10 Last-minute Stays of Execution

This Killer Inspired a Springsteen Song
Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Fugate. Starkweather killed 11 people, including her mother, step-father and sister, while they were together. Fugate was sentenced to life imprisonment but was later paroled. © Bettmann/CORBIS

1950s spree killer Charles Starkweather may be most remembered today as the inspiration for Martin Sheen's character Kit in the 1973 film "Badlands," and for Bruce Springsteen's 1982 song "Nebraska," in which he explains his crimes by saying: "Well, sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world". In real life, the 20-year-old wasn't half as handsome as a young Sheen, and he was no existentialist philosopher either, but rather an all-but-illiterate sociopath who robbed and killed 11 people because, as a psychiatrist testified, "the act of killing meant to him no more than stepping on a bug" [sources: Marsh, Leyton].

Nevertheless, in the early morning hours of May 22, 1959 — just 90 minutes before Starkweather was scheduled to die in the electric chair at Nebraska State Penitentiary, a federal judge granted a stay of execution requested by Starkweather's father, Guy. Starkweather's family, claiming their son's court-appointed lawyers had erred by putting on an insanity defense rather than trying to raise doubts about his guilt, had fired them, leaving him without counsel. Even so, because the move had left Starkweather without a lawyer, the judge felt compelled to hold up his execution so that the prisoner could find a lawyer and submit a writ to an appeals court [source: Associated Press].

The reprieve didn't save him for long. Just than a little more than a month later, on June 25, 1959, he was summoned to the death chamber. His last words, reportedly, were "What's your hurry?" [source: Associated Press]