Editor’s Note: Hours before Joseph Paul Franklin was scheduled to be executed, a federal judge in Missouri granted a stay of execution. The Associated Press reported late Tuesday that U.S. District Court Judge Nanette Laughery ruled that a lawsuit filed by Franklin and other death-row inmates must be resolved first.
BONNE TERRE, Mo. – The racist sniper serial killer, Joseph Paul Franklin, preferred to hide and strike from the thick bushes, the distant shadows or the gloom of an abandoned building – anywhere he could pull the trigger unseen.
The state of Missouri plans to kill Franklin much more openly. And instead of a gun it will use a needle. Shortly after midnight Wednesday, Franklin is scheduled to be strapped to a steel gurney in a brightly lit room here and poisoned as at least eight government witnesses watch him die.
Franklin’s execution by lethal injection after 33 years behind bars will be the last killing in a life twisted and consumed by murder, childhood abuse, racial hatred, madness. Law enforcement officials suspect Franklin, now 63, may have shot to death as many as 20 people as he roamed the country from 1977 to 1980, robbing banks and trying to ignite a race war with a hunting rifle.
Most of Franklin’s victims were black men and boys. Yet, it was the 1977 sniper slaying of a 42-year-old white man, Gerald Gordon, coming out of a synagogue after a bar mitzvah in suburban St. Louis that resulted in Franklin’s only death sentence and sent him 60 miles south of St. Louis to the antiseptically named Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, where Missouri conducts its executions.
“I was mentally ill when I was out there, man, I mean, I was just completely out of control, to be quite honest,” Franklin told Hatewatch in a series of lengthy telephone interviews in the last few days and weeks leading up to his scheduled execution. “That was not me out there in the streets, doing that crap. I would not even think of doing that stuff again.”
Late Monday afternoon, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, denied Franklin’s bid for clemency, saying in a statement that the killing of Gordon was “cowardly and calculated” and “only one of the many senseless acts of extreme violence” committed by Franklin and “motivated by racial and religious intolerance.”
Now, unless the courts step in to halt the execution, Franklin will be the 69th person put to death by the state of Missouri since 1976, a body count any serial killer would envy.
A KILLER’S DREAMS
Gordon’s slaying went unsolved for nearly 20 years until Franklin, a former Klansman and neo-Nazi with a Grim Reaper tattoo on his arm, confessed in 1994 while serving two life sentences in a Federal prison in Illinois for slaying two young black men in Utah. The insanely superstitious Franklin said he admitted shooting Gordon because a dream instructed him to tell.
“I was always having dreams on the streets, telling me to do things,” Franklin said. “I always felt they were messages from God, so I would obey them.”
At his 1997 trial for Gordon’s murder, Franklin told the court that his only regret was that killing Jews wasn’t legal. Franklin, who represented himself at the trial, asked the jury to sentence him to death. He flashed the jurors a thumbs-up when they followed his wishes.
“I had just totally been obsessed with Mein Kampf and Hitler and wanted to kill some Jews,” Franklin told Hatewatch. “That was another thing that was crazy. That was obviously the work of somebody who was mentally ill, because who would want to go around shooting somebody worshipping at a synagogue? I just cannot imagine myself committing a crime like that anymore. I have actually come to the conclusion over the years, a person that is anti-Semitic, that in itself is a sign of mental illness.”
Franklin was a hero and role model for many on the racist radical right. That may change now. In the last years of his troubled and violent life, and in his recent Hatewatch interviews, Franklin renounced his racist past and anti-Semitic beliefs. He also expressed remorse for his crimes. “I was mentally ill,” he repeated again and again, a diagnosis shared by one of the country’s foremost experts of the murderous mind, New York psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy Lewis.
After interviewing Franklin in person for more than six hours in 1996, Lewis concluded, according to New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell, that Franklin was a paranoid schizophrenic, “a psychotic,” Gladwell wrote, “whose thinking was delusional and confused, a man wholly unfit to stand trial at this time.”
Lewis reached the same conclusion in 2003 and again this year after reviewing her records, reports and interviews with Franklin’s relatives, Franklin’s lawyers said in their unsuccessful petition to the governor seeking commutation or reprieve of his death sentence. “Dr. Lewis finds Mr. Franklin to be,” according to the petition, “a chronically paranoid schizophrenic person who suffers psychotic behaviors such as blasphemous thoughts, auditory hallucinations, and delusional beliefs (such as the belief that he is a Nazi and a Jew).”
The prolific serial killer has been that way, the petition added, since his abusive adolescence. Franklin and his three siblings were repeatedly and brutally beaten by their parents.
Franklin, his older sister Carolyn told Hatewatch, “always got the worst of it.”
Their parents cursed, screamed, yelled, beat and “knocked us around unmercifully,” she said in a written statement seeking clemency for Franklin. There was plenty of poverty and almost no love in their home in the all-white public housing projects of Mobile, Ala., where Franklin grew up.
Carol said as a result of their upbringing, Franklin and her other siblings were psychologically damaged. Their younger brother Gordon, she said, has been in and out of mental institutions. “As mentally ill as my siblings are, I did not remain unscathed,” she said in the statement. “I know that I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Just writing about our childhood has caused me undue anguish and tears untold. I have been depressed most of my life. I have undergone psychiatric treatment for these things.”
Franklin, however, told Hatewatch that he had cured himself of mental illness by meditating and reading books during his nearly three decades in solitary confinement, the last 15 with a death sentence hanging over him.
“It’s called bibliotherapy,” he said.
FOCUSING ON RACE MIXERS
All told, Franklin was convicted of killing eight people, from Wisconsin to Utah. Gordon was the third person he killed. His first killing was of a young interracial couple in Madison, Wisc., in August of 1977. Franklin was obsessed with black and white sex.
His last killing occurred almost exactly three years after his first and the start of what he called his “mission.” It happened on the evening of Aug. 20, 1980, in Salt Lake City when he shot and killed two young black men – David Martin, 18, and Ted Fields, 20.
“My goal at the time was just focusing on race-mixers,” he said.
Franklin shot Martin and Fields from the tall weeds of a vacant lot shortly after nightfall because he saw them jogging around a park with two white teenage girls.
The two young black men – a recent high school graduate and a college student who was the son of a minister – were not Franklin’s first choice to die that night. “I intended to shoot an interracial couple coming out of a convenience store,” Franklin said. “Then I saw two interracial couples jogging through Liberty Park. I swung the rifle around real quick to my left. I was able to get a shot off real quick and drop one of the blacks.”
To Franklin’s amazement, instead of running away, the wounded man’s friends grabbed his arms and tried to pull him to safety.
“I couldn’t understand that,” Franklin said.
He quickly racked the action of the rifle, peered through the scope and “dropped the second black guy.”
“I then emptied the gun into both guys while they were lying there,” he said. “I figured I should complete the job.”
One of the white girls who watched her friends get gun downed that night is now a 49-year-old grandmother named Terry Jackson-Mitchell. She still carries a scar from when a bullet tore through one of the young men and a ricocheted off the pavement. Mitchell told Hatewatch that she had forgiven Franklin but still wanted him to be executed, to put him out of his lifetime of suffering.
But just before his scheduled execution, Mitchell sent Franklin two books about spiritual healing and forgiveness. She also agreed to speak to him over the phone.
The conversation rattled her.
“He said he was glad he didn’t kill me,” Mitchell said. “He said he was sorry for the ‘incident.’ ‘The incident’ is what he called what he did.”
Franklin called Jackson-Mitchell again Monday. She said he sounded scared, scattershot, and seemed afraid of dying as he apologized one more time. “He is as remorseful as he is capable of being,” she said today. “He said he is so grateful he didn’t kill me and that he was mentally ill when he did it. I have made peace with that information.”
Nothing he said, however, changed her mind or her heart about his need to be executed, despite, what she said was his childhood of “incredible neglect and abuse.”
“I think it did stunt his brain growth in some way,” she said. “It changed who he could have been. He certainly lacked the ability for empathy. But how would he know what that looks like without ever seeing it in his moments of helplessness as a child?”
Over the years, Franklin also admitted to shooting and paralyzing Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt in Georgia in 1978 and critically wounding civil rights leader Vernon Jordan in 1980 in Indiana. Franklin was never tried for shooting Flynt and was acquitted in federal court for the sniper attack on Jordan. The jury in that case, Franklin said, made a mistake.
He said he shot Flynt because the publisher had featured an interracial couple in his magazine. Flynt, a longtime opponent of the death penalty, put aside his personal pain and near death at the hands of Franklin, to speak out against Franklin’s execution, saying recently that capital punishment was not about justice, but vengeance. Flynt with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union even went to court, hoping to stop the execution.
Nevertheless, Flynt wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that he would love one hour alone with Franklin “with a pair of wire cutters and pliers, so I could inflict the same damage on him that he inflicted on me.”
Franklin told Hatewatch that he appreciated Flynt’s opposition to his execution. “But I don’t like that he wanted to torture me,” he said, chuckling.
In the last few weeks before his scheduled execution, Franklin seemed calm and relaxed and even joked during his interviews with Hatewatch. He said while he was “pulling out all of the stops” to save his life, he was not afraid to die. “I strongly believe in reincarnation,” he said, adding that he had long ago “repented his sins” and asked “the Lord for forgiveness.”
But there was no doubt that he wanted to live, even if that meant spending the rest of his days locked up alone in a cell in solitary confinement as he had been for his own protection for most of his three decades behind bars. He was stabbed 15 times in a federal prison in Illinois by a group of black inmates in 1982, trying to carry out an execution of their own.
A HEARSE IN THE COUNTRY
Franklin crisscrossed the country, randomly killing strangers for three years before he was captured in 1980. He left behind dozens of grieving family members. He also left behind a tiny victim of his madness named Lori, his only child.
Lori has been haunted by her father’s absence and his deeds all of her own troubled life. “He had a problem with alcohol, I have a problem with alcohol,” she said. “It’s in the genes.”
Lori was 1 year old when Franklin was arrested. “I knew he was in prison for killing blacks,” Lori told Hatewatch, wiping away tears as she picked at her lunch recently. “I didn’t know how many. I didn’t know any details until I got to be 18. Then I looked it up for myself.”
Lori said she has never hugged her father or seen him in person since his arrest. She has seen him several times on television programs about notorious serial killers. She said she meant to visit her father in prison over the years, “but something always came up.”
Franklin said he put his daughter on the list of five friends and family members he is allowed to invite to witness his execution. But Lori said she would not and could not go – emotionally or financially. “We’re about as poor as you can get,” she said.
Still, she said, Franklin did his best to stay in touch through letters and telephone calls when she was growing up. She said he often sent her money when he had a prison job before he was sent to death row in 1997. “Despite him being in prison all this time, he really tried being a dad as best he could,” she said. “A lot of guys don’t even do that and they’re out here.”
Lori said she loved her father and was praying for a miracle, that his life would be spared, at least long enough for him to meet his great granddaughter through the thick glass of a prison visiting room. Lori was a teenage mother and so was her daughter.
About a week before Franklin’s scheduled execution, Lori talked with her father on the telephone for the first time in nearly two years. She said he was “becoming too crazy” in solitary confinement and “I needed to keep my distance.”
But time was running out. When he called, she answered.
“The first time I ever heard him laugh was yesterday in my whole life,” she said. “He apologized for not being a good father to me and asked me to please forgive him. Of course, I said yes.”
Still, Lori has kept who her father was a secret from almost everyone she knows.
“When I was in school everybody would ask me about my dad and I’d lie,” she said. “That’s when he was locked up in Illinois. I’d say he was a businessman in Illinois. Only a few choice friends know about my daddy, a couple of them are black. I used to think there was something wrong with me because I had his blood in me. Sometimes I still think that. I told a black friend several years ago. I asked him if he thought any different about me. He said, ‘No, you didn’t do it.’”
The other day, Lori announced on her Facebook page who her father is. She is tired of hiding. She is tired of being one of Joseph Paul Franklin’s victims.
“I pray for my daddy,” she said. “That’s all I can do.”
Lori’s father spent most of the last 15 years in the Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri until he was moved to the death house at Bonne Terre on Oct. 23. Franklin was shackled from his ankles to his waist to his wrists and loaded into the back of a police car for the 12-mile trip.
“Talk about enjoying the ride,” he said. “To see the farms, the bars, the horses, the cows; it was just great to see the countryside. It just gives you a feeling you’re in the free world again just for a few minutes.”
His next drive through the Missouri countryside will undoubtedly be in the back of a hearse.