Donald Henry GASKINS Jr.
A.K.A.: "Pee Wee" - "Junior Parrott"
Classification: Serial killer
Number of victims: 8 - 200
Date of murders: 1969 - 1975
Date of arrest: December 1975
Date of birth: March 13, 1933
Victims profile: Young men and women (hitchhikers)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: South Carolina, USA
Status: Executed by electrocution in South Carolina on September 6, 1991
Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins: Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins was the most prolific serial killer in South Carolina history. Once his brutality was unleashed, he knew no boundaries, torturing, killing, cannibalizing victims, both male and female. In his taped memoirs for the book, Final Truth by author Wilton Earl, Gaskins said, 'I have walked the same path as God, by taking lives and making others afraid, I became God's equal. Through killing others, I became my own master. Through my own power I come to my own redemption..'
Donald Gaskins Childhood Years: Donald Gaskins was born on March 13, 1933 in Florence County, South Carolina. His mother, who was not married when she became pregnant with Donald, lived on and off with several men during his childhood. Many of the men treated the young boy with disdain, sometimes beating him for just being around. His mother did little to protect him from her lovers and the boy was left alone to raise himself. When his mother did marry, his stepfather beat him and his four half-siblings regularly.
Junior Parrott: Gaskins was given the nicknames "Junior Parrott" and "Pee Wee" at a young age because of his small body frame. When he began attending school the violence he experienced at home followed him into the classrooms. He fought daily with the other boys and girls and was constantly punished by the teachers. At age eleven, he quit school, worked on cars at a local garage, and helped around the family farm. Emotionally Gaskins was battling an intense hatred toward people, women topping the list.
The Trouble Trio: At the garage where Gaskins worked part-time, he met two boys, Danny and Marsh, both close to his age and out of school. The three teamed up and named themselves the "The Trouble Trio." The trio began burglarizing homes and picking up prostitutes in nearby cities. Locally they sometimes raped young boys, then threatened them so they would not tell the police.
Early Criminal Behavior: The trio stopped their sexual rampage after being caught for gang-raping Marsh's younger sister. As punishment, their parents bound and beat the boys until they bled. After the beatings, Marsh and Danny left the area and Gaskins continued breaking into homes alone. In 1946, at the age of 13, a girl he knew interrupted him burglarizing a home. She attacked him with an ax, which he managed to get away from her, striking her in the head and arm with it before running away from the scene.
Reform School Bound: The girl survived the attack and Gaskins was arrested, tried and found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and intent to kill. He was sent to the South Carolina Industrial School for Boys until he turned 18 years old. It was during the court proceedings that Gaskins heard his real name spoken for the first time in his life.
Reform School Education: Reform school was particularly rough on the small and young Gaskins. Almost immediately he was attacked and gang-raped by 20 of his new peers. He spent the rest of his time either accepting protection from the dorm "Boss-Boy" in exchange for sex or trying unsuccessfully to escape from the reformatory. He was repeatedly beaten for his escape attempts and sexually exploited among the gang favored by the "Boss-Boy."
Escape and Marriage: Gaskins' desperate attempts to escape resulted in physical fights with guards, and he was sent off for observation at a state mental hospital. Doctors found him sane enough to return to the reform school and after a few nights, he escaped again and managed to get on with a traveling carnival. While there, he married a 13-year-old girl, and made the decision to turn himself in to the police and finish his sentence at the reform school. He was released in March 1951 on his 18th birthday.
The Barnburner: After reform school, Gaskin got a job on a tobacco plantation but could not resist the temptation for more. He and a partner got involved with insurance fraud by collaborating with tobacco farmers to burn their barns for a fee. People around the area began talking about the barn fires and suspected Gaskins' involvement.
Assault With a Deadly Weapon & Attempted Murder: Gaskins' employer's daughter and friend confronted Gaskin about his reputation as the barnburner and he flipped. With a hammer in hand, he split the girl's skull. He was sent to prison after receiving a five-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder.
New Lessons - A Real Prison: Prison life was not much different from his time spent in reform school. Gaskins was immediately assigned to sexually service one of the prison gang leaders in exchange for protection. He realized the only way he would survive prison was to become known as a "Power Man." Power Men were those who had a reputation as being so brutal and dangerous that others stayed away.
Graduating To Power Man: Gaskins' small size would prevent him from intimidating the others into respecting him. Only his actions could accomplish this task. He set his sights on one of the meanest inmates in the prison, Hazel Brazell. Gaskins managed to manipulate himself into relationship of trust with Brazell then ultimately cut his throat. He was found guilty of manslaughter, spent six months in solitary confinement, and was titled a Power Man among prisoners. He could now look forward to an easier time in prison.
Escape and Marriage Part 2: In 1955, his wife filed for divorce. Gaskins flipped out and escaped from prison, stole a car and drove to Florida. He joined another carnival and in the interim married for a second time. The marriage ended after two weeks. Gaskins then became involved with a carnival woman, Bettie Gates, and the two drove to Cookeville, Tennessee to bail Gates' brother out of jail.
Gaskins went to the jail with bail money and cigarettes in hand. When he returned to the hotel, Gates and his car were gone. Gates never returned but the police did and Gaskins discovered that he had been duped. Gates "brother" was actually her husband who had escaped from prison with the aid of a razor blade tucked inside a carton of cigarettes.
The Little Hatchet Man: It did not take long for police to find out Gaskins was also an escaped convict and he was returned to prison. This time he received an additional nine months in jail for aiding an escape and for knifing a fellow prisoner. Later he was convicted of driving a stolen car across state lines and received three years in a federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia. While there, he got to know mafia boss, Frank Costello, who named him "the little hatchet man" and offered him future employment.
Gaskins Is Released From Prison: Gaskins was released from prison in August 1961. He returned to Florence, SC and got a job working in the tobacco sheds but was unable to stay out of trouble. Soon he was back to burglarizing homes. This time he made more of an effort to avoid arrest by taking a job with a traveling minister. He worked as his driver and general assistant. This allowed him the opportunity to break into homes in different towns where the group preached, making his crimes harder to trace.
Arrested for Statutory Rape: In 1962, Gaskin married a third time but this did not stop his criminal behavior. He was arrested for statutory rape of a twelve-year-old girl but managed to escape, this time traveling to North Carolina in a stolen Florence County car. There he met another 17-year-old and married for a fourth time. She ended up turning him into the police and Gaskin was convicted of statutory rape. He received six years at the Columbia penitentiary and was paroled in November 1968, vowing never to return.
'Them Aggravated and Bothersome Feelings,': All through Gaskins life he had what he described as, 'them aggravated and bothersome feelings,' that seemed to push him into criminal activity. He found little relief from the feelings until September 1969, when he picked up a female hitchhiker in North Carolina. Gaskins became angry with the young girl for laughing at him when he propositioned her for sex. He beat her until she was unconscious then raped, sodomized, and tortured her then sunk her weighted body into a swamp where she drowned.
Rape, Torture, Murder: This act of brutality was what Gaskins later described as 'a vision' into the 'bothersome feelings' that haunted him throughout life. He finally discovered how to satisfy them and from that point on, it was the driving force in his life. He worked on mastering his skill of torture, often keeping his mutilated victims alive for days. He sometimes cannibalized their severed parts while they watched in horror or forced them to participate in the eating.
Recreation Killing: Although Gaskins preferred female victims it did not stop him from doing the same to males he happened upon. By 1975, he had killed over 80 young boys and girls he found along the North Carolina highways and he now looked forward to his old "bothersome feelings" because it felt so good to him to relieve them through torture and murder. He considered his highway murders as weekend recreation and referred to killing personal acquaintances as "serious murders."
Gaskins 'Serious Murders' Begin: Victims of his serious murders included his 15-year-old niece, Janice Kirby, and her friend, Patricia Alsobrook. In November 1970, he offered the two girls a ride home from a bar and instead drove them to an abandoned house. There he raped, beat, and drowned the girls in separate locations. His next serious murder was of Martha Dicks, a 20-year-old who was attracted to Gaskins and hung around him at his part-time job at a car repair shop. She was also the first African American that he killed.
The Hearse: In 1973, Gaskins purchased an old hearse, telling people at his favorite bar that he needed the vehicle to haul all the people he killed to his private cemetery. At this time he was living in Prospect, South Carolina with his wife and child. Around town he had a reputation for being explosive, but not truly dangerous. People just thought he was mentally disturbed and most tried to avoid being around him. Some actually liked him and considered him a friend.
A Double Murder - Mother and Child: One of those people was 23-year-old Doreen Dempsey. Doreen, an unwed mother of a two-year-old baby girl, and pregnant with a second child, decided to leave the area and accepted a ride to the bus station from her old friend Gaskins. Instead, Gaskins took her to a wooded area, raped and killed her, then raped and sodomized her baby. After killing the child he buried the two together. The rape of the child would later be described by Gaskins as the best sex of his life.
Walter Neely: In 1975, Gaskins who was now 42 years old and a grandfather had been steadily killing for six years. His ability to get away with it was mainly because he never involved anyone else in his highway murders. This changed in 1975 after Gaskins murdered three people whose van had broken down on the highway. Gaskins needed help getting rid of the trio's van and enlisted the help of ex-con Walter Neely. Neely drove the van to Gaskins' garage and Gaskins repainted it so he could sell it.
Hired to Kill: That same year Gaskins was paid $1,500 to kill Silas Yates, a wealthy farmer from Florence County. Suzanne Kipper, an angry ex-girlfriend, hired Gaskins to do the job. John Powell and John Owens handled all correspondence between Kipper and Gaskins in arranging the murder. Diane Neely who claimed to have car problems lured Yates out of his home on Feb. 12, 1975 Gaskins then kidnapped and murdered Yates as Powel and Owens watched, then the three buried his body.
Blackmailing the Wrong Person: Not long afterwards, Diane Neely and her boyfriend, ex-con Avery Howard, attempted to blackmail Gaskins for $5,000 in hush money. They too were quickly disposed of by Gaskins after they agreed to meet him for the payoff. In the meantime, Gaskins was busy killing and torturing other people he knew, including a 13-year-old, Kim Ghelkins, who sexually rejected him.
A Tour of Graves: Not knowing Gaskins' wrath, two locals, Johnny Knight and Dennis Bellamy robbed Gaskins repair shop and were eventually killed and buried along side the other locals Gaskin's killed. This time he once again called on Walter Neely's help to bury the pair. Gaskins obviously took Neely in as a trusted friend, a fact proven when he pointed out to Neely the graves of the other locals who he had murdered and buried there.
Walter Neely Breaks: The investigation into the disappearance of Kim Ghelkins was turning up enough leads that pointed the finger at Gaskins. After a search of Gaskins apartment uncovered clothing worn by Ghelkins, Gaskins was indited for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. While awaiting trial in prison, Walter Neely broke down under police pressure and showed authorties Gaskins personal cemetary.
Sentenced to Die: The bodies of Sellars, Judy, Howard, Diane Neely, Johnny Knight, Dennis Bellamy, Doreen Dempsey and her child were found in the graves. On April 27, 1976, Gaskins and Walter Neely were charged with eight counts of murder. Gaskins' attempts to appear as an innocent victim failed and on May 24, 1976, a jury found him guilty of murdering Dennis Bellamy, his sentence - death. He later confessed to the additional seven murders to avoid additional death sentences.
A Bad Reputation: In November 1976, his sentence was commuted to life with seven consecutive life terms, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstituional. In prison, he enjoyed the grandiose treatment he received from other inmates because of his infamous reputation. The death penalty was made legal again in South Carolina in 1978. This meant little to Gaskins until he was caught, tried and found guilty for the murder of prisoner, Rudolph Tyner, for money. Again, he received a death sentence.
Peggy Cuttino: In an attempt to stay out of the electric chair, Gaskins began confessing to other murders, which if true, would make him the worst killer in the history of South Carolina. One crime he admitted to was that of 13-year-old Peggy Cuttino, daughter of a prominent family. Prosecutors had already prosecuted William Pierce for the crime and sentenced him to life in prison. Prosecutors claimed Gaskins' confession to the girl's murder was simply for publicity and his confession was rejected.
The Final Months: During the last months of his life, Gaskins spent time working with author Wilton Earl on his book, Final Truth which was published in 1993. In the book, Gaskins spent a lot of his time talking about his murders and his feeling of something "bothersome" inside of him throughout his life. The closer his execution became the more philosophical he got while dictating his memoirs into a tape recorder.
Execution Day: On the day of his execution, Gaskins slashed his wrists in an effort to postpone his execution. This time he would fail to trick death from his door and with stitched arms, he was placed into the electric chair and was pronounced dead by electrocution, at 1:05 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1991.
Truth or Lies?: It will never be known for sure if Gaskins' memoirs in the book, Final Truth, were based on truth or if it was just his desire to be known as one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history. He claimed to have killed over 100 people although he never showed authorities where the bodies were located.
Some say Gaskins was never beaten as a child, but was given tremendous love and attention when growing up. How many people he was actually responsible for killing is also an area of debate since proof of several of his confessed murders was never found. The one fact that cannot be disputed is that Gaskins was a psychopath from a very early age and had no regard for any human life but his own.
From Charles Montaldo
Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins
by Michael Newton
Murder had lost its novelty for Donald Gaskins by the fall of 1980. A prolific killer, dubbed “the Redneck Charlie Manson” in some press accounts, he had claimed his first victim at age 19, in a jailhouse stabbing that got him sentenced to nine years for manslaughter. Now, in middle age, he was serving nine life terms in South Carolina’s state prison -- one for each of nine victims police had recovered -- and that tally barely scratched the surface of his crimes. Gaskins was well acquainted with the means of violent death. It held no mysteries. But the crime he had in mind this time was different.
Gaskins had never killed a victim on Death Row.
Rudolph Tyner was already marked for death by the state, but he wasn’t dying fast enough to please some people. Condemned for the holdup murders of Bill and Myrtle Moon at Murrells Inlet, in Georgetown County, Tyner expected to drag his case out for a decade or more with appeals before he kept his date with the electric chair. He might even beat the rap, since racial aspects of the case -- black gunman, white victims -- added weight to his appeals. South Carolina’s death penalty statutes had been twice invalidated by Supreme Court rulings in the past eight years, proving that anything was possible. Tyner’s worst problem on Death Row, so far, was feeding his insatiable narcotics addiction.
Outside the prison walls, Tony Cimo schemed to accelerate Tyner’s execution. Cimo was Myrtle Moon’s son by a previous marriage, bent on avenging his mother’s death. Through prison contacts, he negotiated for the hit, passed along from one convict to the next until he connected with Donald Gaskins. Finally, he had a contact who could guarantee results for a price. A maintenance trusty housed next-door to Death Row, Gaskins had free access to condemned inmates, mending broken pipes, toilets, light fixtures, anything at all. Unknown to Cimo, Gaskins also had a tape recorder, capturing their conversations for posterity -- a blackmail tool as good as money in the bank if he should ever manage to escape from custody.
Gaskins decided poison was the way to go. Befriending Tyner on his visits to Death Row, Gaskins began to slip the holdup killer junk food, marijuana, pills and heroin. Tyner received the gifts, unquestioning, and begged for more. Cimo supplied a box of candy laced with poison “strong enough to kill a horse,” but Tyner merely suffered stomach pains. Over the next 12 months, Gaskins repeated the experiment five times, spiking his target’s food and drugs with ever-larger toxic doses, all in vain. Tyner lived on, oblivious to the “coincidence” between his gifts and stomach-churning trips to the infirmary.
Six strikes and out. Gaskins gave up on poison and decided to construct a bomb. Cimo supplied the wiring, hardware and C-4 plastic explosive (smuggled past distracted guards in the hollowed-out heels of cowboy boots). Tyner agreed to let Gaskins connect a homemade intercom between their cells. Gaskins strung wire through prison heating ducts, constructed a “receiver” for his target from a plastic cup, and packed it with C-4. The two men synchronized their watches for a test run on the evening of Sept. 12, 1982.
At the appointed hour, Tyner pressed the loaded plastic cup against his ear and spoke to Gaskins, on the far side of the wall between their cells. “The last thing he heard through that speaker-cup before it blew his head off,” Gaskins later said, “was me laughing.”
But the last laugh belonged to his jailers.
Press reports initially described Tyner’s death as suicide, but there are no real secrets in prison. Snitches started talking, and Tony Cimo soon confessed his role in the plot. A grand jury was impaneled, indicting Gaskins and Cimo with two inmate accessories for murder and conspiracy.
The state of South Carolina had failed to execute Donald Gaskins for his previous murders. Now, it was prepared to try again.
Few observers would agree with Donald Gaskins’s claim that he was “born special and fortunate” on March 13, 1933, in rural Florence County, South Carolina. An illegitimate child who never met his father, Gaskins was known for the first 13 years of his life as “Junior Parrott” (his mother’s maiden name) or simply as “Pee Wee,” a derisive reference to his size. Gaskins was alternately beaten and ignored by a series of brutal “step-daddies” until his mother finally married one of them in 1943, the union adding four half-siblings to the family. The new man of the house beat Gaskins and his other children “just for practice,” as Pee Wee recalled, but the violence was a part of daily life, Gaskins steadfastly insisted that “I certainly weren’t in no way what you could ever call abused.”
Still, something was obviously wrong with Junior Parrott. He was “pissed off” at girls from his earliest memory, unable to explain the rage coherently. By age 10, he suffered from the onset of a lifelong “bothersomeness,” described as feeling like “a ball of molten lead rolling around in my guts and up my spine into my head.” That feeling presaged outbursts of erratic violence, sometimes assuaged by forays into criminal activity.
Gaskins was clever with his hands, a natural around machines and motors. He quit school at age eleven to work on cars at a local garage, teaming with two friends named Danny and Marsh in his spare time to form a marauding gang they dubbed “The Trouble Trio.” Starting off with thefts of gasoline from service stations after closing time, they soon graduated to residential burglaries, counseled along the way by Danny’s ex-convict father. Buying an old car with the proceeds from their robberies, they ranged farther afield, visiting prostitutes in Charleston and Columbia. Their sexual experiments also included younger boys, but the Trouble Trio made a critical mistake when they gang-raped Marsh’s younger sister. Threats and promises of cash failed to secure her silence, and parental wrath descended on the boys in full force. Danny’s father defended him with a shotgun, but Gaskins and Marsh were strung up by their wrists in a barn and whipped bloody by parents wielding a leather strap in relays.
Pee Wee’s cohorts fled the area as soon as Marsh could walk again, and Gaskins soloed for a while before he met another teenage thief, resuming weekend burglaries. One Saturday in 1946, he was prowling a house when one of the tenants -- a girl he knew -- surprised him. She was armed with a hatchet, slashing at Gaskins and chasing him outside, where he disarmed her and struck back, gashing her arms and splitting her scalp.
The girl survived to identify Gaskins, whereupon he was jailed for assault with a deadly weapon and intent to kill. The judge found him guilty as charged and consigned him to the South Carolina Industrial School for Boys until his 18th birthday. Junior Parrott heard his true name for the first time in the courtroom, as sentence was pronounced.
Gaskins would later say that he received his “real education” at the state reformatory near Florence, a few miles from where he grew up. His second night in custody, Gaskins was ambushed in the shower, beaten and gang-raped by a group of 20 boys. Afterward, he accepted “protection” from his dormitory’s “Boss-Boy,” who demanded daily sex and other services while sometimes loaning Gaskins out to friends.
With no escape from torment inside the walls, Gaskins plotted his first escape. Thirteen months after his arrival, he fled the reform school with four other inmates. All were captured the next afternoon, but Gaskins leaped from the truck on his way back to Florence, this time running as far as the hideout he had once shared with his cronies of the Trouble Trio.
A local lawman found him there and persuaded Gaskins to surrender. His reward: 30 lashes with a strap and 30 days’ “hard labor isolation,” digging ditches in the broiling daytime heat, with whippings every night for trivial infractions. After serving his penalty time, Gaskins went back to his dorm and the Boss-Boy who “owned” him.
For his second escape, Gaskins chose a single accomplice and remained at large for six days before bloodhounds tracked him down. The punishment this time was 50 lashes and four months’ hard labor. Returning to his dorm, Gaskins found “a new Boss-Boy who wasn’t so easy to please.” This one, Pee Wee recalled, “particularly liked to watch gang-rapes with me on the bottom.”
Gaskins made his third escape alone, fleeing south to an aunt’s home in Williamsburg County. She convinced him to return after the warden promised leniency, but the promise was a lie. Back in Florence, Gaskins faced more isolation and a nightly regimen of 20 lashes. On the seventh day he punched a guard and was beaten unconscious, packed off to the state mental hospital in Columbia for five weeks. While there, Gaskins suffered a ruptured appendix, his life saved by emergency surgery.
Deemed sane and fit for normal custody, Gaskins was shipped back to the reformatory in 1950. Light duty soon gave way to threats of whipping in reprisal for his prior conduct, fleeing to Sumter, where he joined a traveling carnival. He fell in love with a 13-year-old member of the crew and married her -- the first of his six wives -- on Jan. 22, 1951. After one night together, for his bride’s sake, Gaskins surrendered to authorities and spent the last three months of his sentence in solitary confinement.
Released on his 18th birthday, Gaskins tried four different jobs in his first six months of freedom, finally settling down to work on a tobacco plantation. Soon, he joined forces with a reformatory bunkmate to loot and burn tobacco barns, collaborating with landowners on insurance fraud. They torched six barns before Christmas 1956, but rumors spread quickly and Pee Wee’s partner wisely fled the state. Gaskins stayed on, but he soon had cause to regret it.
One day on the job, his employer’s teenage daughter and a girlfriend cornered Gaskins in the barn, taunting him with rumors of his barn-burning forays. Gaskins snapped, lashed out with a hammer and cracked the girl’s skull. Jailed for arson, assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder, he beat the first charge at trial, then struck a bargain on the others.
The prosecutor promised Gaskins 18 months’ confinement in return for a guilty plea, but Pee Wee failed to get the deal in writing and Judge T.B. Greniker had other ideas. He pronounced a five-year sentence, then added another year for contempt when Gaskins cursed him.
Pee Wee was on his way to the Big House.
When Gaskins entered the South Carolina state prison in fall 1952, it struck him as “the dreariest looking place on earth.” There were new faces and new rules to memorize, but the reality of prison life remained unchanged. In place of dorms and Boss-Boys, the state pen had cell blocks and “Power Men” who took what they wanted by force. Gaskins went in expecting another round of gang-rapes, but instead he was ignored until the afternoon when a hulking con approached him on the yard and told him, “You belong to Arthur.”
Over the next six months, while Gaskins was sharing his cell with a brutal rapist, he realized that the only way to save himself was to become a Power Man. To that end, knowing it meant murder, Gaskins started looking for the biggest, toughest victim he could find. He chose Hazel Brazell, a con so vicious that no one on either side of the bars dared call him by his despised first name.
To ingratiate himself with Brazell, Gaskins used the same tactic he would employ with Rudolph Tyner, almost 30 years later. He brought gifts of food from the kitchen, becoming a fixture around Brazell’s cellblock, accepted as part of the crowd. On his fifth visit, Gaskins found Brazell on the toilet, only one guard stationed outside his cell. Striking swiftly, he cut Brazell’s throat with a stolen paring knife and warned the bodyguard to flee before guards arrived. “I surprised myself at how calm I was,” Gaskins later wrote in his autobiography, Final Truth. “I didn’t really feel nothing much at all.”
He admitted killing Brazell “in a fight” and bargained a murder charge down to manslaughter, two-thirds of the nine-year sentence concurrent with his pre-existing term. “I figured that was a damn fair deal,” Gaskins said, “considering I wouldn’t never again have to be afraid of anybody in The Pen no matter how long I was there.” He spent six months in solitary and emerged a Power Man in his own right, the “Pee Wee” nickname now a label of respect.
Gaskins cruised through his next two years of confinement, enjoying himself, but 1955 brought news that his wife had filed for divorce. Despondent, he hatched a plot to escape in a garbage drum, jumping from the truck along the highway to Florence. Stealing a car, he drove to Florida and rejoined the carnival at Lake Wales, meeting his next wife in the process. At 19, she was three years younger than Gaskins. Their marriage lasted all of two weeks, before he dropped her at her parents’ house and hit the road. They were never divorced, but that small technicality would not stop Gaskins from logging four more marriages over the next two decades.
His new love of the moment was Bettie Gates, a sideshow contortionist whose supple body proved irresistible. They left the show together, driving Pee Wee’s stolen car to Cookeville, Tennessee, where Gates claimed her brother was jailed pending trial on some undisclosed charge. On arrival, Gates confessed that she was wanted in five states on counts ranging from forgery to armed assault. Gaskins agreed to deliver bail money and a carton of cigarettes, then returned to find Gates and his car missing from their motel. He was awaiting her return when police came to arrest him, breaking the news that Bettie’s “brother” -- in fact, her husband -- had escaped from jail using a razor hidden with the smokes.
Putnam County’s sheriff initially accepted Gaskins’s tale of being duped, but the recovery of his stolen car and false I.D. saw Pee Wee held on a fugitive warrant from South Carolina. Before his return to the Palmetto State, he pulled three months in Tennessee for aiding an escape, plus six more for slashing another inmate during a brawl. Back at South Carolina’s state pen, he spent a “miserable” time in solitary before FBI agents arrived to charge him with a federal Dyer Act violation, for driving a stolen car across state lines. Conviction on that charge earned him three years at the federal lockup in Atlanta, Georgia.
Gaskins later described that sentence as his “college education” in crime. His cellmates, whom he dubbed the “Three Wise Men,” were bodyguards for imprisoned Mafia “prime minister” Frank Costello, serving time for income tax evasion and casino skimming. Pee Wee’s reputation preceded him, and Costello dubbed him “the little hatchet man,” reportedly offering Gaskins work as contract muscle if he ever felt an urge to settle down.
The federal prison term was concurrent with Gaskins’s remaining time in South Carolina, a favor from the court that left him eligible for parole in August 1961. Forgiving his escape, the state released him with a new suit, $20, and a bus ticket back to Florence.
Whatever Gaskins may have learned from his prison “college education,” it did not include a course on staying out of trouble. Reunited briefly with his mother and stepfather, he returned to work in the tobacco sheds, until an argument with his stepfather came to blows and Gaskins threatened the older man’s life with a pitchfork. From there, he moved in with a cousin and resumed stripping cars, soon reverting to his old pattern of residential burglaries, looking for cheap sex in honky-tonk bars.
Late in 1961 Gaskins had a near-miss brush with salvation. He went to work for circuit-riding preacher George Todd, driving the minister’s van and serving as his general assistant, but the gospel had no impact on Pee Wee. Instead, he seized the opportunity to loot homes while they traveled, selling off whatever he could steal to willing buyers on the road. Along the way, in 1962, he met wife number three, a 17-year-old who caught his eye despite the fact that she was “old by my standards.”
Marriage, like religion, failed to civilize Gaskins. During his second year with Rev. Todd, he was jailed for statutory rape of a 12-year-old girl in Florence County. Taken to the courthouse for arraignment, Gaskins slipped out a window, stole a county car, and fled to Greensboro, North Carolina. There, he soon met and married wife number four -- another 17-year-old -- and abandoned her after three months. “It weren’t that I stopped loving her,” he later wrote. It were the edginess and bothersomeness stirring around inside me...I got so edgy and mad at the world, I just had to get away.” As for his many wives, Pee Wee maintained, “I truly loved them all,”
Briefly reunited with his third wife in Georgia, Gaskins was en route to Florida when a highway patrolman tried to stop him for speeding. Fearing arrest as a fugitive, Gaskins drove his car into a swamp and escaped on foot, leaving not-so-ex-wife to the law. From there, he returned to North Carolina and wife number four, but she blew the whistle on him and he was extradited for trial. Jurors in Florence County rejected Pee Wee’s argument that sex with pre-teen girls was justifiable. Convicted in 1964, he got six years for statutory rape and two more for his flight from custody.
The state pen in Columbia had been renamed the Central Correctional Institute in Gaskins’ absence, but nothing else had changed. He brought his reputation with him and did easy time as a Power Man, paroled in November 1968 on the condition that he stay out of Florence County for two years. Upon release, Pee Wee later said, “I was damned determined I never was going back to prison -- which didn’t meant that I wasn’t ever going to do anything illegal again. I just wasn’t never planning on getting caught.”
That meant getting rid of witnesses, and Gaskins reckoned he was equal to the task.
And in the process, he would have some fun.
Gaskins settled in Sumter, South Carolina, working construction and stripping hot cars on weekends, cruising bars for sex. He still suffered “them aggravated and bothersome feelings,” now accompanied by headaches, stomach cramps, and pain in his groin. Increasingly, he raged and brooded over women who rejected him. He drove compulsively along the Carolina coast, later recalling, “It was like I was looking for something special on them coastal highways, only I didn’t know what.”
In September 1969 he found out.
The hitchhiker was young and blond, bound for Charleston, thumbing rides outside Myrtle Beach. Gaskins picked her up and propositioned her. When she laughed in his face, he beat her unconscious and drove to an old logging road. There, he raped and sodomized his victim, then tortured and mutilated her with a knife. She still clung to life when he weighted her body and sank her in a swamp to drown. Leaving the scene, Gaskin recalled, “I felt truly the best I ever remembered feeling in my whole life.”
Gaskins later called that first impulsive homicide “his miracle ... a beam of light, like a vision.” From that day on, he made a habit of trolling the coastal highways on weekends, seeking victims and exploring future dump sites. By Christmas 1969 he had committed two more “coastal kills -- ones where I didn’t know the victims or their names or nothing about them.” It was recreational murder, refined over time until he could keep his victims alive and screaming for hours on end, sometimes for days.
In 1970 Gaskins averaged one “coastal kill” every six weeks, experimenting with different torture methods, disappointed when his victims died prematurely. “I preferred for them to last as long as possible,” he wrote. The next year, Pee Wee claimed 11 nameless victims, including his first kidnap-slaying of two girls at once. Ideas for tormenting his captives came to Gaskins as he browsed through hardware stores, eyeing the tools. “I never gave no thought to stopping,” he admitted. “They was a clock-kind of thing. When it was time, I went and killed.”
His first male victims were acquired by accident, two long-haired boys whom Gaskins took for girls as he drove up behind them in March 1974. Gender would not save them, though. Gaskins drove them both to a hideout near Charleston, where he sodomized and tortured both, cooking and cannibalizing their severed genitals before he granted them the mercy of death.
Gaskins lost track of the victims he murdered for sport between September 1969 and December 1975. They were hard to recall, he explained, “because they’re mostly just a jumble of faces and bodies and memories of things I did to them.” In terms of numbers, he said, “The closest figure I can come up with is 80 to 90.” Sadistic murder was addictive for Pee Wee. “I finally reached the point where I wanted the bothersomeness to start,” he wrote. “I looked forward to it every month, because it felt so good relieving myself of it.”
The only coastal victim he recalled by name was 16-year-old Anne Colberson, picked up near Myrtle Beach in 1971. Gaskins was not hunting at the time, but he refused to miss a golden opportunity. Over four days of rape and torture, he became “real fond of her.” Finally, “because she had been so nice to me,” Gaskins stunned her with a hammer and cut her throat before dropping Colberson into quicksand.
The coastal kills were always recreation, though. However numerous the victims, however atrocious their suffering, they meant nothing to Gaskins. The focus of his life lay inland, where murder and business mixed.
Before 1970, despite sporadic incidents of violence with family and friends, Gaskins maintained that he never gave “any real serious thought whatsoever” to killing a personal acquaintance. “The most important thing about 1970,” he wrote from prison, “was that it was the year I started doing my ‘serious murders’” -- defined as slayings of persons he knew, whose deaths required more planning to avoid detection.
His first two “serious” victims were a 15-year-old niece, Janice Kirby, and her 17-year-old friend, Patricia Alsobrook. Gaskins had entertained thoughts of raping Kirby but saw no opportunity until one night in November 1970, when the girls were out drinking, in need of a ride home. Gaskins volunteered, taking them instead to an abandoned house where he ordered both to strip.
The girls fought for their lives, clubbing Gaskins with a board before he drew a gun and overpowered them and beat them unconscious. After raping both, he drowned the girls and buried them in separate locations. Police grilled Pee Wee about the double disappearance, and while he admitted talking to the girls on the last night they were seen alive, he claimed they had left him and driven off in a car with several unknown boys. Lacking a corpse or other evidence, the trail went cold.
A month later, Gaskins kidnapped, raped and murdered Peggy Cuttino, the 13-year-old daughter of a politically prominent family. This time, he left the body where it would be found. His alibi looked solid when police came calling, and they later focused on another suspect, William Pierce, already serving life in Georgia for a similar offense. Conviction of Cuttino’s murder brought Pierce his second life sentence, a moot point since Georgia had no intention of releasing him. Years later, when Gaskins later confessed to the murder, embarrassed prosecutors rejected his statement, insisting Pee Wee claimed the murder “for publicity.”
Gaskins interrupted the murder spree to marry his pregnant girlfriend on Jan. 1, 1971, but it was only a momentary distraction. His next “serious” murder victim -- and the first African American he ever killed -- was 20-year-old Martha Dicks, a hanger-on around the garage where Gaskins worked part-time.
For reasons best known to herself, Dicks seemed infatuated with Gaskins, boasting falsely to friends that they were lovers. Gaskins tolerated the jokes until Dicks claimed to be carrying his child. Inviting her to stay on one night, after work, he fed Dicks a fatal overdose of pills and liquor, discarding her corpse in a roadside ditch. Rumors of sex and racism aside, Gaskins insisted, “I didn’t kill her for no reason besides her lying mouth.”
In late 1971, Gaskins moved to Charleston with his wife and child, committing his next two “serious murders” there in 1972. The victims were Eddie Brown, a 24-year-old gun runner, and his wife Bertie, described by Gaskins as “the best looking black girl I ever saw.” Gaskins sold guns to Brown, including stolen military weapons, but he grew nervous when Brown informed him that federal agents were sniffing around Charleston, seeking illicit arms dealers. Fearing a setup, Gaskin shot the Browns and planted them behind the barn where he had buried Janice Kirby in 1970.
Gaskins moved to Prospect, South Carolina, in July 1973, after his Charleston home burned down. (He blamed arsonists for the fire, but never identified the culprits.) Before year’s end, he murdered three more victims, starting with 14-year-old runaway Jackie Freeman. Gaskins picked her up hitchhiking, in October, and held her captive for two days of rape, torture and cannibalism. “I always thought of Jackie as special,” he recalled in his memoirs, “not really a serious murder, but likewise not just another coastal kill.”
The weekend after Freeman’s slaying, Gaskins bought a used hearse and put a sign in the window: WE HAUL ANYTHING, LIVING OR DEAD. When asked about it over drinks, he explained that he wanted the vehicle “Because I kill so many people I need a hearse to haul them to my private cemetery.”
His first passengers were 23-year-old Doreen Dempsey and her two-year-old daughter Robin Michelle. Gaskins knew Dempsey from his carnie days. An unwed mother pregnant with her second child in December 1973, she planned on leaving town that month and accepted Pee Wee’s offer of a drive to the local bus station.
Instead, he drove into the woods and there demanded sex. Doreen agreed, then balked when Gaskins started to undress her child. Gaskins killed Doreen with a hammer, then raped and sodomized the child before strangling her to death and burying both victims together. Years later, he would recall his brutal assault on Robin Michelle as the best sex of his life.
Pee Wee’s “serious murders” continued in 1974, beginning with 36-year-old car thief Johnny Sellars. Sellars owed Gaskins $1,000 for auto parts, but he was slow to pay. Finally, tired of excuses, Gaskins lured Sellars to the woods and shot him with a rifle. Later the same night, hoping to forestall investigation of Sellars’ disappearance, Gaskins called on Johnny’s girlfriend, 22-year-old Jessie Ruth Judy, and stabbed her to death, hauling her corpse to the forest for burial beside her lover.
Horace Jones, another car thief and con man, made the fatal mistake of trying to romance Pee Wee’s current wife in 1974. “That pissed me off,” Gaskins recalled in Final Truth. Not the attempt per se, “but the way he went about doing it. I mean if he had come straight to me like a man and asked to make a deal with me for my wife, I would probably have give her to him, for a night or a week, or to keep, if the offer was good enough.” As it was, he shot Jones in the woods and stole $200 from the corpse before leaving Jones in a shallow grave. Searchers identify grave site.
By December 1974 Gaskins was a grandfather, settled into a routine that suited him and satisfied his needs. That Christmas season, he recalled, was “the happiest and peacefullest I can remember.”
Pee Wee didn’t know it yet, but he was running out of time.
"The Killingest Year"
Writing from prison, Gaskins called 1975 “my busiest year and my killingest year.” His pace of random murders on the Carolina coast remained “about the same,” although he started January with a threesome, including a man and two women. Gaskins described them as “hippie types” from Oregon, whose van had broken down near Georgetown. He offered a lift to the nearest garage, then detoured to a nearby swamp and handcuffed his captives at gunpoint. Before he drowned the trio, Gaskins said, “It was hard to say which one suffered most. I tried to make it equal.”
Gaskins made a critical mistake when he recruited ex-con Walter Neely to help him dispose of the van. Neely drove the vehicle to Pee Wee’s garage, where Gaskin customized and repainted it for sale out of state. The drive made Neely an accessory after the fact, and Gaskin trusted his simple-minded helper to keep a secret. Before year’s end, he would regret that choice.
Pee Wee’s first “serious murder” of the year involved a contract to kill Silas Yates, a wealthy Florence County farmer. He accepted $1,500 for the job, on behalf of 27-year-old Suzanne Kipper, furious at Yates for taking back a car, two horses, and other gifts he had given her while they were romantically involved. Two go-betweens on the contract, John Powell and John Owens, handled negotiations between Gaskins and Kipper.
Gaskins recruited Diane Neely, friend Walter’s ex-wife, to lure Yates from home on the night of Feb. 12, 1975, claiming her car had broken down near his house. Pee Wee waited in the darkness to abduct Yates at gunpoint and drive him to the woods, where Powell and Owens watched him knife Yates to death, then helped Gaskins bury the corpse. Kipper subsequently married Owens, while Pee Wee used his knowledge of the murder to blackmail her for sex on demand.
The contract came back to haunt Gaskins when Diane Neely moved in with Avery Howard, a 35-year-old ex-convict whom Gaskins knew from state prison. She told Howard about the murder, and together they approached Gaskins with a demand for $5,000 hush-money.
Gaskins agreed to meet them in the woods outside Prospect and bring the cash. The blackmailers arrived to find an open grave and Gaskins with a pistol in his hand. Two shots, a bit of spadework, and Pee Wee reckoned his problem was solved.
The human juggernaut rolled on. Kim Ghelkins was the next to die, a 13-year-old friend of Gaskins who angered him by rejecting his sexual overtures. Pee Wee reacted in typical style by raping, torturing and strangling her, planting her body in the woods.
Diane Neely’s brother, 25-year-old Dennis Bellamy, teamed with 15-year-old half-brother Johnny Knight to loot Pee Wee’s chop shop that summer, thus earning themselves a death sentence. Gaskins took Walter Neely along to help bury the pair in his “private cemetery,” taking time to point out the surrounding graves of Johnny Sellars, Jessie Judy, Avery Howard and Walter’s ex-wife. Again, for reasons never clear, he trusted Neely and allowed him to survive.
By October 1975, Kim Ghelkins’s parents knew enough of her movements to suspect Gaskins of murder. A Sumter deputy sheriff searched Pee Wee’s home and found some of Kim’s clothes in his closet, afterward securing statements that she was often seen in his company. The evidence would not support a murder charge, but Gaskins was indicted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
He returned from Georgia on Nov. 14, 1975, to find police staked out around his house. Gaskins dodged them and made his way to the local bus station, planning a return to Georgia, but officers nabbed him before he could leave.
Unable to post bond, Gaskins sat in jail for three weeks before the storm broke. Walter Neely had crumbled, telling all to police on advice from a neighborhood minister. He led authorities to Pee Wee’s graveyard, where victims Bellamy and Knight were unearthed on Dec. 4. A day later, diggers found the bodies of Sellars, Judy, Howard and Diane Neely. On Dec. 10, Walter led them to the graves of Doreen Dempsey and her child. Gaskins struck a pose of injured innocence, but all in vain. Looking back on that chaotic month, he would recall, “the coroner had the bodies, Jesus had Walter, and the law had me.”
Giving Up the Dead
Following a Florence County coroner’s inquest on April 27, 1976, Gaskins and Walter Neely were each charged with eight counts of first-degree murder. Police also detained James Judy, husband of the murdered Jessie, on one count of murder and an accessory charge. Prosecutor T. Kenneth Summerford arranged for Gaskins to be tried alone in the Bellamy case, since bullets from the victim’s body matched a pistol Gaskins had been carrying at his arrest in December 1975.
At trial, convened on May 24, 1976, Gaskins feigned innocent, blaming Bellamy’s murder on Walter Neely. Bellamy and Johnny Knight were both alive the last time he saw them, Gaskins testified, leaving his garage with Neely. For all he knew, Walter had stolen his pistol to murder the men, then replaced it without Pee Wee’s knowledge. Jurors dismissed the fable and convicted him on May 28, whereupon Judge Dan McEachin sentenced Gaskins to die.
That verdict frightened James Judy, wholly innocent of his wife’s murder, into angling for a plea bargain. Police thought he had hired Gaskins to kill his wife and Johnny Sellars out of jealousy, and if a jury felt likewise he might be sent to the electric chair. Panicked, Judy pled guilty in return for a life sentence and went off to serve his time.
Walter Neely was next, tried on eight counts of murder, his attorneys calling him a mentally retarded dupe who bowed to Pee Wee Gaskins’s every whim. “In a way,” Gaskins later wrote, “I reckon that was true, too. Walter surely weren’t real bright, and he did pretty much anything I asked him, up until he got borned-again and forgot all about what loyalty and friendship meant.” Convicted on all counts, Neely still evoked sufficient pathos to escape with a single life sentence.
Pee Wee’s attorney urged him to cut a deal with prosecutors to avoid another death sentence on his seven pending murder charges. Gaskins agreed, confessing to the crimes and adding details under influence of “truth serum,” but he could have saved the effort.
In November 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated South Carolina’s death penalty statute and his capital sentence was commuted to life, with seven more consecutive life terms tacked on for good measure. The attendant publicity made Gaskins “downright famous” in prison, where even the guards dubbed him the “boss hog.”
Still unsatisfied, the law came after Gaskins next for Silas Yates’s murder, indicting him with John Owens, John Powell, and Suzanne Kipper (now married to John). At trial, in April 1977, Gaskins claimed he was the decoy who lured Yates from home in 1975, while Powell and Owens did the killing, but all four defendants were sentenced to life. (Powell and Owens were paroled in the late 1980s, prompting Gaskins to remark that “some life sentences don’t last as long as others.” Kipper escaped in October 1990 and remained at large until February 1993, when she was recaptured in Michigan.)
South Carolina passed a new death penalty statute in 1978 and prosecutor Ken Summerford filed new charges against Gaskins for Johnny Knight’s murder, declaring his intent to put Pee Wee on Death Row. Gaskins may have been the only player in the game who didn’t realize such retroactive prosecutions are forbidden. Bargaining for life imprisonment, he confessed still more murders, giving lawmen a hitchhiker’s corpse in place of Janice Kirby’s since he feared discovery of other victims buried near her grave site, yet unnamed.
The last round of confessions made Gaskins South Carolina’s most prolific serial killer to date. Between that reputation and his mechanical skills, it was easy to become a maintenance trusty.
Easy to kill Rudolph Tyner in September 1982.
After prolonged investigation, a grand jury indicted Gaskins and Tony Cimo for Tyner’s murder, along with inmate go-betweens Jack Martin and Charles Lee. Charges against Lee were dismissed after another convict, James Brown, claimed he took the explosive cup to Tyner’s cell without knowledge of its purpose. (Brown was never charged.) Prosecutor James Anders tried Gaskins separately, calling Ken Summerford as a witness to display photos of Pee Wee’s other victims, and Judge Dan Laney sentenced Gaskins to die.
Tony Cimo, more sympathetic than Gaskins in court, received a 25-year prison sentence with parole eligibility after 30 months. He served the minimum and returned to Murrell’s Inlet, where he died from a prescription drug overdose on June 10, 2001.
Gaskins, meanwhile, spent the first three years of his new sentence not on Death Row, but in a rat-infested isolation unit. His attorneys appealed the confinement in 1985, but lawmen cited “reliable information” that Gaskins planned to have cronies kidnap the prosecutor’s child and bargain for his release. Only after his petition for release from solitary was rejected did police “determine the report was an empty threat.”
A year later, freed from solitary after the isolation unit was condemned as unfit for human habitation, Gaskins found Death Row “a lot nicer” than his previous quarters. In 1990, Gaskins and the state’s electric chair were moved again, this time to the Broad River Correctional Institute outside Columbia.
Gaskins filled his last months with an art scam, tracing cartoon characters for sale to collectors of Death Row memorabilia, and dictating his memoirs on tape for author Wilton Earl (published as Final Truth in 1993). As death approached, Pee Wee waxed philosophical. “I truly don’t mind dying,” he wrote. “I’ve lived a damned full and good life.”
In fact, he decided, it was even better than that. “I have walked the same path as God,” Gaskins raved. “By taking lives and making others afraid, I became God’s equal. Through killing others, I became my own master. Through my own power I come to my own redemption..”
He was even optimistic about his date with the chair, telling Earl’s tape recorder, “When they put me to death, I’ll die remembering the freedom and pleasure of my life. I’ll die knowing that there are others coming along to take my place, and that most of them won’t never get caught.”
There was no escape for Pee Wee, though. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected his final appeal in June 1991, clearing the way for Gaskins to be executed in September. Hours before his date with “Old Sparky,” Gaskins slashed his arms from wrists to elbows with a razor blade he had swallowed days earlier, then regurgitated in a futile effort to postpone death. Prison medics stitched his wounds in time for Gaskins to meet his fate at 1:05 A.M. on Sept. 6, 1991.
Donald Henry Gaskins, Jr. (March 13, 1933 - September 6, 1991) dubbed the "Meanest Man in America", was an American serial killer, possibly connected to over 200 murders.
Born in Florence County, South Carolina, Pee Wee got an early start in crime, spending most of his youth in and out of reform school and later prison. Because of his pint-size, Pee Wee was forced to assume the role of "girlfriend" to older, more powerful inmates. He soon put an end to it by killing a highly regarded prisoner while the man was going to the bathroom, making him a jailhouse legend for the rest of his stay.
In 1969, after being released from prison, Pee Wee got back to killing at an alarming rate. He made a distinction between his "coastal kills," -- people he found while driving around the roadways of the American South that he killed for pleasure -- and his "serious murders," -- people he knew that he killed for specific reasons.
Aside from killing, Pee Wee had a thriving business fencing stolen cars. He operated his fencing business out of several properties around the Carolinas, where he murdered most of his victims. His other favorite hunting grounds were the coastal highways, where every six weeks, he went hunting to quell his feelings of "bother-someness."
In the early '80s, Pee Wee was named the "Meanest Man in America" for killing another inmate while in Maximum Security. For his fearless homicidal stunt, Pee Wee was given the death penalty. He was executed on September 6, 1991. His total number of victims might well have been over two hundred, but law enforcement sources found it impossible to verify all of his claims. In the post-mortem auto-biography, "Final Truth," Pee Wee waxed poetic about how he had "a special mind" that gave him "permission to kill."
Donald Henry "Pee Wee" Gaskins, Jr. (March 31, 1933 - September 6, 1991) was an American serial killer, possibly connected to over 100 murders.
Born in Manning, South Carolina, Gaskins spent most of his youth in and out of reform school, and later prison. Gaskins' small, slight build (5' 4" tall, hence his nickname) made him a target for physical and sexual abuse in prison. He eventually killed a highly regarded prisoner while the man was on the toilet, transforming him into a jailhouse legend for the rest of his stay.
As a youth, he hit a woman in the head with a hatchet and left her for dead; she survived.
In 1969, after being released from prison, Gaskins continued killing. He made a distinction between people he found while driving around the roadways of the American South: people that he killed for pleasure, and familiar people that he killed for specific reasons. Gaskins also had a thriving business fencing stolen cars. He operated his fencing business out of several properties around The Carolinas, where he murdered most of his victims. His other favorite hunting grounds were the coastal highways, where every six weeks, he went hunting to quell his feelings of "bothersome-ness."
He confessed of 100 murders, but law enforcement sources found it impossible to verify all of his claims. In his autobiography, Final Truth (published posthumously), Gaskins wrote that he had "a special mind" that gave him "permission to kill."
Gaskins' first victims were his niece Janice Kirby and her friend Patricia Ann Alsobrook whom he beat to death in Sumter, South Carolina in 1970. When the police found a piece of Alsobrook's clothing in his rented trailer, Gaskins was asked why he killed her; he responded by saying, "...it was over an argument about their drug abuse". He was widely known for being a pedophile and rapist.
On December 4, 1975, Gaskins led police to land he owned in Prospect, where police dug up numerous bodies of Gaskins' victims. Gaskins killed children and at least one baby. He crushed their necks, cut their throats, stabbed, poisoned, drowned them, beat them to death with his fists, and shot them execution style.
Before 1976, Gaskins was on death row, but his sentences were commuted to life in prison when the South Carolina General Assembly's 1974 death sentence ruling was changed to meet the United States Supreme Court guidelines for the death penalty in other states.
In the early 1980s, Gaskins was named the "Meanest Man in America" for killing another inmate while in maximum security, a crime for which he was sentenced to death. While in prison, Gaskins was hired by Tony Cimo to kill Rudolph Tyner. Tyner was on death row for killing Bill and Myrtie Moon, Cimo's parents, with a 12-gauge shotgun in the store they owned in the Burgess community. Gaskins first attempts at killing Tyner involved sprinkling poison on his food which only made him sick. Then Gaskins rigged a device similar to a portable radio and told Tyner this would allow them to talk between cells. When Tyner followed Gaskins instructions to hold it to his ear and plug it in, it exploded and killed Tyner. Gaskins later said, "The last thing he [Tyner] heard was me laughing."
Gaskins was tried for the murder of Rudolph Tyner and sentenced to death.
Gaskins was executed on September 6, 1991 at 1:10 a.m. He was the fourth person to die in the electric chair after the death penalty was reinstated in South Carolina in 1977.
GASKINS, Donald Henry, jr.
Few observers would agree with Donald Gaskins's claim that he was "born special and fortunate" in South Carolina on March 31, 1933.
The runt of a litter born to an unwed mother named Parrott, Gaskins was known throughout his carly life as "Pee Wee" or "Junior Parrott," hearing his true name for the first time as a teenager, in court, when he was convicted of juvenile crimes and sentenced to a state reformatory. By that time, his mother had married one of Donald's numerous "step-daddies," a brutal disciplinarian who beat Donald and his half siblings "just for practice."
Pee Wee was "plissed off" at girls from his earliest memory, unable to explain coherently the hatred he felt toward females. Dropping out of school, he joined two adolescent cohorts in a local crime wave that included numerous burglaries and at least one gang rape (of an accomplice's younger sister). The spree ended when a former classmate surprised Gaskins during a burglary and survived a hatchet blow to the head, identifying him for the police.
Sentenced to reform school until his 18th birthday, Gaskins was first gang-raped in the lockup, then "protected" by an older hoy who used him sexually and passed him around to friends. Upon release in 1951, he found work on a tobacco plantation, soon deciding there was better money to be made from stealing the crop and torching barns to cover his thefts.
Arrested for ARSON and attempted murder in 1952 (after striking a woman with a hammer), he won acquittal on the first charge and bargained the second down to assault and battery. His lawyer promised Gaskins 18 months in jail, but the judge handed down a five-year sentence, plus one more for contempt after Gaskins cursed him.
In prison, Pee Wee was soon commandeered for sex by one of the cellblock "power men," until he cut the rapist's throat. Murder charges bargained down to manslaughter earned him another nine years, to be served concurrently with his previous sentence.
Gaskins escaped in 1955 but was soon recaptured in Tennessee, now facing federal charges for driving a stolen car across state lines. His three-year sentence on that charge was set to run concurrently with his Carolina prison time, and Gaskins was paroled in August 1961, with 20 dollars and a bus ticket back to Florence.
Charged with the statutory rape of a 12-yearold girl in 1962, Gaskins escaped through a courthouse window prior to trial and joined a traveling carnaval, but he was soon reca tured and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was paroled in November 1968 on the condition that he not return to Florence for at least two years.
By that time, Gaskins was seething with rage, a blind hatred of society in general and females in particular which, he later sald, afflicted him with physical pains "Iike hot lead" in his stomach and groin.
The only release carne through violence, and Gaskins committed the first of many random, recreational murders in September 1969, torturing and disemboweling a female hitchhiker he picked up along the Carolina coast, dumping her mutilated body in the ocean south of Georgetown, South Carolina.
Henceforth, Gaskins would mentally divide his slayings into "coastal kills" (committed for sadistic pleasure, victimizing strangers of both sexes) and "serious murders" (involving victims who were personal acquaintances).
On death row, decades later, he estimated that he had committed 10 "coastal kills" by October 1970, with his first "serious murders" occurring one month later.
The November victims were his own niece, 15-year-old janice Kirby, and a girlfriend, 17-year-old Patricia Alsbrook, both of whom he raped and murdered at the Sumter mobile-home park where he lived. Gaskins buried them out in the country, revealing Alsbrook's grave in a 1976 bargain with prosecutors to save himself from the electric chair. (Two years later, in another death-row deal, Gaskins pretended to give up Kirby's remains, but he feared discovery of other corpses buried nearby, actually directing searchers to the grave of a victim planted near Columbia in 1973.)
Once Gaskins got the hang of it, his homicidas proliferated at a dizzy pace.
One murder, the December 1970 torture-slaying of 13-year-old Peggy Cuttino, was blamed on convict William Pierce, serving life for a similar slaying in Georgia; Gaskins admitted the crime in 1977, but embarrassed prosecutors have thus far refused to exonerase Pierce in that case.
His "coastal kills" continued on a monthly basis, more or less, while victims of his "serlous murders" included criminal accomplices, personal enemies, and neighborhood acquaintances who aroused Gaskins sexually.
One of the worst such cases, in 1973, involved the rape-slayings of 23-year-old Doreen Dempsey (eight months pregnant at the time) and her 20-month-old daughter Robin. (Gaskins later describes raping the infant as the best sexual experience of his life.) Through it all, Gaskins took comfort in the fact that he was "one of the few that truly understands what death and pain are all about. I have a special kind of mind that allows me to give myself permission to kill."
Gaskins would later describe 1975 as his "killingest" year, climaxed with his arrest for trafficking in stolen cars. An accomplice in several of his "serious murders," Walter Neely, "got religion" that December and turned state's evidence, leading detectives to eight buried victims.
Indicted on eight murder charges, Gaskins faced trial in May 1976 on only one count, for the 1975 slaying of Neely's ex-brother-in-law, Dennis Bellamy. Convicted on May 24 and sentenced to die, Gaskins was irate when Neely received a life sentence for the same murder one week later by claiming he had been "controlled" by Pee Wee against his will.
With seven more indictments hanging over him, Gaskins began negotiating for his life, pointing police toward more graves in return for leniency. He need not have bothered, since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated South Carolina's death penalty statute in November 1976, his sentence automatically commuted to life imprisonment.
Amonth later, detectives were after Gaskins once again, this time for the murder of Silas Yates, a 45-year old Carolinian who allegedly offered Gaskins a murder contract in 1975. Pec Wee killed Yates instead, and Gaskins was tried on that charge (with three marginal accomplices) in April 1977, receiving his second life sentence.
South Carolina's death penalty was reinstated by 1978, and Gaskins struck another bargain with prosecutors, agreeing to turn up more bodies and submit to a three-day grilling under sodium pentothal, in return for a signed-and-sealed promise of exemption from the chair. That spring found him sentenced to a total of nine life terms; no charges were filed in the cases of five other murders he confessed, since the existing sentences removed all hope of parole.
That might have been the end for Pee Wee Gaskins, but he couldn't keep his nose clean, even in prison. In 1982 he accepted a contract to kill death-row inmate Randolph Tyner, wiring an explosiva charge to Tyner's radio and detonating it with fatal results on September 12. A relative of Tyner's original victim, who arranged the contract, was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but a sympathetic judge made him eligible for parole after 30 months. Gaskins, for his part, was sentenced to die, his final appeal rejected in june 1991. He was electrocutad three months later, on September 6.
Before he died, Gaskins completed work on a gripping (if ungrammatical) autobiography, including an estimate of his final body count. Ignoring his first and last murders committed in prison, Gaskins tabulated 31 "serious murders" (including 14 victims found by police and 17 still buried in three South Carolina counties) and 80 or 90 "coastal kills," for a total in the neighborhood of 110 victims.
Since Gaskins never learned the names of his "coastal" victims, remaining deliberately vague on the dates of their murders and locations where their bodies were dumped, the final tally is impossible to verify. By the same token, however, there is no clear reason to dispute his claim, and even if the "coastal" body count was overestimated by 100 percent, Gaskins still qualifies as one of America's most prolific serial killers of modern times.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers
916 F.2d 941
Donald Henry GASKINS, Petitioner-Appellant,
Kenneth D. McKELLAR, Warden, Central Correctional
Institution; Attorney General of South Carolina,
T. Travis Medlock, Respondents-Appellees.
United States Court of Appeals,
Argued March 7, 1990.
Decided Oct. 15, 1990.
Rehearing and Rehearing In Banc
Denied Nov. 16, 1990.
Before ERVIN, Chief Judge, and PHILLIPS and CHAPMAN, Circuit Judges.
PHILLIPS, Circuit Judge:
Donald Henry Gaskins, a South Carolina prison inmate under sentence of death for capital murder, appeals the district court's denial of an evidentiary hearing and dismissal of his 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2254 petition for failure to show entitlement to federal collateral relief. We affirm.
* Gaskins' victim, fellow death row inmate Rudolph Tyner, had been sentenced to death for killing a Mr. and Mrs. Moon during a robbery. Tony Cimo, a stepson of the Moons, seeking to avenge the murders, contacted an acquaintance who put him in touch with Gaskins, who was serving ten life sentences, nine for murder and one for burglary.
Telephone toll records produced at trial showed that thereafter Gaskins made a number of collect calls either to Cimo or to Cimo's acquaintance who had made the contact. Some of the recorded calls revealed that, after numerous failed attempts to poison Tyner, Gaskins resolved to kill Tyner by means of an explosive device.
Ultimately, Gaskins succeeded. James Arthur Brown, a prisoner assigned to deliver meals to death-row inmates, testified that on the afternoon of the murder, Gaskins asked Brown to deliver a device to Tyner. Brown described the device as a radio-type speaker built into a plastic cup through which, Gaskins led Brown to believe, Tyner could communicate with Gaskins in the adjoining cell rather than having to yell through a common vent. The bottom of the cup had a female-electrical socket adapted for connection to an extension cord. Along with the cup's delivery Brown was to tell Tyner that " 'the wire was in the bottom vent in his cell.' " See State v. Gaskins, 284 S.C. 105, 326 S.E.2d 132, 136 (1985).
Presumably, Tyner then found the wire in the common vent and plugged it into the cup-speaker. The cup exploded, blowing off part of Tyner's head and killing him. Brown testified that after the explosion he went to Gaskins' cell and saw Gaskins pulling a wire from the common vent in his own cell.
Gaskins was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury, and his conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. See State v. Gaskins, 284 S.C. 105, 326 S.E.2d 132 (1985), cert. denied, 471 U.S. 1120, 105 S.Ct. 2368, 86 L.Ed.2d 266 (1985). Efforts to obtain state post-conviction relief were unavailing. See Gaskins v. State, No. 85-CP-40-3466, Letter Order (S.C. Jan. 7, 1987), cert. denied, 482 U.S. 909, 107 S.Ct. 2491, 96 L.Ed.2d 382 (1987).
This Sec. 2254 petition, raising several claims, followed and was summarily dismissed by the district court. A number of issues and sub-issues are raised on appeal. Of these, one involves the denial of an evidentiary hearing respecting the admission in evidence at sentencing of an earlier confession to other murders, one involves a claimed denial of due process by virtue of trial judge bias, two involve alleged constitutional violations in jury selection, three involve trial court evidentiary rulings allegedly impacting on the trial's fundamental fairness, one involves prosecutorial misconduct, two involve guilt-phase jury instructions, and five involve alleged errors during the trial's sentencing phase.
We address each of these in turn.
Gaskins contends that he was erroneously denied an evidentiary hearing to establish his claim that portions of a confession given by him in connection with an earlier, bargained plea of guilty to several unrelated murders were unconstitutionally admitted at the sentencing phase of his Tyner murder trial.
The district court summarily dismissed this invalid-use-of-confession claim on the stated basis that "[t]here is no reason, and no precedent, for arguing the confession's invalidity for the first time during the sentencing phase of a trial for a subsequent crime five years later ... [rather than] in a collateral proceeding directed at those prior crimes." On this appeal, the parties have joined issue on this threshold question of the habeas court's power to entertain this claim. Because it is a difficult issue with broad and unclear implications,1 and because there is an alternative basis for upholding the summary dismissal, we decline to rest decision upon the district court's stated basis for dismissing the claim.
To address the alternative basis, it is necessary first to identify the exact nature of Gaskins' constitutional claim. We take it to be that because the earlier confession was coerced, hence involuntarily given, hence unconstitutionally obtained, its use in evidence in the sentencing phase of the later Tyner trial violated Gaskins' eighth amendment right to a "reliab[le] ... determination that death is the appropriate punishment." Johnson v. Mississippi, 486 U.S. 578, 584, 108 S.Ct. 1981, 1986, 100 L.Ed.2d 575 (1988) (death penalty predicated in part on prior conviction vacated because coerced confession violates eighth amendment) (quoting Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349, 363-64, 97 S.Ct. 1197, 1207-08, 51 L.Ed.2d 393 (1977)).
The claim is rested on the undisputed fact that at Gaskins' sentencing hearing, a state solicitor was allowed, over Gaskins' timely objection, to read portions of the earlier confession in which Gaskins had admitted committing seven other murders. Though in personally arguing his case to the sentencing jury Gaskins specifically conceded that, "I'm guilty of some of [the murders], yes. I do not deny that," J.A. at 593, his contention apparently now is that he was coerced into confessing to more than he later conceded to the sentencing jury.
From this, the argument runs that the sentencing jury's determination could be shown to be constitutionally unreliable if, as he claimed but was not allowed to establish by evidence, the jury thought him guilty of all the seven murders rather than the "some" lesser number that he specifically conceded. Given this possibility, Gaskins contends that the district court erred in failing to give him an evidentiary hearing to attempt to establish his claim of constitutional unreliability.
This argument fails because of the claim's facial lack of merit. Where the allegations in a habeas petition are palpably incredible, the petition properly may be dismissed without affording any evidentiary hearing. See Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 75-76, 97 S.Ct. 1621, 1629-30, 52 L.Ed.2d 136 (1977). Here the ultimate allegation, on which habeas relief depended, was that the sentencing jury's misperception of the exact number of unrelated murders that Gaskins had committed made its imposition of the death penalty constitutionally unreliable.
Under the circumstances, the district court properly could have viewed this as an allegation incredible on its face, and on that basis summarily dismissed the claim. Even assuming the truth of the predicate allegation--that the earlier confession had admitted more murders than Gaskins actually had committed--it defies belief that a jury to which he had just renewed his confession to at least an indefinite "some" of the seven earlier confessed would have acted differently (more reliably) had it been aware of the exact mathematical disparity between those actually committed and those confessed.
We might also affirm the summary dismissal of this claim on the alternative basis of a roughly parallel harmless error analysis. See Estelle v. Smith, 451 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 1866, 68 L.Ed.2d 359 (1981) (harmless error analysis appropriate in review of capital sentencing proceeding). Here the record shows that the state sentencing jury found two aggravating factors: prior murder convictions and murder for hire. It also reveals that the jury had before it, in addition to the earlier confessed murders, still another prior conviction of murder by jury verdict. Both this latter conviction and the murder-for-hire finding stand unchallenged.2
As earlier indicated, the most favorable result that could be achieved by an evidentiary hearing to challenge the sentencing jury's finding of prior murders as an aggravator would be a demonstration that the jury erroneously believed that Gaskins had committed seven confessed murders, when he had only committed "some" number less than that. When it is recalled that the jury also had before it still another unchallenged murder conviction by jury trial, it is obvious that any error in denying an evidentiary hearing with such a limited potential was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. See Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24, 87 S.Ct. 824, 828, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1967).
We next consider the district court's dismissal of Gaskins' claim that the state trial judge's demonstrated bias and lack of impartiality made his state trial fundamentally unfair and therefore violated his constitutional right to due process.
Fourteenth amendment due process requires, at a minimum, an impartial judge and jury. See Anderson v. Warden, Md. Penitentiary, 696 F.2d 296, 299 (4th Cir.1982). Gaskins makes a number of arguments supporting his contention that the state trial judge demonstrably was lacking in the requisite degree of impartiality to ensure due process. First, he points to twenty-two instances where the state trial judge allegedly improperly questioned witnesses. Second, he points to a newspaper article published after the guilt phase of Gaskins' trial, but before sentencing, in which the trial judge, in response to a reporter's question whether the judge thought Gaskins would receive the death penalty, replied, "what can you give a man who has got ten life sentences."
We are persuaded upon a careful review of the record that the judge's conduct did not deny Gaskins a constitutionally fair trial.
Of the twenty-two alleged instances where the trial judge questioned witnesses, Gaskins asserts the following as examples of the most "egregious" demonstrations of impermissible bias. These occurred during the questioning of state's witness James Brown and Gaskins' chief rebuttal witness to Brown's testimony, John Caison.
It will be recalled that Brown was the inmate who, allegedly at Gaskins' behest, actually delivered the bomb to Tyner, and who testified to that effect at trial. The allegedly prejudicial conduct occurred when the state attempted to introduce through Brown certain incriminating letters that Gaskins had given Brown. After Brown testified that Gaskins had given him the letters, but before the letters were introduced, the trial judge conducted a hearing outside the hearing of the jury to determine the letters' admissibility. When the jury returned, the trial judge, even though Brown had already testified to the source of the letters, asked Brown to "reiterate where he got the documents from for the jury." J.A. at 214.
During Brown's cross-examination, Gaskins attempted to establish that the letters were not incriminating. After sustaining an objection to a question concerning the intent of a phrase in the letter, the trial judge asked Brown directly what the letters meant to him. When Brown responded that they meant that Gaskins was trying to talk Brown into "taking the rap for it," the trial judge commented, "[t]hat's right. That's what he thought." J.A. at 269.
During the state's cross-examination of Gaskins' rebuttal witness, John Caison, Caison testified that Brown told Caison that Brown and others were plotting to get Tyner. When Caison testified that Brown did not reveal other members of the plot, the following colloquy occurred between the trial judge and Caison:
THE COURT: You didn't ask [Brown who the other members of the plot were?]
CAISON: No, he said ...
THE COURT: It's such a big event, weren't you curious?
CAISON: What he told me, he said ...
THE COURT: Tell the truth now. Did you ask him?
CAISON: I asked him what it was about.
THE COURT: Did he tell you?
CAISON: No sir, he ...
THE COURT: He wouldn't tell you?
CAISON: He told me the less that I knew the better off I was.
THE COURT: He delivered the explosives for somebody else?
CAISON: I guess so. He didn't tell me that.
THE COURT: He didn't tell you that. Tell the jury what he told you?
J.A. at 336-37.
Later, after Caison's redirect testimony concerning Brown's alleged involvement in an earlier attempt to poison Tyner, the trial judge again engaged in a colloquy with Caison:
MR. SWERLING: Who told you not to go on Death Row [the day Tyner was killed]?
CAISON: James Brown.
* * * * * *
THE COURT: Why did he tell you that?CAISON: He didn't want me to go on there to know about nothing. He wanted me to stay away from death row.
THE COURT: All right. What did he have against Rudolph Tyner? Why did he want to kill him?
CAISON: For the money.
* * * * * *
THE COURT: [Where did the money come from?]
* * * * * *
CAISON: I don't know. He didn't say.
THE COURT: And you didn't ask?
CAISON: He wouldn't have told me anyhow.
* * * * * *
THE COURT: Why didn't you ask him who paid him money?
* * * * * *
CAISON: Well, when somebody don't want to answer your question, you best leave them alone.
Gaskins argues that the trial judge's engagement with Brown and Caison reflected to the jury that Brown's theory, and not Caison's theory, was credible. This, argues Gaskins, rendered the trial fundamentally unfair, especially when coupled with the following accessory-before-the-fact jury instruction:
[Y]ou must be convinced as I told you that the Defendant here aided, counseled, or otherwise procured James Brown to commit the murder of Rudolph Tyner and that the Defendant was not present either actually or constructively.
J.A. 446. The instruction, argues Gaskins, simply incorporated the state's theory of the offense into the charge.
Although these various instances of involvement by the trial judge might, in isolation, have damaged Gaskins' ability to discredit Brown's testimony, taken in the context of the entire trial, the trial judge's involvement did not render the trial fundamentally unfair. The record evidence of Gaskins' involvement in the plot to kill Tyner, even without Brown's testimony, was overwhelming.
We therefore hold that any error in the trial court's involvement was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. See Anderson, 696 F.2d at 299. Moreover, we fail to understand how the disputed jury instruction was in any way erroneous and we are directed to no case law to that effect. On the evidence of record, this was a proper instruction concerning what the jury had to find before it could convict Gaskins of murder or accessory before the fact to murder.
Finally, respecting the trial judge's alleged statement to the newspaper, although we seriously question the propriety of such a statement if actually made, there is no evidence that the newspaper was read by any members of the sequestered jury or that by making the statement the trial judge allowed arbitrary factors to enter into the jury's deliberation. The judge himself did not of course decide the sentence to be imposed.
We therefore affirm the district court's rejection of the claim of a denial of due process by virtue of the trial judge's lack of impartiality.
We next consider related claims respecting the jury selection process.
Of ten peremptory challenges available to Gaskins, three were exercised to exclude jurors Rhyne, Richardson, and Cecil. Gaskins argues that, for various reasons, the trial court erroneously refused to excuse these jurors for cause. Of the jurors who did sit, Gaskins argues that the trial court erroneously refused to excuse juror Doster for cause.
Gaskins rightly makes no claim that requiring him to use peremptory challenges to exclude jurors Rhyne, Richardson, and Cecil violated his fourteenth amendment right to due process by arbitrarily depriving him of the full complement of peremptory challenges allowed by South Carolina law. See Ross v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 81, 108 S.Ct. 2273, 101 L.Ed.2d 80 (1988). The crux of Gaskins' claim in this regard is that he was denied his sixth amendment right to an impartial jury.
"Any claim that the jury was not impartial ... must focus ... on the jurors who actually sat" and cannot be established simply by showing the loss of a peremptory challenge. Id. at 86, 108 S.Ct. at 2277. Accordingly, we examine Gaskins' claim in light of the jurors who actually sat.
Of the jurors who actually sat, Gaskins only challenges the impartiality of juror Doster, whom Gaskins unsuccessfully challenged for cause but did not then challenge peremptorily. Doster admitted on voir dire that his "honest opinion is that [Gaskins] was found guilty, convicted of those earlier murders, [and] he should have been executed at that time." J.A. 110.
Moreover, upon questioning by the trial court, Doster stated that, if Gaskins were found guilty of Tyner's murder, and that if it were shown that Gaskins had murdered before, Doster would be predisposed to impose a death penalty. Though he concedes that Doster was capable of impartially determining guilt or innocence, Gaskins contends that Doster should have been excused for cause because Doster's ability to consider a life sentence would be substantially impaired by his belief that Gaskins should have received the death penalty for the previous murders.
While it may be true that Doster was predisposed in favor of the death penalty, we find no constitutional error in the trial court's refusal to exclude him. First, it is important to note that Gaskins elected not to use an available peremptory challenge to remove Doster. Though not dispositive, this is some indication that, at the time, the trial judge and Gaskins, both of whom had opportunity to observe Doster's demeanor, felt that Doster would act impartially. The controlling principle here is that "the most that can be demanded of a venireman ... is that he be willing to consider all of the penalties provided by state law, and that he not be irrevocably committed." Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510, 522 n. 21, 88 S.Ct. 1770, 1777 n. 21, 20 L.Ed.2d 776 (1968) (emphasis in original).
Our examination of Doster's voir dire testimony convinces us that the district judge did not err in concluding that he was not irrevocably committed. At numerous times during questioning, Doster stated that he could give a life sentence, even in the presence of aggravating circumstances. Doster stated that, though he could not with certainty say that the prior conviction would not affect his thoughts on sentencing, when it came time actually to impose the death sentence, he did not know how he would vote. Under the circumstances, we cannot say that Doster's views would "prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath." Adams v. Texas, 448 U.S. 38, 45, 100 S.Ct. 2521, 2526, 65 L.Ed.2d 581 (1980).
Accordingly, we agree with the district court that the trial court's refusal to dismiss Doster for cause did not violate Gaskins' sixth amendment right to an impartial jury.
During the course of the trial, the trial court made three evidentiary rulings which, Gaskins argues, rendered his trial fundamentally unfair. The first involved Gaskins' cross-examination of James Brown; the second involved Gaskins' direct examination of John Caison; the third involved allowing a material witness to assert the fifth amendment.
During cross-examination of Brown, Gaskins sought to discredit Brown with questions concerning Brown's attempts to blame on others the two prior murders of which he had been convicted. This evidence, argues Gaskins, constituted not only an attack on Brown's credibility, but would also have buttressed Gaskins' theory that Brown, not Gaskins, had conceived and executed Tyner's murder.
The trial court excluded this evidence based upon the general South Carolina rule that only the fact of a conviction of a crime of moral turpitude is admissible. On appeal, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that, to the extent the trial court's ruling was erroneous, such error was harmless. See Gaskins, 326 S.E.2d at 139-40. We agree.
Absent "circumstances impugning fundamental fairness or infringing specific constitutional protections," admissibility of evidence does not present a federal question. Grundler v. North Carolina, 283 F.2d 798, 802 (4th Cir.1960). Nevertheless, the defendant has a fundamental right to effective cross-examination on matters bearing on the witness' credibility. See Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308, 94 S.Ct. 1105, 39 L.Ed.2d 347 (1974). We agree with the district court that the trial judge's discretionary refusal to allow this particular line of cross-examination did not deny any federal constitutional right, if indeed it constituted an abuse of discretion under state law.
Although Gaskins was not permitted to elicit from Brown the circumstances surrounding his other convictions, Gaskins availed himself of ample opportunities to discredit Brown's testimony. For example, during cross-examination, Brown revealed that, contrary to his trial testimony, he had initially told investigators that he and Gaskins had run together to Tyner's cell after the explosion. J.A. at 225.
On further cross-examination, Brown admitted that he had revealed nothing to investigators about the speaker-cup bomb, and that when he finally did give his present version of the Tyner murder to the prosecutor, he did so from fear of being charged himself. J.A. at 232. In light of ample opportunities to impeach Brown's credibility, and in light of the overwhelming evidence of Gaskins' guilt, any abuse of the trial court's discretion on this score was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Similarly, any improper restriction on Gaskins' direct examination of John Caison was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. On direct examination, James Brown stated that he had never admitted to Caison having attempted to poison Tyner. On direct examination of Caison, Gaskins attempted to elicit testimony to the effect that Brown had admitted attempting to poison Tyner and that, on the day of the explosion, Brown had told Caison to stay away from death row. The trial court excluded these statements as inadmissible hearsay. J.A. at 298-301.
Even so, during cross-examination, Caison testified that "James Brown told me that they were plotting to get [Tyner]," and that Brown told Caison "not to be on death row on Sunday." J.A. at 336-37. The information allegedly excluded was therefore ultimately adduced during cross-examination, rendering any error by the trial court in excluding it harmless beyond reasonable doubt. See Grundler, 283 F.2d at 802.
Gaskins' final challenge to the state trial court's evidentiary rulings involves the court's refusal, after being informed that witness William Cole would assert his fifth amendment privilege against self-incrimination if forced to testify, to require Cole to take the stand and assert the privilege in open court. Out of the jury's hearing, the trial court determined that the crux of Cole's testimony would be that, after the explosion, Gaskins went, not to his cell as Brown had testified, but down to the site of the explosion. See Gaskins, 326 S.E.2d at 140.
A criminal defendant's right to compel testimony is fundamental to sixth and fourteenth amendment due process rights. See United States v. Goodwin, 625 F.2d 693, 703-04 (5th Cir.1980). When a witness indicates that he will assert the fifth amendment privilege, the trial judge must make a proper and particularized inquiry into the legitimacy and scope of the witness' assertion of the privilege. See id. at 701. A witness may be totally excused only if the court finds that he could legitimately refuse to answer any and all relevant questions. See id.
On this point we agree with the South Carolina Supreme Court that the trial court's refusal to require Cole to assert his fifth amendment privilege before the jury was in any event harmless error. First off, as the South Carolina Supreme Court concluded, Cole's testimony would have been merely cumulative. See Gaskins, 326 S.E.2d at 140. Moreover, the fact that Gaskins did not elect to offer Cole's expected testimony in the state post-conviction proceeding strongly suggests his own estimate of its slight probative value. Any error in refusing to require Cole to take the stand was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Gaskins' next claim involves alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
During the state's closing argument at the guilt phase of Gaskins' trial, the solicitor stated that he wished to talk to the jury "about what is not in dispute in this case." J.A. at 367. The solicitor then proceeded to list fourteen so-called "undisputed" pieces of evidence, eight of which, Gaskins argues, only Gaskins could have disputed. Additionally, during the sentencing phase of Gaskins' trial, the prosecutor stated that "Mr. Gaskins has shown no remorse. No emotion. He has shown you nothing." J.A. at 577. Gaskins did not object to these statements at trial, but argued on both direct appeal and collateral review that these statements constituted violations of Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610, 96 S.Ct. 2240, 49 L.Ed.2d 91 (1976) (improper comment on defendant's failure to testify).
In assessing an alleged Doyle violation, the question is whether the disputed statement so infected the trial and sentencing with unfairness that the ultimate conviction and sentence constituted a denial of due process. See Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168, 106 S.Ct. 2464, 91 L.Ed.2d 144 (1986). The eight "undisputed" pieces of evidence are: (1) tapes of Gaskins' conversations with Jack Martin (the intermediary through whom Cimo contacted Gaskins in prison); (2) identities of the voices on the Martin-Gaskins tapes; (3) the dates when the conversations occurred; (4) the exhibit showing when Cimo and Gaskins conversed; (5) Gaskins' voice on a statement given to an investigator; (6) two inculpatory letters written from Gaskins to Brown; (7) a letter written from Gaskins to Lee exculpating Lee; and (8) that electronic equipment, a soldering iron, speakers, and radios were found in Gaskins' cell.
As the magistrate's recommendation, adopted by the district court, correctly notes, Gaskins presumably could have sought the testimony of voice and handwriting analysts to contradict items 1-7, and any number of inmates could have testified to the items Gaskins kept in his cell before Tyner's murder. We agree with the district court that, under these circumstances, the prosecutor's "laundry list" argument did not constitute a Doyle violation.
Likewise, the state's argument during sentencing to the effect that Gaskins has shown no remorse must be viewed in context. The solicitor stated that:
Mr. Gaskins has announced to the Court that he is going to make a speech to you as well. I want Mr. Gaskins when he comes up to tell you what in his character caused him to murder each of these people, what caused him to murder Dennis Bellamy? What caused him to shoot this 15 year old, Johnny Knight, in the back of the head?
* * * * * *
Mr. Gaskins has shown no remorse. No emotion. He has shown you nothing.
* * * * * *
Mr. [Gaskins] is going to speak to you at this time ... and I ask you to listen to [him] as you listened to me.
J.A. 576-77. Under no reasonable view can the solicitor's statement be construed to constitute an improper comment on Gaskins' refusal to testify at the guilt phase of his trial.
Gaskins asserts the following two errors in the trial court's guilt-phase jury instructions: (1) the trial court's charge regarding presumed malice constituted an impermissible burden-shifting instruction; and (2) the trial court's reasonable doubt instruction impermissibly lessened the state's burden of proof.
As part of the jury charge, the trial court instructed the jury that "while malice is presumed from the use of a deadly weapon or from a dangerous instrument ... where circumstances relating and surrounding the incident are brought out, then the presumption vanishes and malice again must be proven to you beyond a reasonable doubt." J.A. at 442.
On direct appeal, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that, although the instruction constituted impermissible burden-shifting, the constitutional error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. See Gaskins, 326 S.E.2d at 143. Both the magistrate and the district court agreed with the state supreme court. J.A. 1186; 1326-27. We also agree.
Even where an instruction constitutes impermissible burden-shifting, any error in giving it may be found harmless if the reviewing court can say beyond reasonable doubt that the jury would have found it unnecessary to rely on the burden-shifting presumption in order to convict. See Rose v. Clark, 478 U.S. 570, 583, 106 S.Ct. 3101, 3109, 92 L.Ed.2d 460 (1986).
Here, the jury necessarily found by its guilty verdict that Gaskins had murdered Tyner with a bomb Gaskins had built from electronic components in his cell and a piece of dynamite he received in the mail, so it is difficult to see how the jury could not have concluded, even without the presumption, that the killing was done "with malice." Aside from the raw circumstances of the killing, transcripts of conversations between Gaskins and Jack Martin (the intermediary who procured Tyner's murder) constitute further overwhelming evidence of malice.3 We therefore can say " 'beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury would have found it unnecessary to rely on the presumption.' " Id.
Gaskins next asserts that the trial court's definition of reasonable doubt for the jury as "a doubt for which you can give a reason[,] [i]t is a substantial doubt," J.A. at 439, relieved the prosecution of proving every element of the crime beyond reasonable doubt as required by In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 1072, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1970).
An instruction equating reasonable doubt with " 'a substantial doubt, a real doubt' ... although perhaps not in itself reversible error, often has been criticized as confusing." Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 488, 98 S.Ct. 1930, 1936, 56 L.Ed.2d 468 (1978). At some point, a reasonable doubt definition may be so incomprehensible or potentially prejudicial that it requires reversal. See United States v. Moss, 756 F.2d 329, 333 (4th Cir.1985). Nevertheless, the question in a collateral proceeding such as this is "whether the ailing instruction by itself so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process, not merely whether 'the instruction is undesirable, erroneous or even universally condemned.' " Smith v. Bordenkircher, 718 F.2d 1273, 1276 (4th Cir.1983) (quoting Henderson v. Kibbe, 431 U.S. 145, 154, 97 S.Ct. 1730, 1736, 52 L.Ed.2d 203 (1977) (citations omitted)).
Viewed in the context of the entire record of trial, the substantial-doubt portion of the instruction did not rise to the level of a due process violation. First, the trial court employed the instruction to set in contrast "some imaginary doubt or some slight doubt or some fanciful doubt that you might have." J.A. at 439. The trial judge's use of the term substantial doubt was, in context of the entire instruction, more accurate than when viewed in artificial isolation, and was not "likely to 'mislead the jury into finding no reasonable doubt when in fact there was some.' " Smith v. Bordenkircher, 718 F.2d at 1277.
Moreover, the trial court flatly instructed the jury that "the proof offered by the state must exclude every other reasonable hypothesis except the guilt of the accused and must satisfy you beyond a reasonable doubt." J.A. at 444. This instruction further neutralized any negative effects of the substantial-doubt instruction. See Bordenkircher, 718 F.2d at 1277.
We are not prepared to say that this instruction, even in combination with the substantial doubt instruction, "so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process." Id. at 1276.
Gaskins argues that allowing evidence that a prior death sentence of Gaskins had been vacated could have led the jury to believe that any death penalty it imposed was advisory only, thereby diminishing the jurors' sense of responsibility for death-penalty imposition in violation of Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 105 S.Ct. 2633, 86 L.Ed.2d 231 (1985) (eighth amendment violation to tell jury that Mississippi Supreme Court would review any death sentence).4
"[I]t is constitutionally impermissible to rest a death sentence on a determination made by a sentencer who has been led to believe that the responsibility for determining the appropriateness of the defendant's death rests elsewhere." Caldwell, 472 U.S. at 328-29, 105 S.Ct. at 2639-40. Nevertheless, "if the challenged instructions accurately described the role of the jury under state law, there is no basis for a Caldwell claim. To establish a Caldwell violation, a defendant necessarily must show that the remarks to the jury improperly described the role assigned to the jury by local law." Dugger v. Adams, 489 U.S. 401, 109 S.Ct. 1211, 1215, 103 L.Ed.2d 435 (1989).
The asserted Caldwell violation occurred when, during the penalty phase of the trial, the state introduced evidence of Gaskins' previously vacated murder conviction.5 And it is argued that this Caldwell violation was aggravated by the trial court's use over 40 times of words to the effect that "you will recommend that the court sentence the defendant to life imprisonment [or] death." J.A. 610 (emphasis added).
Even taken together, we conclude that this evidence and the judge's statement "had no effect on the sentencing decision." Caldwell, 472 U.S. at 341, 105 S.Ct. at 2646. First, Gaskins points to no references by the state or the trial judge concerning death-sentence review. We do not believe that evidence concerning a prior vacated death sentence "improperly described the role assigned to the jury by local law." Dugger, 109 S.Ct. at 1215. The most that a reasonable jury could have made of this evidence was that the statute under which the jury was to sentence Gaskins might conceivably be invalidated as unconstitutional at some future date. Nowhere was there any suggestion that such invalidation was imminent or even contemplated.
Similarly, even taken together with the prior-death-sentence evidence, it is difficult to see how, in context, the trial judge's use of the word "recommend" could have had an effect on the sentencing decision. In an exhaustive analysis, the facts of which are not disputed here, the magistrate noted that during voir dire, the trial judge, the solicitor and Gaskins' attorney repeatedly told each juror that the jury could sentence to death or life imprisonment, that the jury had to make the decision, and that "the jury will be asked to decide his punishment, either life imprisonment or death by electrocution."
Moreover, in each case Gaskins cites finding a Caldwell violation, the suggestion to the jury that its decision was merely advisory was explicit and obvious. Nowhere in this case did anyone even imply that the jury's recommendation was non-binding. Though, in retrospect, we believe a wiser course would have been for the trial judge to explicitly instruct the jury that the word "recommendation" meant "binding recommendation," under the circumstances, we are satisfied that the jury was properly aware of its sentencing responsibilities.
Gaskins also contends that, even if there was no Caldwell violation, allowing testimony concerning the prior-vacated death sentence introduced arbitrary factors in the sentencing decision in violation of Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 107 S.Ct. 2529, 96 L.Ed.2d 440 (1987). Gaskins argues that this testimony implied that, regardless of whether Gaskins should be sentenced to death for Tyner's murder, the jury could properly reimpose the earlier death penalty which was, after all, only vacated because of a legal technicality.
Although we agree that evidence of a prior-vacated death penalty is of limited, if any, relevance to the jury's decision whether to impose the death penalty, it is simply not a consideration so "constitutionally impermissible or totally irrelevant to the sentencing process," Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 885, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 2747, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983), as to rise to the level of a violation of Booth.
Gaskins' final assignments of error concern the trial judge's instructions to the sentencing jury to the following effect: (1) that the jury could not allow itself to be governed by sympathy; (2) that mitigating circumstances must be found beyond a reasonable doubt; (3) that the decision to impose a life sentence must be unanimous.
At the sentencing hearing, the trial court instructed the jury not to allow itself to be governed by sympathy:
You cannot allow yourselves to be governed by sympathy, by prejudice, or by passion or by public opinion. Both the state and the defendant have the right to expect that each of you will carefully and impartially consider all of the evidence in this case....
J.A. at 619. Gaskins argues that this instruction, coupled with the prosecutor's statements to the effect that Gaskins was asking for, but deserved, no mercy, constituted an eighth amendment violation because it effectively precluded the jury from considering relevant mitigating evidence offered by Gaskins, namely his individualized appeal for compassion, understanding and mercy. See, e.g., Caldwell, 472 U.S. at 330-31, 105 S.Ct. at 2640-41; Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 199, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 2937, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (1976).
Our consideration of this issue is foreclosed by the Supreme Court's recent decision in Saffle v. Parks, --- U.S. ----, 110 S.Ct. 1257, 108 L.Ed.2d 415 (1990). Parks, considering the eighth amendment ramifications of a sympathy instruction in all material respects identical to the charge given in Gaskins' case,6 held that to uphold such a claim would be to adopt a "new rule" under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 (1989), that did not fall within Teague 's two exceptions. Accordingly, the proposed rule could not be announced or applied in a habeas case on collateral review. Parks, 110 S.Ct. at 1263-64. Parks dictates a similar rejection of Gaskins' claim here.
Gaskins next asserts that the following charge, because it used the term "reasonable doubt" so close to the term "mitigating circumstance," impermissibly suggested to the sentencing jury that mitigating circumstances must be found beyond reasonable doubt in contravention of the eighth amendment:
Before you can recommend the imposition of a life sentence, it is not necessary and I repeat, it is not necessary for you to find beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of any alleged statutory mitigating circumstances or any other mitigating circumstance.
While it is necessary for you to find beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of at least one alleged statutory aggravating circumstance before you can recommend that the defendant be sentenced to death, it is not--it is not required that you find beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of at least one alleged statutory mitigating circumstance in order to recommend that the defendant be given a life sentence. As a matter of fact, you may recommend that the defendant receive a life sentence irrespective of whether you find the existence in the evidence of an alleged statutory mitigating circumstance or not; but where you consider an alleged statutory mitigating circumstance, it is proper for you to consider only a statutory mitigating circumstance that is supported by the evidence.
J.A. 614-15 (emphasis added). We disagree. Gaskins' strained interpretation of the trial court's jury instruction is simply not supported by its language, and does not warrant finding an eighth amendment violation.
Similarly, the trial court's statement to the effect that "you have to find at least one or more aggravating circumstances or else you will have to recommend a death sentence [presumably the trial court meant to say life imprisonment instead of death sentence]," could not, in the context of the entire charge, have confused a reasonable juror. As the South Carolina Supreme Court stated, the trial court instructions made patently clear that: (1) a death penalty could not be imposed without aggravating circumstances; (2) if statutory or non-statutory mitigating circumstances were found, a life sentence would be appropriate; (3) the jury had, in any case, full discretion not to impose the death sentence, even though aggravating circumstances and no mitigating circumstances were found. See Gaskins, 326 S.E.2d at 146.
Gaskins' final asserted error in the jury charge concerned the trial court's erroneous instruction to the effect that the decision to impose a life sentence must be unanimous. Gaskins contends that this incorrect instruction effectively communicated to the jury that if all members of the jury did not agree on Gaskins' sentence, then a mistrial would ensue. Thus, the erroneous instruction constituted an arbitrary factor into the sentencing, rendering the unanimous death sentence unreliable. See, e.g., Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349, 97 S.Ct. 1197, 51 L.Ed.2d 393 (1977).
We disagree. Although the trial court inadvertently misstated South Carolina law, it is inconceivable that the disputed instruction could have caused the jurors unanimously to impose a death sentence out of fear of mistrial should they not be unanimous in their decision to impose life imprisonment. We are satisfied that this improper instruction, viewed in context of the entire jury charge, could have had no effect on the sentencing decision. See Caldwell, 472 U.S. at 341, 105 S.Ct. at 2646.
For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the district court's dismissal of Gaskins' habeas corpus petition.
Cf. United States v. Jones, 907 F.2d 456, 460-69 (4th Cir.1990), and id. at 470-84 (dissenting opinion) (conflicting views on constitutional power of federal sentencing court to entertain collateral challenge to validity of prior state court conviction invoked for sentence enhancement purposes)
The parties do not raise and we therefore do not address the possible bearing on this point of Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983) (where capital sentencing jurors have found two aggravators, invalidation of one on review does not require vacating death sentence), and Smith v. Procunier, 769 F.2d 170 (4th Cir.1985), aff'd on other grounds, 477 U.S. 527, 106 S.Ct. 2661, 91 L.Ed.2d 434 (1986) (constitutional invalidity of one finding of aggravating factor does not require vacating death penalty where another aggravator is unchallenged)
Some examples of conversations appear in the record:
When he plugs that son of a bitch up, it'll blow him on into hell.... Dam [sic] if I can't fix him up.
Get me enough to do that damn job and listen for the bang.
That's enough [drug] to bust his heart.
The next night after I get [the poison] ... that son of a bitch'll be laid out.
That's a hell of a hard nigger to get rid of.
Because this claim is closely related to Gaskins' claim that the trial judge's sentencing-phase instructions exacerbated the Caldwell violation, both will be dealt with in this section of the opinion
The sentence was vacated when the South Carolina Supreme Court declared South Carolina's death penalty statute unconstitutional
The challenged instruction in Parks stated that:
You must avoid any influence of sympathy, sentiment, passion, prejudice, or other arbitrary factor when imposing sentence. You should discharge your duty as jurors impartially, conscientiously and faithfully under your oaths and return such verdict as the evidence warrants when measured by these Instructions.
Parks v. Brown, 860 F.2d 1545, 1552 n. 8 (10th Cir.1988), reversed, --- U.S. ----, 110 S.Ct. 1257, 108 L.Ed.2d 415 (1990).
943 F.2d 49
Donald Henry Gaskins, Petitioner-appellant,
Parker D. Evatt, Commissioner, South Carolina Department Of Corrections, T. Travis Medlock, Attorney General, Respondents-appellees
United States Court of Appeals,
Submitted Sept. 5, 1991.
Decided Sept. 5, 1991
Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Greenville. G. Ross Anderson, Jr., District Judge. (CA-91-2628-3-H)
Before PHILLIPS and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges, and CHAPMAN, Senior Circuit Judge.
With but a few hours remaining until the scheduled execution of petitioner Donald Henry Gaskins, he has filed a voluminous petition for a writ of habeas corpus in which he attacks his conviction and sentence for capital murder rendered after a jury trial in the Richland County Court of General Sessions sitting in Columbia, South Carolina. Petitioner also seeks an evidentiary hearing on his petition for the great writ and a stay of his execution, which is set for 1:00 a.m. September 6, 1991.
Gaskins was convicted of murdering one Rudolph Tyner, who, at the time of his death, was an inmate of the South Carolina Central Correctional Institution in Columbia, South Carolina. Tyner had previously been convicted of the capital murders of Mr. and Mrs. Warren Moon and sentenced to be executed. Gaskins was a fellow inmate of Tyner and was convicted of murdering Tyner for hire. At the time he murdered Tyner, Gaskins was serving nine life sentences for previous murders he had committed.
The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence on direct appeal. See State v. Gaskins, 326 S.E.2d 132 (1985), cert. denied, 471 U.S. 1120 (1985). Post-conviction relief was unsuccessful. See Gaskins v. State, No. 85-CP-40-3466, Letter Order (S.C. Jan. 7, 1987), cert. denied, 482 U.S. 909 (1987). His most recent petition for a writ of habeas corpus was denied by the South Carolina Supreme Court in the late afternoon of September 4, 1991.
Gaskins has previously sought habeas corpus relief in our court but his petition was denied. See Gaskins v. McKellar, 916 F.2d 941 (1990), cert. denied, 111 S.Ct. 2277 (1991).
The district court has denied his latest petition in an exhaustive opinion which has thoroughly discussed the three issues he has raised.
At 6:00 p.m. he seeks a stay of execution pending full briefing and consideration of his appeal.
In his new petition, Gaskins presents three grounds: (1) that the trial judge refused to admit into evidence, during the sentencing phase of his trial, the confession of Tyner to the murders of Mr. and Mrs. Moon and thereby denied him the right under Payne v. Tennessee, --- U.S. ----, 111 S.Ct. 1597 (1991) to present evidence about the character of his murder victim; (2) that evidence was admitted during the sentencing phase of his trial as to his racist views and affiliations as aggravating evidence to justify the imposition of the death penalty; and (3) that his sentence was based upon invalid prior convictions of murder.
There is no merit to these claims. While we feel that petitioner reads Payne too broadly, even so, the evidence as to Tyner's character was fully presented to the sentencing jury, and a copy of Tyner's confession would have added nothing about his character of which the jury was not already aware. The jury had been made repeatedly aware that Tyner had murdered Mr. and Mrs. Moon in cold blood to prevent them from being witnesses to his armed robbery of them and their convenience store. Gaskins' jury was also aware that Tyner was awaiting execution for his crimes.
The second ground, that it was error to admit evidence as to his racist views and affiliations, is now barred. This claim was presented in his first petition to the United States District Court filed August 11, 1987. The claim was denied by the district court, and the claim was abandoned by petitioner when he failed to appeal this issue to the U.S. Court of Appeals. The claim is also barred because it is successive, having been raised in his original petition of August 1987. See Rule 9(b), Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases in the United States District Courts.
In his third ground petitioner seeks at this late hour to attack the validity of his prior murder convictions. This is clearly an abuse of the writ. Petitioner and his attorneys have known since his trial that his prior murder convictions, together with his murder of Tyner for hire, were used as aggravating circumstances under Section 16-320(C(a) Code of Laws of South Carolina, 1976 to support the jury's recommendation of a death sentence. Petitioner has made no showing that he did not have knowledge of the circumstances applicable to his prior murder convictions prior to his most recent petition, nor has he shown why this claim was not asserted at an earlier time. The issue of Gaskins' prior murder convictions was also covered in our prior decision, and the present claims add nothing new.
The petition to stay execution does not present substantial grounds upon which relief might be granted. The issues have been previously considered and decided. The present petition for the writ is lacking in merit as we have explained above, therefore the motion to stay execution is denied. The mandate shall issue forthwith.