Movies & TV

Mindhunter Spotlighted the Serial Killer William Henry Hance. But There's a Lot More to the Story.

His case sparked debate about the death penalty and went right up to the Supreme Court.
IMAGE NETFLIX
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The second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter delves into some of the most notorious crimes of the 1960s and ‘70s. But the show also examines less well-remembered cases. One such story featured in the new season is that of William Henry Hance, who was convicted of the 1978 murder of a Georgia woman and linked to two more killings. And while the show doesn’t devote a lot of time to Hance and his crimes, his was a fascinating story—one that went right up to the Supreme Court.

In the show, Hance, played by Corey Allen, is interviewed in prison by Agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Jim Barney (Albert Jones). His case attracted Ford's attention because though Hance was black, one of the three women he killed was white. (Serial killers, like all murderers, usually prey on members of their own race.) The investigators' efforts to gain insight into Hance’s mind and motivations are less than fruitful as he proves an unhelpful interviewee, and Ford and Barney move onto other cases.

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It seems Mindhunter gave a largely accurate account of the crimes. During his time as a solder stationed at Fort Benning, Hance murdered at least three women and wrote letters to authorities in a misguided attempt to cover his tracks. Case files from the Georgia Supreme Court offer an account of the killing for which Hance was convicted:

On or about February 28, 1978, [Hance], a soldier stationed at Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia, went to the Sand Hill Bar located near the base for a drink. While in the bar, he was solicited by the victim, a prostitute named Gail Faison, also known as Gail Jackson or Gail Bogen. The appellant agreed to a price of $20.00 and they got into his car. He drove 200 yards up the road to an area she selected and stopped. He began to undress when the appellant for no other reason than the victim was a prostitute, became enraged.

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Hance beat Faison to death and buried her in a shallow a shallow grave. He later confessed to killing Faison, sex worker Irene Thirkield, and soldier Karen Hickman.

Former FBI profiler Robert Ressler, who served as the inspiration for Mindhunter's Bill Tench, wrote about Hance’s case in his book Whoever Fights Monsters. In his letters to authorities, Hance took credit for the crimes but purported to be a group of white killers called "The Forces of Evil," and at one point demanded a ransom for his already-murdered victim. And, as in the show, the real-life Hance wrote the letters on his base’s official stationery. "The letter cautioned the authorities not to make too much of the fact that the letter was written on military stationery," wrote Ressler, "anyone could get hold of that, the writer suggested."

Former FBI agent Robert Ressler featured Hance’s case in his
1992 book Whoever Fights Monsters, which was co-written with
Tom Schactman. Like the fictional Agent Tench he inspired,
Ressler served as a criminal profiler.

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Photo by Paul Harris.

As the show implied, Hance may have suffered from a limited intellectual capacity. One test found that he had an IQ of 76, though a second test found his IQ to be 91. The former score would be near the borderline of intellectual disability, though the latter is in the normal range.

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New York Times columnist Bob Herbert covered Hance’s case extensively, and reported that, despite the fact that a psychologist found the killer incapable of aiding his own defense "in an appropriate, rational way," Hance was allowed to serve as his own co-counsel during his trial. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to death.

Georgia requires a unanimous vote from jurors to secure a death sentence. But before Hance’s scheduled execution, the lone black member of his otherwise all-white jury came forward, saying that she had never voted for his death. She alleged that the other members of the jury ignored her protests and falsely said they had all voted in favor of Hance’s execution. "I believe that the death penalty is right for people who commit murder when they are in their right mind," wrote the juror, Gayle Lewis Daniels, in a sworn affidavit, "but I did not vote for the death penalty in Mr. Hance's case because I did not believe that he knew what he was doing at the time of his crimes."

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Herbert reported her account in The Times:

As the pressure against her mounted, Ms. Daniels stood up and said, "You do what you have to do, but I won't vote for a death sentence." She refused to participate in further votes. The remaining jurors then came up with an astounding solution to the apparent deadlock... Afraid that she could be charged with perjury for having said that she could vote for a death sentence, and afraid that she would get in trouble for not participating in the jury's final votes, Ms. Daniels said yes—"just like all the others"—when the jurors were polled on their verdict.

A second juror, Patricia LeMay, confirmed Daniels' story and offered disturbing details of her own. LeMay reported that the juror’s deliberations had been tainted by nakedly racist comments made when Daniels was not in the room, and that Hance had been referred to as a "typical n*gger," "just one more sorry n*gger that no one would miss," and "one less n*gger to breed."

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Hance’s lawyer described the case as being "first cousin to a lynching," and it was appealed all the way up to the US Supreme Court. Shortly before Hance’s execution on March 31st, 1994, then-Justice Anthony Kennedy granted him a temporary stay while the court debated hearing the case. A few hours later, however, the court decided against taking on Hance’s case with a 6 to 3 vote.

Representing himself alongside Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the dissent. "Even if I had not reached the conclusion that the death penalty cannot be imposed fairly within the constraints of our Constitution," he wrote, "I could not support its imposition in this case."

There is substantial evidence that William Henry Hance is mentally retarded as well as mentally ill. There is reason to believe that his trial and sentencing proceedings were infected with racial prejudice. One of his sentencers has come forward to say that she did not vote for the death penalty because of his mental impairments…Accordingly, I would grant the application for a stay, grant the petition for writ of certiorari and vacate the death sentence in this case.

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Immediately after the court declined to hear the case, Hance was executed. "The execution of Mr. Hance is a clear example of how capital punishment degrades us all," wrote Herbert in an op-ed about the case. "We can never be sure that we're doing the right thing, and we can never correct our errors."

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors. 

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