Thursday, August 13, 2009
Espy deserves thanks for capital punishment research
By Alvin Benn
August 26, 2006
HEADLAND -- Watt Espy's fascination with capital punishment has earned him an exalted place in America's criminal justice community. When I first met him two decades ago at the University of Alabama, he was hunched over a stack of papers, examining reports dealing with somebody who had been executed or was on death row waiting to take that last walk.
His "office" was a dimly lit cubbyhole where aspirin bottles and seltzer tablets vied for space on shelves over his head. Between 1977 and 1985, he strained to read small print on reports about convictions, executions and statistical data provided to him by boards of corrections from Maine to Hawaii. Despite frequent headaches, upset stomach problems and fading eyesight, he plowed on. His mission had become his life.
I began to call him "Dr. Death" because he was dealing with those who had gone on to their not-so-great rewards via electric chairs, gas chambers, trap doors, bullets and, sometimes, a needle. By the time he had finished his project, he had documented more than 16,000 executions.
Espy's project was funded by a $200,000 federal grant during those eight years, but he didn't make much. He viewed his work as a calling that could not be denied. "I didn't get home very often in those days," he said last week during an interview at his little Henry County house near Dothan. "I seemed to be working 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Espy's goal was to document every execution he could find in the United States and in the colonies before 1776. His research took him back to 1608 in Virginia where George Kendall was hanged for "espionage." Kendall was shot in what apparently was the first recorded execution in the New World. "From what I could find out, he apparently did something to upset somebody on the governing council at the time," Espy said.
Alabama's first execution occurred in 1812. Eli Norman was hanged for murder seven years before statehood was bestowed. Counterfeiters didn't fare well, either, in those days, as Thomas Davis found out in 1822, when he was hanged for passing funny money. In 1833, Littleton Prince was hanged for aiding a runaway slave in Alabama. Three years later, Rabbit Dancing met the same fate for murder.
By the time Espy had finished his research in 1985, he was ready for a rest, but the years since then haven't been kind. At the age of 73, he has diabetes, his legs seem to hurt all the time, he is nearly blind in his right eye and his bed has become his home within a home. "Sometimes it feels like somebody is holding my legs and feet over a fire," he said in a barely audible whisper. "I just can't get around anymore."
Home health care workers help him during the day and they prod him to do more to keep his juices flowing. They say their demands often fall on deaf ears. What he does do is watch a lot of movies. Shelves filled with hundreds of movie cassettes surround his bed. He watches them on a big-screen television set a few feet from the foot of his bed.
His twilight years have become a lonely existence, but he knows he did something pretty special for his state and country. Those who funded his project paid him the ultimate compliment by naming it for him. It's called The Espy File and anybody interested in researching capital punishment has him to thank for what they find.
What he did is even more amazing because his research was carried out before the popularity of the Internet. He got his information by writing letters and waiting anxiously for information he had requested. "There really wasn't a better way for me to get what I needed," he said during my bedside interview with him. "It's a lot easier today because all you've got to do is punch a button on a computer."
Alabama needs to honor Watt Espy for a unique study used by researchers around the country. A gubernatorial commendation or a legislative resolution would be nice. It would be a crime if we don't find a special way to say thanks to a special man.
Alvin Benn writes about people and places in central and south Alabama. If you have suggestions for a story, contact him at (334) 875-3249 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.