Beg Mercy: Chapter Ten, Death Penalty In America

“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town.  They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’  Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.” – Deuteronomy 21: 18-21

“If a man have a stubborn or rebellious son, of sufficient years and understanding sixteen years of age, which will not obey the voice of his Father, or the voice of his Mother, and that when they have chastened him will not harken unto them: then shall his Father and Mother being his natural parents, lay hold on him, and bring him to the Magistrates assembled in Court and testify unto them, that their son is stubborn and rebellious and will not obey their voice and chastisement, but lives in sundry notorious crimes, such a son shall be put to death.” – “Stubborn Child Law, Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1646

Few people know that Moses, one of the human race’s great Law Givers, who is depicted on a frieze above the United States Supreme Court, commanded parents to put to death any rebellious son among the people of ancient Israel. Some people even believe that Moses got this command from “The Creator,” who is also credited as the Author of all humanity’s “unalienable rights” in our nation’s birth certificate, “The Declaration of Independence.”

Hardly anyone today is aware that the so-called “Pilgrims” who fled their ancestral homes to come to this land to seek out a place that would have liberty to worship their Creator freely enacted Moses’ command to the people of Israel to kill their rebellious sons into their own law three thousand years after the time when Moses lived and only a few hundred years ago from today. These are the people and their Creator who the people of this country remember every year during a national holiday or “holy day” that we call “Thanksgiving.”

This same Moses supposedly wrote a book in which he said that the Creator commanded a man named Noah who had escaped the destruction by the Creator of every human being on the face of the earth except for Noah and his small family, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man.” This one command forms the legitimate basis of all human government . . . and also the death penalty.

That’s a pretty goddamn bloody pedigree, huh?

There’s a reason why “Artful Dodger,” the lovable young scamp of a pickpocket in Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist,” didn’t want to get caught. If he had, he’d be hanged. That’s right, they hanged thieves in Merry Olde England, our Mother country, the land whence came our laws, as late as the mid nineteenth century, some as young as preteens. And they did so here in America too.

I remember reading in a journal about juvenile justice in the United States a true story of a 12 year old mentally incompetent boy who was playing with the mice in his jail cell on the night before he was hanged for raping a girl. The boy was putting the mice through the motions that he remembered of the brief trial he had the day or so before that he neither understood nor was able to help in his own defense against a capital crime for which he had been charged. I could picture that poor African American boy alone in his cell distantly observed by someone who later recounted the scene for posterity . . . all alone on the night before his death without a single person who cared for him there to comfort him. Likely it was a mercy that he didn’t understand what would happen to him in the morning. The story didn’t say anything about the girl he had supposedly raped. I don’t know what actually happened to her or how her life was devastated by what had happened to her, if, in fact, it did, or, even, if this mentally retarded boy had actually done that for which he had been accused and convicted. I only know that the journal article recorded that some state in the America we all call home hanged that boy the next morning. And back then, the entire community gathered around the gallows to watch and cheer.

But then too, there’s some men and women that clearly “need killin’,” like they used to say out West, and I’ll tell you one such story now.

In 1968, Gary Tison overpowered and killed the guard in Florence, Arizona, who was taking him to prison to serve a seven month sentence for check forgery. He was captured only after a shoot out with police in Casa Grande, Arizona, about an hour drive west of Florence. Now Tison was sentenced to life in prison instead of being given the death penalty for this despicable act.

In prison, Tison met Randy Greenawalt who murdered a truck driver at a rest area outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, for some chump change and likely also murdered another truck driver in Arkansas, although that prosecution for some reason fell through. The Arizona prosecution was successful, however, but Greenawalt escaped the death penalty and only got a life in prison sentence in exchange for his testimony against his own younger brother who had helped commit the murder in Flagstaff but did not, himself, pull the trigger.

Tison and Greenawalt became model prisoners and earned a trustee status that permitted them to move to an annex of the prison outside of the main complex that was less fortified and secure when Arizona was under a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding at what was then the state’s only maximum security prison. This move allowed Gary Tison and Randy Greenawalt to later escape from prison with the help of Tison’s three sons, Donald, Raymond & Ricky in the summer of 1978. At the time, I was a part-time carpet installer, and I remember listening to the escape story on the radio with my boss who was a grizzled old handyman who stated to me and the other young guy on the job, “That stupid, selfish, son of a bitch just ruined his kids’ lives!”

The Tison Gang’s plan was to drive to Yuma, Arizona, using dirt back roads to avoid police on the major highways. Then they planned to cross into Old Mexico from Yuma. Outside Yuma, the car they were driving had a flat tire which they replaced with the spare tire in the car but then they had another flat on state Highway 95 while heading north having turned away from Yuma for some reason.

Tragically, a young marine with this wife, two year old son and 15 year old niece stopped to help the stranded motorists. Tyson and Greenawalt drove the young family into the desert in the disabled car, shotgunned them all to death, and then fled with the Tison brothers in the dead marine’s car. The 15 year old niece who was only shotgunned in her hip and buttocks managed to crawl away from her dead family before she died along with her little dog who followed her and died from exposure because it would not leave her side. Yuma County Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Ehrhart was on the Sheriff’s posse who later found the girl’s body.

From Yuma, the Tison Gang drove to Flagstaff and then to New Mexico and then into Colorado where they murdered a young couple from Texas who had been in Colorado while camping on their honeymoon in order to steal the couple’s van. Then the murderers drove south again to Casa Grande, Arizona, where the van tried to run police roadblocks, and the driver, Donald Tison, was killed by a police bullet and crashed the van in the early morning dark before dawn.

The four survivors of the crash, Gary, Raymond, and Ricky Tison, along with Randy Greenawalt fled into the desert. Raymond and Ricky Tison were soon captured by police as was Randy Greenawalt. Somehow, Gary Tison, the mastermind of the escape and murders disappeared. Old man Tison’s stinking, rotting corpse was found about a month later under a palo verde tree by hunters. The ground around Tison appeared like he had died from heat exposure and thirst under the Arizona sun that can reach 120 degrees in the August when he died. Most Arizonans who read or heard about Gary Tison’s horrible demise thought that his excruciating death was too good for so evil a human being. “I hope the hell he suffered,” a lawman was quoted in a news article at the time.

Raymond and Ricky Tison along with Randy Greenawalt were all convicted of the four Yuma County murders and sentenced to death. Judge Douglas Keddie stated in pronouncing the death sentence on Greenawalt that he could find no mitigating factor, a rare circumstance in death penalty jurisprudence. The Arizona Supreme Court later overturned the death sentences for Raymond and Ricky Tison because they had never pulled the trigger in any of the murders.

Twenty years later, I attended the final clemency hearing for Randy Greenawalt at Arizona’s Death Row in 1996. Jim Ehrhart met me there too at my request because Ehrhart had been on the search party who found the teenager, Teresa-Jo Tyson. In case I needed to take testimony from a witness at the clemency hearing, Ehrhart would be the state’s witness. I also brought a two foot by three foot portrait of Teresa-Jo from her high school year book photo that was taken before she was killed. I made this teenaged girl not the victim but the hero of my presentation and appealed to the clemency board to give her the justice that she had crawled into the desert to try and find that horrible day that she and her family were murdered by Randy Greenawalt.

Greenawalt didn’t even show up for his own clemency hearing. He just stayed in his cell and didn’t hear the board deny his final request. When he was put to death on January 23, 1997, by lethal injection, he was now a grandfatherly figure to the younger men in prison, leading Bible studies, and knitting booties for babies in foster care. He was no longer the man who pulled the trigger to murder six other human beings in the summer of 1977.

On the other hand, had he been executed for the first of his many murders, he never would have been able to kill six more people.

I wonder if this is what Jim Ehrhart was thinking when he stood his lonely sentry over Jack Hudson who was handcuffed in the back of the Yuma Police Department patrol car after he had just killed Lt. Elkins and Sgt. Crowe, Ehrhart’s friends on July 4, 1995. I wonder if every time Larry Wheeler whispered to him, “Don’t do it, Jim,” the ghosts of Randy Greenawalt’s victims also whispered, “DO it, Jim . . . JUST DO IT!”

“The wages of sin is death.”

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