Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler


Nelson's trial was about as close to an open-and-shut case as one can prosecute, so despite the carnival-like nature of the proceedings, it offered very little in the way of drama. It was a media event like Manitoba had never seen, and the courtroom was packed with observers each day. The prosecutor's witnesses were solid in their identification of Nelson and the stories of the families of the victims were so heart-wrenching that it became hard for some observers to believe the mild-mannered, pleasant young man seated in the dock was the same man who could kill and then sexually assault the corpse of an elderly woman.

Nonetheless, the evidence showed it was Nelson who could be linked to each crime and his defense attorneys could do little to rebut the damning testimony. Their only hope lay in an acquittal due to insanity.

The defense used Nelson's family to show his bizarre behavior was insane. Mary testified to the bizarre way Earle would leave in one set of clothes and then return in something completely different and wildly inappropriate for the setting. She recounted how he had seen visions while in the Napa Hospital and how he drenched his food in olive oil. She told of his jealousy and the time he tried to give $2 for a down payment on a house. But she wasn't an expert, and her testimony came across as that of a woman trying to save her husband — which, of course, it was.

Next came Aunt Lillian who told of her fear of Earle and of his strange wanderlust. He was more of a child than a lunatic, she said, but he was prone to horrible fits of anger and then depression followed by manic behavior. Again, Lillian appeared to be someone trying to save a loved one from the gallows.

After the unshakeable testimony of the prosecution's sole rebuttal witness, a psychiatrist who found Nelson to be a "constitutional psychopath," but legally sane, the prosecutor and defense summed up their cases and the fate of Earle Nelson, the Dark Strangler, was in the hands of the jury.

It was a foregone conclusion that the jury would find him guilty and that the judge would sentence Earle Nelson to hang, and the jury did not disappoint. After less than an hour of deliberation, they returned the guilty verdict and Judge Andrew Dysart pronounced the death sentence. Nelson stood and stared blankly as he was condemned, as if he didn't understand or even care what the judge had just said.

As the sixty days from the date of his conviction to the date of his execution passed, Nelson became increasingly adamant about his innocence. He appealed his sentence and granted interviews to journalists to try and win sympathy. The high court of Manitoba disagreed and ordered the execution to go forward post-haste.

On the day before his execution, Nelson met with family members of two of his victims, including Lola Cowan's mother, but refused to yield in his claim of innocence. Finally, the time came for his hanging and he went peacefully, still proclaiming that he was innocent. He told reporters he had made his peace with God. He then stepped up to the gallows, stood straight as a hood was placed over his head and the rope affixed around his neck. The warden gave the signal and the executioner pulled the lever dropping the floor away beneath Nelson's feet.

There is a misconception about hanging that an executed convict dies immediately because of a cervical dislocation — the person's neck is broken, and their spinal chord is separated from the brain stem. That is incorrect. According to the Delaware Hanging Protocol, the "how-to" manual on execution by hanging, the method of death is strangulation, which is not immediate. What can (and should) happen in a proper hanging is that the cervical dislocation creates immediate unconsciousness, and death follows in a matter of minutes due to a lack of oxygen to the brain caused by the rope blocking the windpipe.

Executing a man by hanging is a complex process, and many things can go wrong making the event a gruesome occurrence for everyone involved. For example, care must be taken to ensure that the rope is not too long. If that happens, the "executee" (the official term in the {Delaware Protocol}), will drop through the trapdoor and not have the merciful cervical dislocation, but will instead have his head torn from his body by the force of the drop. The method of execution therefore becomes something akin to drawing and quartering, which is cruel or unusual and banned by the U.S. Constitution (of course, Nelson was executed in Canada, which at the time had a similar ban.)

If the rope is too short, the drop height will be insufficient to create sufficient force (1,260 foot-pounds) to separate the executee's spinal column and brain. In that case, the man just hangs there and slowly suffocates. Unconsciousness takes between two and four minutes. His gasping and retching can be heard by witnesses. Again, this method is considered cruel and unusual.

Suffice to say that Earle Nelson's executioners did their homework and the Gorilla Killer died as merciful a death as is possible for a hanged man. It is more than just a curious coincidence that his cause of death was officially strangulation — the Dark Strangler's preferred method of dispatching his victims.

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