Appeared in Lane Nelson and Burk Foster, Death Watch: A Death Penalty Anthology, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001, pp. 188-207. Originally appeared in The Angolite, September/October 1996, pp. 36-47.

“These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual.”

Justice Potter Stewart, Furman v. Georgia (1972)

For a brief time in the early 1970s, Ehrlich Anthony Coker was a one-man crime wave rolling across Georgia. On December 5, 1971, at age 21, he raped and stabbed to death a young woman. The next year he kidnapped, raped, beat and left for dead another young woman. For these crimes he received three life terms, two 20-year terms and one eight-year term. The prison sentences were imposed consecutively, and the people of Georgia probably breathed a sigh of relief that this violent young man had been permanently incapacitated.

When they thought of Coker put safely away, they should have kept in mind Lady Caroline Lamb’s description of Lord Byron: “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Within a year-and-a-half, Ehrlich Anthony Coker escaped from the Ware Correctional Institution outside Waycross, Georgia. He entered the home of Allen and Elnita Carver, tied up Allen, took his money and the keys to the family car. And he took a knife, with which he threatened Mrs. Carver, who at 16 had given birth three weeks before: “You know what’s going to happen to you if you try anything, don’t you.”

Coker raped Mrs. Carver, stole the car and took her with him.

Police captured Coker before he did any further harm to Mrs. Carver. A Ware County jury convicted Coker of auto theft, armed robbery, kidnaping, escape and rape. They gave him a lot more prison time, and, undoubtedly fed up with his viciousness by this time, they gave him the death penalty for rape.

The jury found that Coker’s crime contained two of the aggravating circumstances required for the imposition of the death sentence under Georgia law:

1. the offense was committed by a person with a prior capital felony conviction.

2. the offense was committed during the commission of another capital felony, armed robbery.

The court sentenced Coker to death by electrocution. His central argument on appeal was that the death penalty for rape was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Race was not an issue, as it often was in other Georgia cases during this period: Coker was white, and his victims were also white. Appeals moved quickly through the state courts and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on March 28, 1977.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the discoverer of the Pacific Ocean, before he was beheaded as a traitor, based on bogus evidence, in 1519.

“The executioner is, I believe, very expert, and my neck is very slender. O God have pity on my soul. O God have pity on my soul.”

Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, as she was about to be beheaded for alleged adultery in 1536.

“This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases.”

Sir Walter Raleigh, as he touched the blade of the axe with which he would be beheaded for treason, on October 29, 1618.

“This is a very fickle and faithless generation.”

Captain William Kidd, sea captain and pirate, before his hanging in England in 1701. He had been promised a pardon if he surrendered.

“I did not think they would put a young gentleman to death for such a trifle.”

Jean Francois le Fevre, Chevalier de la Barre, about to be executed for having mutilated a crucifix, in France in 1766. He was 19.

“Farewell, my children, forever; I am going to be with your father.”

Marie Antoinette, queen of France, at her execution on October 16, 1793.

“Be sure you show my head to the mob. It will be a long time ere they see its like.”

Georges Jacques Danton, leader of the French Revolution, to his own executioner as he faced the guillotine on April 5, 1794.

“Nothing succeeds with me. Even here I meet with disappointment.”

Michael Bestuzhev-Ryumin, Russian democratic revolutionary condemned to death for plotting against Emperor Nicholas I in 1825, when the first rope broke at his hanging.

“I hope you will not keep me waiting any longer than necessary.”

John Brown, the abolitionist, as he was about to be hung on December 2, 1859, for leading the raid on Harpers Ferry.

“Don’t draw it too tight. I can’t breathe. . . Long live Anarchy. . . This is the happiest moment of my life.”

Adlof Fischer, an instigator of the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago, at his hanging in 1886.