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Birth of Gas Chamber and Death of an Inmate

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Good morning. It’s February 8. And today in 1924, the state of Nevada employed a new method of executing prisoners. It became known as the gas chamber.

The man who earned the dubious historical distinction of being the first condemned prisoner to die this way was Gee Jon, a Chinese-born gang member from San Francisco who shot an elderly member of a rival tong in a railroad town just across the Nevada state line.

Jon, who was 28 on February 8, 1924, was strapped in place when journalists were ushered into the death chamber in the Carson City penitentiary. He had cried earlier, one of the guards mentioned. “Brace up!” the captain of the guards told him -- and the prisoner did as he was told.

It was cold in Carson City that morning, however, and some of the lethal gas liquefied and trickled under his feet. This must have terrified Gee Jon, but seconds later he was unconscious. It wasn’t perfect, but prison reformers still found it less grisly than electrocution or hanging – and it was presumably easier on the executioners than a firing squad.

In any event, Nevada adopted this method, as did California, and in the ensuing five decades, 31 more men went to the Carson City prison gas chamber. The last to die this way was Jesse Walter Bishop, a man I interviewed at length two months before he was executed in 1979.

Bishop earned a Purple Heart as a paratrooper in Korea. But he also picked up a heroin habit and a dishonorable discharge, after which he embarked on a life of robbery and drug dealing, mostly as a way to feed his addiction.

By the time I met him, Jesse was 46 years old and had spent more than half his adult life behind bars. He’d also committed a crime for which there would be no reprieve. On Dec. 29, 1977, he strode up to a female teller at the old El Morocco on the Las Vegas strip, told her he had a gun, and demanded money.

She screamed, and a casino pit boss drew his revolver. In the gun battle that ensued, he and Bishop wounded each other, neither critically. But a 22-year-old bystander from Baltimore named David Ballard, who was honeymooning in Vegas, heard the teller cry for help and came running. By the time Ballard saw what was happening, he tried to run away, but it was too late. In the frenzy of the gunfight, Bishop whirled and fatally shot the unarmed newlywed.

The U.S. Supreme Court had recently reinstated capital punishment; Jesse Bishop was apprehended, put on trial, and swiftly sentenced to death. He was hoping for a life sentence, but when the judge pronounced death, Bishop acquiesced, choosing not to appeal and forbidding his court-appointed lawyers from prolonging the case.

Defense attorneys and many journalists deemed these actions self-destructive. But those who wanted Bishop to appeal and appeal were missing precisely the point Bishop was making. He was resigned to his fate, but he was hardly suicidal. He was actually one of the clearer-minded participants in the criminal justice system whom I ever encountered.

Jesse’s view was that it was sophistry to claim that the death penalty constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” -- because capital punishment was considered neither cruel nor unusual at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted -- and not a word was said about abolishing it. In Bishop’s mind, what violated a defendant’s Eighth Amendment rights were the interminable delays and false starts and umpteen execution dates with their last-minute stays.

“They want to force me to appeal, to wait just so the lawyers can play their games,” he told me. “I feel that’s cruel and unusual punishment.” He added, “I never asked for the death penalty. They gave it to me. I’m only asking that they either give it to me or commute it.”

What was troubling to those who took Jesse at his word was his unwillingness to express remorse for his young victim. In our interview, he called Ballard “a fool” for getting involved in something that did not concern him.

Bishop thought the system was trying to get him to beg for his life, which he was too proud to do. “Now they got me dead bang on a cold murder beef I can’t beat,” he told me. “I’m not going to turn to God, or to snivelin’ or snitchin’ or rattin.’ They got their gas chamber … they should get it over with.”

Jesse Walter Bishop got his wish on October 22, 1979.

True to his word, he went to the gas chamber bravely. One of the 14 witnesses slumped to one knee as the cyanide pellets were dropped into an acid bath, releasing the deadly fumes, but Bishop merely made a thumbs-down sign, took a few deep breaths and was gone. The only concession he made to his tough guy persona was to admit privately to a Nevada judge two days earlier that he was indeed remorseful about killing David Ballard.

Somehow that made it better.

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