Only one woman has ever been executed for murder in the state of Louisiana. That women was Toni Jo Henry, and this is her story.
Jaime King - Wikimedia
Her family called her Annie B. As a child, she suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of her stepmother who allowed men to use her daughter. Annie B. ran away when she was 12 years old and lived with her Aunt Emma in Shreveport for a while. As a young adult, the only way she could make a living was as a member of a brothel. She was a beautiful girl and soon caught the eye of a customer known as Cowboy who was a professional boxer.
It was Cowboy Henry (Jason Lewis) who realized that Annie B. who took the name of Toni Jo (Jaime King) was a drug addict. He loved her so much that he forced her to undergo treatment by himself to rid her of the habit. He succeeded, and she never relapsed into the habit again. Then Cowboy asked her to marry him. They went on the road to Texas on a boxing tour. He admitted to that he had gotten into trouble once in Texas and was leery of going back. They went anyway. Cowboy introduced his girlfriend to his one-time partner Arkie Burkes (John Hawkes) who had a criminal past himself. They had both worked with Bonnie and Clyde.
Jason Lewis - Wikimedia
Cowboy is Sent to Jail
Cowboy was recognized by the police in Texas and was sent to prison for fifty years for killing a policeman. Toni Jo’s one ambition was to help Cowboy to break out of prison. Arkie suggested that they would make good partners to rob a bank. They just needed a gun and a car to have that happen.
The two hitched a ride on the highway with a man whose name was J. P. Calloway, a car dealer from Houston. He was delivering a brand new car to a man in Jennings in Louisiana. At this point, their stories differed. Toni Jo claimed that Arkie Burkes killed Calloway and dumped his body in a haystack, and Arkie claimed that she had pulled the trigger. Toni Jo referred to Arkie as the little yellow rat.
They were given separate trials. Two lawyers were assigned to the defendant's case; they were young tax lawyers who had never tried a murder case before. Their names were Clement Moss and Norman Anderson. The judge overruled several of their objections and was obviously not sympathetic to their cause. The prosecutors were seeking the death penalty.
John Hawkes - Wikimedia
Toni Jo’s Trial
At the trial, Aunt Emma told the jury about the sad childhood that her niece had undergone. Aunt Emma related that her niece had told her “I shot a man in the heart.” Emma’s brother, Police Chief George McQuiston, came to pick up his niece. When Toni Jo was remanded to jail, her jailer, Gibbs (M. C. Gainey) was kind to her and they became good friends.
Toni Jo testified that Arkie Burkes had the only loaded gun. She said that the bank in Arkansas that they had planned to rob was no longer there. They then split up. The court testimony that is used in the film is exactly as it was given in the actual court hearings. The defense claimed that only circumstantial evidence linked their client to the murder of J. P. Calloway. The judge, in his recommendations to the jury, stated that when two conspirators are charged with murder, even the one who did not pull the trigger was guilty of murder. The defendant was charged with murder. Her lawyers gained an appeal for her while she remained in jail.
A Visit from Father Richard
Her jailer friend, Gibbs, asked his parish priest, Father Richard (T. J. Thyne) to visit his friend in jail. After six months in jail, she was still waiting for her second trial. A newspaper reporter wrote that the prisoner would love to have a sewing machine to while away the hours and to make herself some new clothes. Soon, a sewing machine arrived at the jailhouse, along with letters with money for material for her clothes. Her cell and the cell next to hers was slowly being furnished with easy chairs and lamps, along with the sewing machine. Father Richard even brought her a puppy to keep her company. He talked to her about how God loved her and tried to break down her resistance to that love.
It was then, on December 7, 1941, that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the country was at war.
Arkie Burkes was sentenced to death for the murder of J. P. Calloway. He then testified at Toni Jo’s trial, and according to Toni Jo, Arkie Burkes lied about what happened. Toni Jo’s appeal was denied by the court. In reality, there were two appeals for Toni Jo, but the film condensed the tale to one appeal.
M. C. Gainey - Wikimedia
Toni Jo asks to be Baptized
Father Richard read to Toni Jo the Bible story about the women caught in adultery. She asked him what Jesus had written on the ground. Father Richard said “No one knows,” but that Jesus was willing to die for our offenses. Surprisingly, Toni Jo asked him to baptize her. They needed to leave the jail for about an hour to go to Father Richard’s church so that Toni Jo could receive the sacrament. Father Richard also arranged for Toni Jo to make one last phone call to Cowboy from the jail.
Toni Jo cried when the guards came to tell her she had to have her hair cut off for her execution. Father Richard was the only one there to comfort her, and he promised to never leave her side. She had to say goodbye to Gibbs and to her little dog. Her two young lawyers were at her execution. They had worked so hard for her.
As she was sitting in the electric chair, Toni Jo said to Father Richard “Father, I know what Jesus was writing in the sand. He was writing my name, Annie Beatrice McQuiston, with all the rest.” “Yes, Toni Jo, and he wrote ‘Pardoned’ after each name.” This all happened on November 28, 1942.
I loved this story and am convinced it could not have happened in 2015. Toni Jo would not have been proven guilty today. Yes, there is still a death penalty in 31 states, but this will change soon, I am sure. I am happy that Toni Jo’s story has been told to the public. She is a person of character and beauty.