernon Jordan, but was never convicted of those crimes.
For several years, Missouri was one of the nation’s most prolific death penalty states, but the pace of the state’s executions has slowed to a crawl because of constitutional challenges, questions about the fitness of its execution team and, most recently, struggles to secure lethal drugs for executions. The state executed 66 prisoners between 1989 and 2005, but just two in the past eight years, and no one since Martin Link in February 2011.
Now, Missouri says it is prepared to give Franklin a lethal injection of pentobarbital, a drug commonly used to euthanize pets, produced by a compounding pharmacy. Franklin’s attorneys are appealing to state and federal courts to stop the execution, arguing that the method would put him at risk of an unconstitutionally “excruciatingly painful execution.” And death penalty opponents are attacking Missouri’s secrecy over the people involved. Flynt on Nov. 8 filed a motion in federal court to unseal documents revealing the identity of an anesthesiologist on the team.
“There are simply too many unanswered questions to justify ending someone’s life,” Jeffrey A. Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, wrote in an email to ACLU supporters on Friday.
Lee Lankford was a sergeant with Richmond Heights police when the shootings happened, and was a captain in 1980 when he figured out that Franklin was the killer. He scoffed at the concern over Franklin’s comfort.
“How many lives did he take on his rampage across the United States?” Lankford, who retired as Richmond Heights police chief in 1992, said on Friday. “Just to be put to sleep, that’s the easiest way out of here.”
Major drug manufacturers have stopped supplying drugs used in executions. Stymied by a shortage of chemicals available for the state’s long-used three-drug sequence, Missouri last year switched to a lethal dose of propofol. It would have been the first time the common hospital anesthetic was used in an execution.
The European Union, which opposes the death penalty, had threatened to cut off supplies of the drug to the U.S. if the execution went forward, which could have had a widespread impact on hospitals. Last month, Gov. Jay Nixon postponed the execution of Allen Nicklasson after the Department of Corrections was pressured to return its propofol inventory. Within days, Missouri announced it would use a different drug for Franklin’s execution.
The state has added the compounding pharmacy to its execution team to produce a lethal injection of pentobarbital. Just a half-dozen states have resorted to compounding pharmacies.
Those pharmacies come under limited government oversight, and their safety has come into question. Earlier this year, federal regulators said they had found numerous unsafe practices at 30 compounding pharmacies. Last year, more than 50 people died and more than 600 were made ill from fungal meningitis after receiving injections of a contaminated steroid made by the New England Compounding Center.
Franklin has caused more than his share of suffering.
In a 1995 interview with two Post-Dispatch reporters, Franklin, who legally changed his name to honor Nazi propagandist Joseph Paul Goebbels, said he randomly picked St. Louis from a road map as a site for killing “as many Jews as I could.” He used a phone book to select Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel Congregation in Richmond Heights.
On Oct. 7, 1977, a Friday, Franklin arrived in St. Louis and chose a place for the shooting, from a knoll overlooking the synagogue. He returned about 9 a.m., on the Sabbath. A bar mitzvah was under way.
He fired five shots, killing Gordon. In the shooting, another man lost a finger and was wounded in the hip. A bullet ripped through the clothes of a third man. Franklin escaped to Memphis, Tenn.
“As soon as they came out, I opened fire,” he said. “I hit two … I wanted to kill at least two of them. After the first two shots, I fired three quick shots randomly at the synagogue.”
Franklin told the Post-Dispatch that he discovered Nazism through pamphlets he read. He later joined the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and the National States Rights Party. He decided to act after he moved to the Washington area in the early 1970s. The moment came one Saturday in 1975 as he walked past a synagogue in Maryland.
“I remember thinking I could just sit there with a rifle and pick off Jews,” he said.
His next attack was in Chattanooga, Tenn., in July 1977, where he blew up a synagogue. The bomb went off one hour after services had ended. No one was injured.
“I got mixed on times and set it to go off at the wrong time. If I would have set it an hour earlier, I would have killed them all. And I was trying to kill them all.”
In his interview with the Post-Dispatch, Franklin admitted shooting Flynt outside a courthouse in Georgia in 1978, where the publisher was on trial for obscenity. Franklin said he did not like Hustler’s pictures of interracial couples. On May 29, 1980, Jordan was shot and seriously wounded outside the Marriott Inn in Fort Wayne, Ind. Asked about the Jordan shooting, Franklin would say only, “I did it.”
He was finally caught that year while selling his blood in Florida. A nurse recognized a bald eagle tattoo on his arm from descriptions for a suspect being sought in several murders and called authorities. He was sentenced to death in Missouri in 1997.
Lankford said Franklin called him regularly to talk during his incarceration – even tracking him down by phone after Lankford’s retirement.
“You’re dealing with a homicidal maniac, a person who at the time was all screwed up in the head,” Lankford said. “He was a racist and a Nazi. But he finally came to grips with himself and was sorry that he had done it.”