Rhonda Belle Martin

This case was a rather quick case to research although I took a bit longer to not just get some statistics but to also add to my ever growing list of cases to look into.  This is case is considered to be more rare than most.  This is about a case not only of a woman in which was sentenced to death, but one in which the execution was enacted.  Sure we know the cases of Aileen Wurornos, Karla Faye Tucker, or even Mary Surratt but they really are rare, especially in what is considered to be the modern age of the death penalty.  For the record, the "modern age" of the death penalty is considered as beginning in 1976.  While during the 1940's and 50's support for the death penalty was waning and the numbers were coming down a bit it took until 1972 for the United State Supreme Court to officially abolish the death penalty.  It was then that anyone who was current on death row, some of the most famous were Charles Manson and his followers, were re-sentenced to life in prison. By 1976 the death penalty was back on the table and Gary Gilmore became the first person executed when he died by firing squad in January of 1977 (let's be clear that Gilmore dropped all appeal and advocated for the death penalty). Even still since 1976 only 16 women have been executed in the United States.  Then again, this case took place long before the United States ever seriously considered abolishing it in the first place.  This case took place in the 1950's.

Rhonda Belle (sometimes just Bell) Martin was a waitress in Montgomery Alabama.  In 1956 she was on her fifth husband, Ronald Martin.  Ronald was actually the son of Rhonda's 4th husband, Claude.  Claude had died in April of 1951 and Rhonda married Ronald that following December while he was still in the Navy.  Ronald was discharged from the Navy sometime in early 1955. Around June of that year he became very ill and was in the hospital. Doctors discovered it seemed that he had arsenic (found in rat poisoning at least at the time) in his system and suddenly things started to look bleak for Rhonda.  A secret investigation was launched, and soon everyone began to realize there had seemed to have been several unexplained and strange deaths over the years surrounding Rhonda.  By March of 1956 they were definitely on her tail. After several hours of interrogation Rhonda admitting to administering poison to Ronald and much, much more.  Her list of victims was amazing.  

Rhonda had married her first husband, W.R. Alderman in 1922 at the age of 15. It seems there were no children from this marriage when it ended in divorce some 4 years later. Her second marriage was to a man named George Garrett. They were married for 12 years and had 5 children before he died in 1939.  His initial cause of death was attributed to pneumonia.  Two of the couple's 5 children had already died at this point.  First there was Mary Adelaide who was about 4 years old when she died in 1934 and then there was Emogene who was 3 when she died in 1937.  Soon after her infant daughter Judith would die in 1939.  The same year that George died Rhonda remarried to a man named Talmadge Gibson but that marriage only lasted about 5 months although apparently they did not divorce for several years.  Then in 1940 Rhonda's 6 year old daughter Anna Carolyn died and in 1943 daughter Ellyn, who was 11, died. Ellyn's death was said to be caused by a stomach ailment (the other children never seemed to have a cause known).  In 1944 Rhonda's mother, Mary Frances Gibbon passed away.  In 1950 Rhonda, who by now had lost all of her children, one of her now three husbands and her mother in a span of just 5 years married Claude Martin.  It was later determined that she married him prior to being properly divorced from her third husband, Talmadge Gibson. This played a significant part later.  Claude and Rhonda were married just over a year when he died April 27, 1951.  Then, as I said before, Rhonda married his son Ronald in December of that year.

While the investigation into Rhonda's past may have started out quiet, it is hardly believable that it stayed that way for long.  It seems that all of her now dead relatives were buried in the same cemetery and in the same area, including  Claude's first wife who Rhonda had paid to have moved after his death to be laid next to him, and authorities wanted to exhume those bodies. Ronald was going to survive but not without injury.  It was said that he became a paraplegic (paralyzed from the waist down) due to his ingestion of arsenic. So it seems when Rhonda was interrogated in March of 1956 the investigators were heavily armed. Rhonda admitted to the deaths of George, Anna, Ellyn, her mother, Mary and to the death of Claude Martin. She went to her death denying involvement in the deaths of her daughters, Mary and Judith. She was immediately charged and held.

There is more information on the death of Claude because despite her confession his death was the only one in which she was officially charged and convicted.  She admitted to administering rat poison in his morning coffee over a period of several weeks.  It was possibly only theorized that when it came to her children she had placed it in their milk but that could have in fact been true. Rhonda did not then, nor ever, have a reason as to why she had done this to any of the people involved.  Prosecutors would claim that it was for insurance reasons as she apparently had a policy on all of the victims but almost all reports say that the policies were generally just enough to cover burial. And, in the case of Claude she had paid $400 (a lot of money in 1951) to have his former wife's body moved so if it was about the money this would have been an unusual mood.  It also did not seem to be about possessions necessarily either. Obviously the kids would have had little to nothing for Rhonda to gain and in the case of Claude it was determined that the only possession he had was an older vehicle.  Despite what the prosecutors may have said was the motive it seems that most believe that it was likely more of the fact of the sympathy that she received at the time of each person's death.   

So Rhonda was charged with first degree murder in the death of Claude.  There was also talk of also charging her with incest.  Yes, I said incest.  This is where her failure to divorce Talmadge Gibson saved her, not that incest was a bigger crime than murder.  In 1947 a law was passed that a marriage to someone who was or had been a stepchild was illegal as it was considered to be incest.  It was a felony and punishable by imprisonment for a period of 1-7 years.  It was determined that technically Ronald Martin was not her stepson since when she married his father, Claude she was not legally divorced yet which made that marriage invalid.  It did not seem to stop the prosecution in bringing it up at her trial however despite the defense arguing the irrelevance. We have to remember the time period of this crime, they were much less worried about a defendant's rights, especially one that had confessed, and their reputation than they are today.  Pretty much when someone went to trial all the skeletons were let out of the closet regardless if they were relevant or not.  

Rhonda's trial began in June of of 1956, a mere three months after her confession. I found the statements of her pleas a bit odd but apparently it seems normal for the time and state at the time.  Every time her plea was mention it would say "not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity."  Her lawyers planned to and did argue that Rhonda suffered from schizophrenia. I found it interesting that during jury selection the judge quizzed potential jurors on their knowledge of the disease.  Defense attorneys would argue in a later appeal that although the judge had seemed to quiz them on their knowledge that he seemed less than professional about it (the appeals court disagreed).  It really did not matter a lot considering the defense expert would, and did, explain things on the stand.  In the end the jury took about 3 hours deliberating before they found Rhonda guilty and sentenced her to death.  

Rhonda's appeal failed in March of 1957 and her conviction and sentence were upheld.  She was taken to the electric chair on October 11, 1957.  She was the last woman executed by the state of Alabama until 2002 when Lynda Lyon Block was executed for her role in the killing of a police officer.  Block would be the last person (man or woman) to be electrocuted by the state as they began using lethal injection after that. Block would be the last (as of 2016) of only four women (including Rhonda Martin) who have been executed by the state of Alabama since 1927. 

When she went to her death Rhonda was holding a bible.  When the bible was recovered and looked at Rhonda had left a note inside.  Despite refusing to say any last words at her execution the note did have some meaning.  She asked that her body be donated to science so as it could be examined to see if it could be determined why she did the things that she did.  I could not confirm that this wish was granted but even if it was I would highly doubt that a lot could have been determined as it is likely her brain was damaged in the execution.

These cases, man or woman, always intrigue me because of the swift time things seem to take place.  From the time of her confession and arrest to the time of her execution was a short span of 19 months.  In between was a trial and an appeal that even in 1956 was considered to be automatic.  While I have said before that I find that some cases it seems to be a ridiculously long period of time between even conviction and execution in cases where there is no doubt, in the same respect I find some of those of time past to be just as ridiculously short. Of course no one had ever heard of false confessions then (not that I believe that it was), and many do not believe in them now.  This was likely an open and shut case for the prosecution and they knew that going in. There was also less concern with spending money on a trial like this.  Today prosecutors are more likely to offer deals to avoid trials, especially death penalty trials to save time and money.  I think I have a bigger issue however with the short period of time between an arrest and a trial during this time period.  I realize that in today's era the "cool" thing is to claim ineffective counsel, especially in appeals, but in many cases, and this is one of them, it seems such a short time to adequately mount a defense.  

In the end history has mostly forgotten Rhonda Martin.  Is this because in reality women who have been executed make up of only about 1% of the executions or is it because her crime was not sensational enough for our modern day? 

Comments

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this!

    You may enjoy this story of a woman who escaped death row:
    http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=15039539

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good article. I find myself wondering what Rhonda's childhood was like. Any info on that?

    ReplyDelete

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