Uncovers the hidden world of the military legal system and the intimate history of racism that pervaded the armed forces long after integration.
Richard A. Serrano reveals how racial discrimination in the US military criminal justice system determined whose lives mattered and deserved a second chance and whose did not. Between 1955 and 1961, a group of white and black condemned soldiers lived together on death row at Fort Leavenworth military prison. Although convicted of equally heinous crimes, all the white soldiers were eventually paroled and returned to their families, spared by high-ranking army officers, the military courts, sympathetic doctors, highly trained attorneys, the White House staff, or President Eisenhower himself.
During the same 6-year period, only black soldiers were hanged. Some were cognitively challenged, others addicted to substances or mentally unbalanced—the same mitigating circumstances that had won white soldiers their death row reprieves. These men lacked the benefits of political connections, expert lawyers, or public support; only their mothers begged fruitlessly for their lives to be spared. By 1960, John Bennett was the youngest black inmate at Fort Leavenworth. His lost battle for clemency was fought between 2 vastly different presidential administrations—Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s—as the civil rights movement was gaining steam.
Drawing on interviews, trial transcripts, and rarely published archival material, Serrano brings to life the characters in this lost history: from desperate mothers and disheartened appeals lawyers, to the prison doctors, psychiatrists, and chaplains. He shines a light on the scandalous legal maneuvering that reached the doors of the White House and the disparity in capital punishment that was cut so strictly along racial lines.
In this somewhat dry history, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Serrano examines the history of racial discrimination in the U.S. armed forces through the experience of the last soldier to be executed at "the Castle," the U.S. Army's death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kans. Although the military was desegregated in 1948, soldiers continued to experience differential treatment, Serrano writes, based upon their race. For instance, white inmates at the Castle nearly always attracted sufficient popular and political support to be spared execution, while African-Americans were taken at midnight to the prison's gallows. John Arthur Bennett, a black private convicted of raping a white woman while he was stationed in Austria, was sentenced to death there. His family petitioned Dwight Eisenhower, his victim and her parents expressed their belief that the crime merited incarceration rather than execution, and the case attracted the attention of the distinguished psychiatrist and death-penalty opponent Karl Menninger, who maintained that Bennett, who suffered from severe epilepsy, was thus not guilty by reason of insanity. But newly inaugurated President Kennedy refused to overturn his predecessor's decision, and Bennett was hanged on Apr. 12, 1961. Serrano's prose is workmanlike, and his narration of what should be a gripping tale is often flat, but he has made an important contribution to the historiography of race and justice.