Felony murders are murders committed during the course of a felony. Because felony murders are more often stranger-based and interracial than other murders, they are often viewed by the law and the public as more serious than other murders. One measure of this is the frequency with which felony murders are defined and prosecuted as capital murders and the higher rate at which death sentenced felony murderers are executed. These patterns are particularly pronounced when defendants are Black and victims are white.
In Allegheny County history, the vast majority of capital felony murders have been robbery murders. The remainder are rape murders. No other type of felony murder has led to a death sentence.
Fifty-seven defendants have been sentenced to death for robbery-murder in forty-three incidents, including three cases in which three defendants were sentenced to death for a single robbery-murder and eight cases in which two defendants were sentenced to death for a single robbery-murder.
Thirty-seven of those fifty-seven robbery murderers were executed. Fourteen had their convictions overturned. Three escaped. Two died on death row and one remains on death row.
These cases can be roughly divided into two types, chronologically and racially. Across the nineteenth century, capital robbery murders overwhelmingly occurred among white people who knew one another, the archetypical case involving the robbery murder of a business partner or newly-arrived immigrant.
The first seven capital robbery murders in Allegheny County were of this type. Included are John Tiernan’s murder of his business partner, Patrick Campbell, in 1817; Dunn’s murder of Anderson in 1844; the murders of her aunt and uncle by Charlotte Jones and her partner, Henry Fife (though not the wrongly convicted Monroe Stewart), in 1857; the string of German-immigrant cases that began with the murder of Foerster by Frecke and Marschall in 1865 and also included the highway robberies of Wahl by Myers and Murray in 1874, Schafer by Linkner in 1876, and Gotfreund by Weinberger in 1882. All but Dunn and Linkner were executed.
By the end of the nineteenth century, capital felony murders were changing. With the proliferation of retail business, store robberies became much more common. With changing patterns of migration and immigration and the racism that sharpened the legal and political reactions to these changes, interracial cases also became much more common.
The McConkey (1883), Killen (1891), Biddle (1901), Patterson and Cutlip (1917), Barcons and Kemanos (1917), Ferko (1918), Dombek (1919), Johnston (1922), Carelli (1923), Dorst (1924), Steele (1924), Jaworski (1925) Vasbinder (1926), O’Shea (1985), and Stollar (2003) cases involved white defendants and white victims, mostly in store robberies. Seven of these defendants were executed. The Biddles, of course, and Vasbinder, escaped death row, Kemanos died on death row, and Stollar remains on death row. The remainder had their death sentences commuted, with both Killen and Carelli found to have been wrongly convicted.
More common were cases involving Black defendants and white victims. Included are the cases of Huddle (1897), Hill (1898); Ousley and Johnson (1904); Jackson, Miles, and Obey (1905); Brown (1917); Green (1918); Dunmore and Rowland (1918); Russell (1918); Thomas (1922); Newman (1923); Savage (1924); Sled and Avery (1929); Williams and Peterson (1930); Jones (1940); and Wilson (1941). Only Huddle was spared execution. Caldwell (1985), Santiago (1985), and Bolden (1994) were sentenced to death for interracial felony murders long after Allegheny County’s last execution. Their death sentences were overturned and they were resentenced to life imprisonment.
Consistent with the thesis that these cases represented a type of legalized racial vengeance, particularly notable are the number of cases that resulted in an execution, the number of cases in which multiple defendants were executed for killing a single victim, the way these cases cluster around periods of increased Black migration and associated racial threat, and the number of cases in which the executed defendant (Thomas, Savage, and Wilson) may have been innocent.
Cases involving Black defendants and Black victims were rarely prosecuted as capital murders, and not until 1944. McKeithen (1944) and Thompson (1949), both of whom were executed, are the only such cases.
Seven defendants have been sentenced to death for rape murder. Two of the those defendants were executed. Three had their sentences overturned. One died on death row and one remains on death row. Four of the cases – Exler (1912), Winter (1925), Graves (1979), and Fears (1994) – involved child victims. Of the others – Cole (1954), McCullum (1988), Wesley (1994) – the latter two involved Black defendants and white victims. Winter and Cole were executed.