Death Watch At Walla Walla -- Hanging, Once Quite Common, Is Now Rare

If it hadn't been for two loggers, one unable to work and too proud to beg, the other certified insane, Westley Allan Dodd might not be awaiting his date at the gallows.

It was 1917 and Washington had abolished the death penalty four years before. It was a time of reform, and states were doing away with prison-striped suits and chain gangs.

John Van Dell, a giant, black-haired backwoods man, had been injured when a line used to haul logs snapped and hit him hard in the face. When the state Industrial Insurance Commission denied him compensation for his disability, he bought a gun, strode into the commission's office in Olympia and shot Commissioner E.W. Olson twice in the head.

Then he walked to the sheriff's office a few blocks away and told the deputy to lock him up. He was sentenced to life in prison and died there of natural causes three years later.

A few weeks later, Charles Lorenze Wagner entered a restaurant, also in Olympia, ordered a roast-beef sandwich and milk and suddenly went berserk.

When police came to confront him, he waved a revolver toward a back room where he said the man they wanted was holed up. While the police looked, Wagner slipped out the door.

Before they caught up with him and persuaded him to surrender, Wagner entered the Capitol building and chased the governor and other state officials into a vault. He was sent to the state asylum in Steilacoom.

The two violent incidents, so close in time and place, convinced legislators it was time to bring back the death penalty.

If Dodd is hanged, it will be Washington's 74th legal execution and the first in nearly 30 years. Dodd was sentenced to die after pleading guilty to the 1989 murders of Vancouver, Wash., brothers William and Cole Neer, 10 and 11, and 4-year-old Lee Iseli of Portland.

Dodd has said he must die, and by Washington law he has an option of death by hanging or lethal injection. He has chosen to hang.

Dodd's would be the first hanging in the United States since Kansas sent James Latham and George York to the gallows on June 22, 1965.

People have been hanging criminals since Biblical times. English colonists brought the noose with them to the New World, apparently using it for the first time in 1622.

Watt Espy, a historian of capital punishment who lives in Alabama, has documented 18,493 executions in this country since colonial times - many of them slave lynchings. Hanging accounts for 60 percent or more of all those deaths, he said, and was the accepted form of execution in every state until 1890, when New York wired a straight-backed chair and electrocuted its first person.

Many people - whether in favor of or against the death penalty - see hanging as a barbaric act whose untechnological trappings seem a throwback - a rope, handcuffs and a dark hood to shield witnesses from the uglier aspects of a hanging death.

History books recount hangings gone terribly wrong, slow deaths by strangulation and hard ones by decapitation.

Stories that one of Washington's condemned men was decapitated are inaccurate, said Capt. Richard Morgan, the unofficial historian at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. However, in 1951, Grant Rio was partly decapitated because the rope used to hang him was too long.

Hangings these days are done by a formula developed by the Army for standard military executions. The length of the rope used depends on the size of the condemned; the noose is knotted in a prescribed manner and placed just so on the left side of the neck so death is quick and clean.

Still, hanging is anything but a standard form of capital punishment anymore. According to a recent Justice Department report, only Washington, New Hampshire and Montana still offer condemned prisoners hanging as a choice of punishment.

While some states still have an electric chair or a choice of firing squad, most have moved on to the gas chamber or lethal injection as the most humane forms of execution.

Despite its retention of the gallows and its Wild West history, Washington has been slow to execute. Legislators reinstated the death penalty soon after Van Dell and Wagner terrorized Olympia, but it was three years before anyone was hanged.

Espy has recorded 107 executions here, including some early-day public hangings and lynchings. Oregon has had 128.

Washington's first death-penalty law was enacted in 1854, when it was still a territory. Hanging was the automatic punishment for first-degree murder until 1981, when lawmakers added the option of lethal injection.

The first legal hangings were done by county sheriffs, and records are sketchy. The state took over the duty in 1904 and began keeping better track.

"It used to be pretty quick," said Morgan, the penitentiary historian. "A man could commit a homicide on Sunday, be indicted on Tuesday, tried on Wednesday, convicted on Friday and sent to the scaffold on Saturday."

Walla Walla's first execution was of James Champoux, a 28-year-old King County farmer, hanged on May 6, 1904.

Since then, the state has set up the gallows for 73 men - no women. All but one were murderers: John Marable was executed in 1940 for kidnapping and rape. Sixty-two were white, seven African American, two Asian, one Mexican and one Eskimo. The youngest was Walter Duboc, 17, a Thurston County laborer who was executed in 1932 for killing a farmer in the course of a robbery that made him $3 richer. The oldest was Frederick Johns, 63, a Stevens County machinist hanged in 1911.

The most recent to die at Walla Walla was Joseph Chester Self, a 32-year-old drifter convicted in 1960 of shooting a Seattle cab driver during a robbery. He went to the gallows calmly on June 20, 1963, saying he'd become a Catholic and was sorry for his sins.

Those around Self at the last said he was no longer a vicious, amoral killer, but Gov. Albert Rosellini declined to commute his sentence.

B.J. Rhay, the prison warden who read Self his death warrant, remembers the hanging as routine.

"It was a different time," said Rhay, who retired in 1977 and still lives in Walla Walla. "The staff was set up for it, and we were trained for it . . . It was just a routine operation."

Rhay says he got to know Self fairly well and believes he was a changed man.

"I was going to ask him if he had any last words," Rhay said. "I don't know if that's the law or tradition, but you always did it. But he asked me not to ask him that. He said just ask him if he'd said his prayers, and I complied."

Self died as a national debate over the fairness of capital punishment was getting under way - spurred on by the civil rights movement. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty, saying the state laws as written were cruel and unusual. Four years later, the court upheld capital punishment but restricted the states from making it mandatory. Washington's law conforming with those guidelines was passed in 1977.

Dodd's request to be executed is not as unusual as it may seem. John Broderson, hanged in 1960 for stabbing to death a Camas car salesman, asked Gov. Rosellini not to take any action to keep him from hanging. Broderson said he'd found religion and made his peace with God.

An attempt was made to delay the execution based on a prison psychiatrist's report that Broderson was psychotic, but the execution went as scheduled.

Broderson's last words were, "Where do I stand?" and, a few moments later, "I'm ready to die. I hope it doesn't take too long."

Espy says the country is experiencing an upswing in executions.

If Dodd is among them, he says, "It only shows we're willing to kill the insane. He's a very, very sick person. The doctors employed by the state will say he's as sane as any one of us, but who among us is capable of what he did?"

Rhay believes if Dodd is hanged, he will be the last one to die on the gallows in this country.

"Lethal injection is no great thing for some of these young people nowadays," Rhay said. "Most of them have been shooting up something for years, and what's one more overdose. The whole system has changed since I was there. You used to have some pretty decent people, even on death row. Now they're all violent, even the ones who've done forgeries and burglaries."