Capital Punishment or Compassion - Executions in the State of New Mexico: The Death Penalty Since Territorial Days
(Author’s note, 05/03/2003. For additional information regarding this subject as well as hangings and lynchings during the New Mexico Territorial days, consult West Gilbreath’s book Death on the gallows : the story of legal hangings in New Mexico, 1847-1923, Silver City, NM : High-Lonesome Books (2002), available at Amazon.com, among other vendors. West’s and my research were conducted independently.)
(Author’s note, 12/05/2002. Since the Internet publication of this page, Terry Clark was executed in New Mexico on November 6, 2001. For more information on his execution and the politics of capital punishment in New Mexico, please see Dr. Kenneth Mentor’s work The Death Penalty Returns to New Mexico.)
The lead article of the Santa Fe New Mexican on April 25, 1913 was emblazoned “Avenging Rope Sends Frazer and Granado to Great Beyond.” Less than 75 years later in 1986, New Mexico Governor Toney Anaya commuted the sentences of five men awaiting the administration of the death penalty by lethal injection. At the time of this document’s writing, however, 4 men were again housed on Death Row in anticipation of being executed. One of these men, Terry Clark, is scheduled to receive the ultimate penalty upon November 6, 2001.
This fascinating history of vengeance and compassion is punctuated by the executions of those individuals legally slain in the State for the crimes for which they were convicted. The following document does NOT include those individuals who were executed in Territorial days. (During this earlier period at least seventy, but probably closer to eighty individuals were hanged under color of law, including those executed following the Revolt of 1847.) It should also be noted that record keeping was sketchy before the execution process was taken over by the State in 1929, and that some of those meeting their deaths at the noose may not yet be identified in this work. The text below briefly summarizes information about those men heretofore identified, providing pertinent facts about each condemned individual, his crimes, and his manner of execution. Preliminarily, however, a brief background of the history of the execution process in the state of New Mexico is in order.
Since Statehood, New Mexico has legally provided for the execution of murderers within its boundaries. Yet no woman has ever been executed by the State of New Mexico. (However, it should be noted that Paula Angel was hanged within the Territory on April 26, 1861 for the murder of her ex-lover.) Additionally, those men who have been condemned have not been limited to a single “last meal,” but have been traditionally given several. Of the 27 criminals whom I have thus far identified who were executed since New Mexico statehood in 1912, six of the individuals died for their participation in a single international incident – the 1916 raid on Columbus by Pancho Villa and his men. Continuing from territorial days until 1929, executions were carried out in the county in which the crime was committed, and the method of death was by hanging. In that year, the legislature designated death by electrocution as the manner of death for condemned felons, and executions were carried out in the State Penitentiary at Santa Fe. The electric chair used for the procedure was a prison-manufactured, low, wooden chair, which has been macobly described as “sort of a Taos” design. It was surrounded by a wire cage. The condemned individual was strapped to the chair, a helmet was placed on his shaved head and electrodes on his body. His face would be masked or hooded. Upon the pronouncement of death by the attending physician, curtains could be dropped around the man and apparatus. It was initially tested by using a goat, prior to the first two men to be electrocuted by it in 1933.
In 1956, the implementation of capital punishment in New Mexico was changed to death by lethal gas. Execution by this method required the condemned man to enter an airtight, steel chamber and be strapped to a chair. The door was closed, and five men were then needed to perform the execution, which involved the combination of sulfuric acid and cyanide pellets, the fumes of which were released into the chamber. The execution was monitored by measuring the condemned’s heartbeat, transmitted via leads running from the individual’s chest to equipment outside the chamber. The condemned was also viewable through the chamber’s windows throughout the process. A pig was put to death in the chamber the day prior to the only execution of this type to take place in New Mexico, which occurred in 1960.
1972 saw the death penalty ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court, invalidating state death statutes across the nation, including New Mexico. It was subsequently reinstated by the Court in 1976, and New Mexico passed a statute complying with the Supreme Court’s decision in 1979. The manner of execution was changed to lethal injection in 1980. In an action that created great controversy in 1986, the outgoing Governor of New Mexico Toney Anaya commuted the death sentences of five men to life imprisonment on Thanksgiving Eve. The newspaper The Santa Fe New Mexican sponsored a poll in October 2000 which revealed that only 47% of New Mexican citizens supported the death penalty if a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is an option. However, crimes punishable by capital punishment are still on the books in New Mexico as of 2001.
Men, Crimes, and Executions in New Mexico
“Avenging Rope Sends Frazer and Granado to Great Beyond” read the lead article of the Santa Fe New Mexican on April 25, 1913. At 4:52 AM (sunrise) on the 25th, Ivory Frazer and Francisco Granado became the first individuals put to death in the newly created state of New Mexico. The men were executed in the county jail of Socorro, and the sentence was meted out by hanging. Frazer’s final words were “May my death on the Gallows be a warning to young men of New Mexico.” Granado was silent. Both men’s necks being broken in the simultaneous drop from the gallows, their death was reported as “instantaneous.”
Ivory Frazer was convicted of the November 7, 1911 murders of a Deputy Sheriff Thomas (last name unknown) and Al Smithers of Luna County after having escaped from jail in Deming. Francisco Granado had been found guilty of the murder of William S. Clark upon February 19, 1912; having shot him during an attempted robbery of the Mogollon Mercantile Company Store in Mogollon. The cases were appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which upheld the sentences. The governor, of the opinion that his office should not be a court of final judgment, refused to commute the sentences.
At 5:09 AM on May 16 1913, Demecio Delgadillo, a Mexican citizen, was hanged in the Bernalillo county jail yard in Albuquerque. Immediately prior to his execution he was asked if he had any last words, and he stated that he did not. He died praying, his neck broken.
Delgadillo was convicted of the shooting and murder of Mrs. Soledad Zarrazino de Pino on September 21, 1912. The evidence was circumstantial, and Delgadillo maintained his innocence to the last. However, the case was not appealed to the supreme court, nor did the Mexican government protest the decision. Nonetheless, Delgadillo had many supporters who requested that the Governor grant clemency. Several prominent citizens including the associate editor of the Albuquerque Herald met with the governor the eve of the execution, pleading for clemency. Having failed to persuade him, they departed shortly after midnight. Five hours later, Delgadillo was dead.
Francisco Alvarez and Juan Sanchez were hanged on June 9, 1916 in Deming. This multiple execution did not proceed as smoothly as the preceding hangings, for after Juan Sanchez had been cut down from the gallows after being hanged for less than 10 minutes, he began to breath again. While still unconscious, he was hanged a second time until dead.
The two condemned men, both Mexican Nationals, were participants in the Pancho Villa raid upon Columbus, New Mexico, on the morning of March 9th, 1916. In the attack, several Americans were killed. Seven individuals were captured and condemned to death in the attack, but the executions of five of the Villistas were delayed by the governor.
On June 30, 1916, four of the five remaining Villistas were put to death in the county jail at Deming. The first two individuals to hang were Garcia and Renteria, who were pronounced dead after 20 minutes (perhaps to not repeat the same mistake that had previously been made with Juan Sanchez). Castillo and Rangel were hanged next, and died relatively quickly, their necks broken.
Jose Rodriguez, the remaining captured Villista, received executive clemency and was condemned to life in prison.
Lucius Hightower was executed in Silver City, New Mexico on November 13, 1916 for the murder of his wife. In his final statement, the condemned man forgave all watching the hanging, said he had made his peace with his Creator, and exhorted the spectators to live a “Christian life.” The trapdoor was sprung and in a particularly horrific spectacle, Hightower’s head was yanked and cut from his body by the noose. This inadvertent decapitation was attributed to the condemned man’s immense weight, which exceeded 200 pounds. Notably, this was not the first time in New Mexico history that a man had been decapitated in a hanging, at least one other had occurred at the execution of “Black Jack” Ketchum in 1901.
Hightower had been convicted of the murder of his wife and the New Mexico Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. Present at the execution was Hightower’s father-in-law. He stated after the hanging that the execution was “just as he would have had it,” and that he had personally felt the need to avenge his daughter’s death.
On April 11, 1918, Julian Romero was hanged in the San Miguel county jail yard in Las Vegas, New Mexico. His neck was broken. The day before, he had lapsed into tears upon being told that the New Mexico Supreme Court would not grant leniency. He then apologized for his crime.
Romero’s capital crime was the murder of Mrs. Maria Varela de Jaure on May 29, 1917, of which it was said that the motive was jealousy.
With the words “I have nothing to say,” Elbert Blancett went to his death on the scaffold at 5:22 AM in Santa Fe, shortly after sunrise on July 9, 1920. Only his right hand was handcuffed, his left hand being left free as it had been rendered useless in a previous suicide attempt. Ten minutes later he was pronounced dead. The fall did not break his neck, but he was unconscious throughout the proceeding, evidently from the snapping of the knot of the noose against his head. Blancett had gone to his death calmly, having read and written letters the whole of the night before. At the scaffold, he nudged the noose and quipped, “When I am at the end of this it will all be over.” At the beginning of the reading of the warrant for the execution, he suggested, “We might dispense with that. It will only delay the game.”
The story behind Blancett’s crime and execution is far too interesting for a brief summation - the reader is encouraged to investigate further. Briefly, Blancett was hanged for the murder of Clyde D. Amour, whose partially coyote-eaten body was not found until January 14, 1917, in an arroyo near Glorieta. An examination showed that Armour had been killed by a shotgun blast from behind, and an impressive feat of detective work revealed that Blancett had evidently impersonated his victim for a time after Amour’s death on October 23, 1916. Blancett, who was traveling from Sioux City, Iowa to Fresno, California, then spent Amour’s money gambling and upon other activities purportedly in an attempt to forget the incident. He had even made telegrams to various parties including Amour’s own mother seeking additional funds. Upon Blancett’s arrest in Friday Harbor, California on December 31, 1916, he requested permission to go inside his mother’s house to “say goodbye.” Once inside, he unsuccessfully attempted to end his life with a shotgun by shooting himself in the neck - but merely rendered his left arm practically unusable. Before his trial, he maintained complete silence regarding Armour’s death, stating to Amour’s brother that he had never seen Clyde Armour. At the trial, which was a local sensation, he maintained that the shooting was accidental. He claimed that he had been drinking shortly before the shooting, and that he feared that as a stranger to the locale he would be accused of murder, and therefore did not report the incident. Having been found guilty and incarcerated, he was subsequently baptized a Catholic. Until his execution, Blancett continued to maintain that the incident had been an accident. Before his execution, the governor refused to set aside the court’s verdict and denied a reprieve to Blancett’s execution in order to make a sanity inquiry. Framing the entire trial and execution, however, appears to be the issue of ‘degeneracy’ - both Blancett’s attorney and priest maintained that he was not a degenerate. As to the subject of the supposed degeneracy, one can only speculate. Perhaps the issue involved was that of homosexual propositions or activity; further research needs to be done with regard to this matter. Toward the end of Blancett’s life, his mother, who had traveled from California to be with her son, visited every day; and his fellow prisoners raised the money for Blancett’s funeral expenses.
Eleuterio Corral and Rumaldo Losano were hanged at the Grant County Jail on January 20, 1922. While they both claimed to be 19, this age was disputed. Losano’s mother claimed that her son was 15, and a baptismal record for Corral identified him as being born in July of 1903. Many residents of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona petitioned Governor Merritt C. Mecham to commute their sentences on the basis of their age. The Mexican Consul also intervened on behalf of the youths on these grounds. However, a committee assembled by the governor determined that both youths were over 21.
Corral and Losano were convicted of the axe murder of Ventura Bencomo , the jailer of the Grant County Jail, during an escape attempt. Both individuals expressed remorse for their crimes in their final statements.
Luis Medrano, Carlos Renteria, and Ysiderio Miranda were hanged in Estancia on July 28, 1922. Miranda maintained a cool demeanor throughout the affair, smiling as the noose was placed around his neck. The other two men broke down toward the end. All made final statements, reflecting the unfairness of the hanging, but Mirando put it most the eloquently. “There is no justice in this country. They hang men just like goats.” Renteria’s neck were broken in simultaneous hanging of the three individuals, but one of the remaining men remained alive but unconscious for 25 minutes.
The criminals had been convicted of the murder of Anton Coury, in an attempted robbery of Coury’s store at Duran, New Mexico in September, 1921. Also participating in the attempted heist were Francisco Vaisa, who was appealing his conviction at the time of the executions, and another man called “Muchacho,” believed to be in Mexico. In addition to killing Coury, they severely wounded his wife in the struggle.
At 9:00 AM, on October 20, 1922, Steve Katonka was hanged in the town of Aztec. He continued to protest his innocence until the end, his last words being “An injustice is being done.”
He and his wife were charged with the murder of William Kelly and Sam Groy, taxi drivers, on July 31, 1921, near the town of Shiprock. He stated that his wife had murdered one of the victims and forced him at gunpoint to kill the remaining driver. Katonka’s wife claimed that she had been forced by her husband to kill one of the men. She received five to thirty years in prison.
Francisco Vaisa was hanged in Estancia at 5:30 AM on April 6, 1923. He made no statement. He was the last individual to hang for the murder of Anton Koury, joining his fellow criminals Carlos Renteria, Ysidero Miranda, and Luis Medrano in death following the failure of his appeal. He was the last man to be executed by hanging in New Mexico.
The first man to die in the New Mexico electric chair was Thomas Johnson, an African American, on July 21, 1933, at 12:38 AM. He was in the electric chair for approximately 8 minutes. The second, Santiago Garduno, was pronounced dead at 1:12 AM, having been seated for seven minutes. Johnson had nothing to say, only waving at Sheriff Jesus M. Baca, whereas Garduno made a final “peace with God, malice to no one” message. The only problem that manifested at the execution was a stream of smoke coming from Johnson’s leg, whereupon the voltage was reduced. Over 70 people witnessed the execution, but no women, all requests by the “gentler” sex having been denied. Warden Ed Swope stated “There was no hitch at all, and I may say that the executions were a success from a scientific standpoint. Personally, I feel the executions were carried out in a business-like manner.”
Johnson was convicted of the murder of 18-year-old Angelina Jaramillo in her bedroom on November 15, 1931. She had been stabbed in the head with a knife. He had apparently also struck Angelina’s mother on the head with a vase, knocking her out. Shortly thereafter a garage attendant was found beaten, the cash register looted, and a car stolen from the garage. Johnson was subsequently arrested, and admitted to the garage attack. He denied the murder, despite his fingerprints being left at the scene of Angelina’s bedroom.
Garduno was convicted of murdering his 14-year-old stepson Filemon Martinez, by giving him whisky containing strychnine. The motive was said to be jealousy that his own child died and Fileman had lived. He had previously served prison time for two other deaths.
Pedro Talamante was placed in the electric chair at 12:01 AM on May 10, 1946, electrocuted, and pronounced dead at 12:10:30. Two shocks were necessary to achieve the intended purpose. Talamante had appeared cool and rational to within a few hours of his execution. Having previously denied the attentions of clergy, he called for a priest a couple of hours before the appointed hour. The responding priest subsequently described him as being initially sane, but then lapsing into “an insane trance.” Talamante spoke of seeing movies on the cell walls, and described a witch who ran the prison and lived in a corner of his cell. His last words included a denial that he had committed the crime for which he was to be executed, and then ramblings of motion pictures and witches.
Talamante’s capital crime was the shooting death of his 25-year-old wife and the injury of her 11-year-old brother. He confessed to the murder, but pled insanity at the trial. Prosecutors claimed that Talamante’s actions were prompted by his wife filing for divorce.
Louis Young, a 47-year-old African American, was pronounced dead on Friday, June 13th, 1947, at 12:07. Prior to death, he had walked to the electric chair unassisted, singing the hymn “Use Me Lord in Thy Service.” Upon being seated, he was told by present clergy to keep singing. His final statement consisted of a declaration of innocence, and a plea to God for salvation.
Louis Young was executed for the November 19, 1945, slaying of young mother Eloise Kennedy. He was a penitentiary trustee serving time for larceny, and was sent to clean the dwelling of New Mexico State Police Chief Frank Young. Kennedy lived nearby, and purportedly refused the trustee’s sexual overture. She was found in her apartment, her slacks ripped, eleven stab wounds to her body. A bloody butcher knife from Police Chief Young’s residence was found, and Louis Young subsequently signed a confession on Thanksgiving Day, 1945.
Arthur Johnson was electrocuted at 12:09 AM on February 19, 1954, and declared dead at 12:13. He had been walked to the electric chair quietly, and declared till the last that he had told the truth.
Johnson, who was a multiple felon, claimed that the murder for which he was sentenced to death for was committed in defense of home and family. He maintained that oil worker William Cabrel had assaulted his wife and daughter. The prosecution convinced the jury that Johnson had bludgeoned Cabrel with a stone doorstep in a botched robbery attempt. Johnson’s wife had also been convicted of this offense, but was subsequently released on a Supreme Court determination that there was not sufficient evidence to uphold her sentence. Having said she would visit her husband before his execution, she did not keep her word.
When told that he was to be executed for the murder of John Gunnish, Frederick Heisler responded “Its not murder…God have mercy on YOUR soul.” He subsequently murmured to accompanying priests prior to the execution, “Don’t let them do it.” Electricity from the chair began coursing through his body at 12:12 A.M. on October 29, 1954. A black curtain was mistakenly dropped around the cage after the first electric surge, despite Frederick Heisler being yet alive. The curtain was raised and a second charge delivered; he was subsequently pronounced dead at 12:15:40 AM.
Heisler was convicted of the murder of a hitch-hiker named John Gunnish in the early weeks of October 1951. He was captured due to matchbook advertising an establishment in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, that was left at the scene. Further investigation revealed that Heisler had been employed at this business. When apprehended, Heisler was using Gunnish’s name, and was carrying his Social Security card. Heisler claimed that his shooting of Gunnish was in self-defense, but the angles of bullet wounds were identified by the prosecution as having been inflicted while Gunnish was lying down.
Over one hundred observers, some intoxicated, attended the spectacle made of James Upton’s death. Having been seated in the electric chair, Upton was asked if he had anything to say. He inquired if his face would be covered by a mask. The warden responded affirmatively, and Upton replied that he had nothing to say. The regular execution cap would not fit, so an improvised cap made from a parka was used. Consequently, smoke billowed from fur remaining on the cap that was ignited from the ensuing voltage. James Upton was declared dead at 12:09 AM, on February 12, 1956. Upton’s execution would be the last death sentence implemented in New Mexico by the electric chair; the gas chamber was subsequently used in the next execution.
Upton had been convicted in the September 10, 1954, murder of Airman Donald Dilley. Dilley had picked up the hitchhiking Upton in Texas, and subsequently shot him outside of Albuquerque in a robbery attempt. He stated that he had seen Dilley’s large money roll, and that he was “annoyed” by Dilley’s tough guy demeanor and tales of air force jets. There were a number of ninth inning attempts to save Upton’s life, including a sanity hearing before the New Mexico Supreme Court 15 hours before the scheduled execution; and a telegram sent by Upton’s mother to the Court of Appeals in Denver approximately 12 hours prior to the scheduled execution. In the aforementioned hearing, testimony by Upton’s psychiatrist Rudolph Kieve was submitted, stating that in his opinion Upton was insane, the affliction being caused by an alleged attack of encephalitis lethargica while Upton was young. Prosecution noted that the psychiatrist’s testimony was markedly different than that rendered just 3 days prior in federal court, wherein he had not opined that Upton was insane. (Kieve was also reported in the media as having staunch anti-capital punishment views.) The State Supreme Court found Upton sane, and the Federal Court of Appeals declined to intervene. Upton was baptized a Catholic the afternoon prior to his execution.
David Cooper Nelson was the first individual to die in the New Mexico gas chamber, and the last person executed as of the web publication of this article. Warden Harold Cox advised Nelson to take a deep breath of the fumes, and asked whether Nelson had anything to say. Nelson responded, “OK Warden. God be with you.” Cooper then remarked to the prison chaplain that he was going home, and, in a scene reminiscent of the execution of Louis Young, was told to “keep praying.” The door was subsequently screwed shut, and cyanide fumes rose about his face at 12:12 AM. Gasping, Nelson expired at 12:20 on August 11, 1960. Upon the witnesses leaving the prison, a prisoner was heard to shout “Are you happy now?” Warden Cox subsequently told reporters that he was proud of the efficiency of the execution.
Nelson was convicted of murdering Ralph Henderson Rainey, a 46 year-old butcher from Santa Monica, CA, who had picked up the hitchhiking Nelson. Rainey’s body was found near Budville, on January 10th, 1956, and had apparently died within the previous two days by two gunshot wounds to the head. Nelson’s fingerprints were found in Rainey’s vehicle. Upon being located in Las Vegas, Nevada, Nelson subsequently confessed twice to the killing but later repudiated his confessions. He also confessed to killing two other individuals, John Valente and Kenneth Short, although he also later recanted the Valente confession. At his first trial, Nelson maintained an insanity defense, but was found sane and guilty. At the second trial, his confessions were disallowed, but with the same end result. Nelson subsequently tried to escape from prison. Prior to his execution he maintained that he had witnessed a third party kill Rainey. At the last, he requested that the two prisoners in the cells next to his former cell receive special meals after his death, a wish with which Warden Cox said he would comply.