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Pvt. John Bennett Is the Only U.S. Soldier Executed for Rape in Peacetime.

COVER STORY

He Was Mentally Troubled and Black. Six White Murderers Were Also on Military Death Row. They Were Spared.

September 10, 2000|RICHARD A. SERRANO | Richard A. Serrano is a Staff Writer in The Times' Washington bureau. He last wrote for the magazine about the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which was also the subject of his book, "One of Ours," published in 1998 by W.W. Norton

Rain always frightened him, and on the night he was hanged in a military prison in Kansas, a rolling prairie thunderstorm was kicking up outside. That was four decades ago. Pvt. John Bennett had just turned 26. He went to his death perhaps more terrified of the thunder and lightning than of the gaunt hangman waiting upon the gallows.

News of the hanging scarcely made the papers. Executions then, like today, were commonplace, so much so that his story has never been told. But he is the last member of the U.S. Armed Forces to be executed. And he is the only serviceman hanged for rape during peacetime.

America is once again examining the death penalty, spurred by the most damning evidence in history that innocents have been sentenced to die. Advances in DNA testing and other revelations have overturned scores of death sentences in recent years, raising fresh doubts about American criminal justice, especially for minorities, who make up the majority of death row prisoners.

As a result, the death penalty issue looms larger in presidential politics than it has for a generation. Both major party candidates favor death sentencing, and Republican nominee George W. Bush has given it special emphasis. He expresses confidence in his state's handling of capital cases and says that not one innocent man has been executed on his watch as governor of Texas.

The issue also has landed in the Oval Office, where President Clinton delayed by four months the federal government's first scheduled execution since 1963. Juan Raul Garza will now have until Dec. 12--a date notably after the presidential election--to seek clemency. Garza's attorneys say they will argue that the criminal justice system discriminates against minorities.

Amid the chatter, national opinion polls have found that while most Americans still favor death sentencing, the support is diminishing. Even its proponents question the role that race, mental illness, poverty, politics and the quality of legal representation play in death penalty cases. All those factors were present on that stormy night in April 1961 inside the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth. Was the system broken back then? Has it been fixed since?

Bennett, a black man, was hanged for raping a white girl in Austria. During the six years between his trial and death, eight other soldiers were executed, all of them black. Six white prisoners were on death row during those years. Some had killed little girls or had killed more than once. None were executed. President Dwight Eisenhower commuted the sentences of four. Two were spared by the courts. Today, six soldiers are on military death row--four black, one Asian, one white.

Evidence in Bennett's case revealed mental defects in the young man and his family, defects that today would probably spare his life. He also almost certainly suffered from epilepsy, which his defenders cited as further evidence of mental illness. Even Dr. Karl Menninger, the country's preeminent psychiatrist, twice sought to save the life of this "undistinguished epileptic Negro soldier."

The court-martial was held in Austria. The trial lasted five days, with little defense. The jury deliberated just 25 minutes.

At the end, Bennett turned to President John F. Kennedy for mercy. But the new president was preoccupied. On Bennett's last day, Kennedy was embarrassed that the Russians had sent the first man into space, and he was giving the final go-ahead for the Bay of Pigs invasion. As the clock ticked down, the White House dispatched an Army captain to find the girl and her family. Some in the administration had decided that if the family wanted mercy, Bennett should be spared. Telegrams came flashing into the White House. They were from the girl and her parents. They wanted him to live.

*

JOHN ARTHUR BENNETT WAS THE INDIGENT SON OF a Virginia sharecropper, a school dropout, handsome but unambitious, addicted early to whiskey and sex. He dreamed of a career as a baseball pitcher. He served in the Army as an ammunition handler and truck driver. Until December 1954, he had never been in trouble.

She was out Christmas shopping, attacked while crossing a meadow of light snow in the town of Seizenheim. Her name is Gertie. They came upon one another in the fading winter afternoon. He was 19; she was 11.

Nearby residents said that shortly before the rape, a man similar to Bennett stumbled wild-eyed into their homes, which he confused for an area brothel. He excitedly asked for an Austrian whore, a "Margie" or a "Frances."

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