On Wednesday, March 16, 1960, Joseph Chester Self, age 29, shoots and kills Seattle taxicab driver Ralph A. Gemmill Jr., age 39, during a $15 heist. After hiding in the Eatonville area for four days, Self surrenders to the Pierce County Sheriff, claiming the murder was unintentional. A trial jury, however, finds Self guilty of first-degree murder and imposes the death penalty. On June 20, 1963, at 12:05 a.m., Self is hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. He is the 73rd prisoner to be executed in Washington state since 1904 and will be the last for 30 years, the longest period in state history without an execution.
Without Parents and in Trouble
Joseph Chester Self (1931-1963), the youngest of four children and a native of Tacoma, had been in trouble most of his life. His mother, Mable, died when he was 7 years old and his father, Joseph, when he was 12. Left to fend for himself, young Joseph dropped out of school by age 15, got into trouble, and spent time at a camp for juvenile delinquents near Tacoma. While in custody, he was given the option of enlisting in the military and he joined the U.S. Army. After basic training, Self was assigned to a cavalry division and sent to occupied Japan. While serving there, he was disciplined several times for insolence, disobeying orders, and being AWOL (absent without leave).
Self was convicted of black marketeering in Japan and sentenced to serve two and one-half years in a military prison. But, after serving 15 months, he was dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army and released. Thereafter, Self served three months on a prison farm near San Francisco for burglary, two years in the Oregon State Penitentiary at Salem for auto theft, and two years in the California State Penitentiary at San Quentin for burglary. He was paroled on June 20, 1959, and for several months worked on cattle ranch in Simms, Montana. Then on Monday, March 14, 1960, he bought a ticket to Seattle at the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Great Falls. Before leaving Great Falls, he purchased a .32-caliber, semiautomatic pistol with the intention of committing armed robberies.
Self arrived at the Greyhound Bus Terminal, 8th Avenue and Stewart Street, Seattle, on Wednesday afternoon, March 16, 1960, dead broke. He went to the baggage counter to claim his luggage and was told by the clerk that he owed $3.50 in shipping charges. Self said he didn’t have the money, claiming he spent it all in Twin Falls, Idaho, getting drunk. He left the depot, returned at 6:00 p.m. with $4 and retrieved his belongings. Then Self went to the taxicab stand in front of the bus depot.
Ralph Gemmill's Last Fare
At 6:15 p.m., Ralph A. Gemmill Jr. (1920-1960), driving Yellow Cab No. 46, picked up Self at the taxicab stand. He radioed the company dispatcher that he was taking the fare to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It was the last time Gemmill was seen alive.
At 7:15 p.m., Gemmill was found dead by four teenagers from Puyallup who had turned their vehicle into an empty field on S 369th Place near Military Road to make a U-turn. They immediately notified the Milton Police Department who called the King County Sheriff’s Department. Detective Captain Thomas T. Nault dispatched a team of detectives to secure the crime scene and wait for the arrival of Dr. Gale E. Wilson, the King County Coroner’s chief pathologist. After a preliminary examination, Dr. Wilson had the body delivered to the King County Morgue at Harborview Hospital in Seattle for an autopsy.
King County Coroner Leo M. Sowers announced that Gemmill had been shot twice with a .32 caliber pistol. One bullet entered the victims right chest and laterally passed through his body. The slug was found in his left armpit. The second was an execution-style bullet to the back of Gemmill’s head.
While searching the crime scene for evidence, detectives found Gemmill’s wallet, tossed into the tall grass. The wallet had been rifled, suggesting robbery, but they discovered $17 in change in his pocket. There was no sign of a struggle. Detectives theorized that Gemmill had been shot while inside the taxicab, his body dumped in the empty field, and the cab stolen. Law Enforcement agencies throughout the Pacific Northwest were notified to be on the lookout for Yellow Cab No. 46, which Gemmill, who owned the vehicle, recently had painted bright orange.
The baggage clerk at the Greyhound Bus Terminal told detectives Gemmill’s passenger was a white, male, approximately 27 years old, wearing a red sweater, khaki trousers, and a green U.S. Army field jacket. He was carrying a large canvas knapsack and a smaller canvas satchel. His most salient features were prominent ears, a mop of bushy auburn hair, and a persistent stammer.
At 2:45 a.m. on Thursday, March 17, the Tacoma Police found Gemmill’s taxicab abandoned on a downtown side street near Union Station, 1717 Pacific Avenue. King County Undersheriff Don R. Sprinkle was in Tacoma following another lead and had the automobile towed to the Seattle county/city garage for a thorough examination. Detectives found blood inside the cab and one .32-caliber cartridge casing. Although most of the interior surfaces had been wiped clean, they discovered a chrome-plated flashlight under the front seat bearing one identifiable thumbprint.
Identification Bureau Chief Wilbert Northey carefully lifted the print and found a perfect match in the sheriff’s files from the Oregon State Penitentiary. It belonged to ex-convict Joseph C. Self and there was a prison ID photograph attached his fingerprint card. At the bus station, several witnesses identified Self’s mug shot as Gemmill’s last passenger.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the Northwest were notified that Self was wanted for murder and should be considered armed and dangerous. On Thursday morning, Self’s picture was prominently displayed on television and in newspapers along with details of the crime. The public was asked for any information that might lead to his capture.
Several people in the Eatonville area, approximately 30 miles southwest of Tacoma, reported seeing a man who looked like Self. A woman in Kapowsin said she saw Self three times, prowling around homes. Eatonville Town Marshal William D. Smith and Pierce County Deputy Sheriff Roy Lucksinger almost caught Self on Friday evening, responding to a report of a campfire behind an abandoned farmhouse on the Scott-Turner Road outside of town. He spotted the patrol car approaching and ran into the woods, leaving behind food and other items, stolen from a house in Kapowsin.
Meanwhile, scores of law enforcement officers from King, Pierce, Lewis and Kitsap counties poured into Eatonville to help search for the fugitive. By midmorning sheriff’s posses had roadblocks set up on all roads, highways and bridges leading out of the area, encompassing Morton, LaGrande, Elbe, and other small mountain towns. Patrols of deputies and civilian volunteers began searching for Self at designated locations. Local radio stations broadcast Self’s description and asked the public to report anyone or anything suspicious to the Pierce County Sheriff’s office.
On Friday morning, March 18, Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Joel A. C. Rindal filed a criminal complainant in King County Court before Justice of the Peace Evangeline Starr, charging Self with first-degree murder and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Joseph Self Surrenders
Self played a game of cat and mouse with the sheriff’s posses for three days. Everyone was on the lookout for the fugitive and there had been several reports of sightings. The relentless manhunt forced Self to keep constantly on the move. The weather was wet and the temperature near freezing at night. Self was reluctant to make campfires and forced to sleep unprotected in the underbrush. Finally, on Sunday, March 20, someone called the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department with the message: "Self wants to surrender, but Sheriff Frank Stojack must come alone and unarmed or else there will be lots of shooting" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
Both Pierce County Sheriff Frank Stojack and King County Sheriff Tim McCullough were in the Eatonville area at the time, directing the manhunt. The message was relayed to Sheriff Stojack by radio, along with directions to an isolated farm where the meeting was supposed to take place. At 4:30 p.m., Sheriff Stojack took Self into custody, along with two hunting rifles and ammunition stolen in a burglary the previous night. Sheriff McCullough watched the surrender through binoculars from 1,000 yards away.
Twenty minutes later, at the Alder Cutoff Road to Eatonville, Sheriff McCullough and a deputy took custody of Self, drove him to the King County Jail in Seattle and booked him for first-degree murder. During the long trip, Self asked, "What's the penalty for murder in the state of Washington?" McCullough replied, "Hanging" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Self said he first wanted to talk to news reporters and then wanted to see an attorney.
The media had been informed of Self’s capture and a crowd of newspaper and television reporters was on hand at the King County Jail, awaiting his arrival. After booking, Self was fed, then taken to a private room for questioning. Before Sheriff McCullough and Captain Nault began the interrogation, Self repeated his desire to consult an attorney. But 45 minutes later, with the understanding he could talk to the press, Self made an oral confession followed by a nine-page, handwritten, signed statement.
At 9:30 p.m., Self was permitted to hold a press conference in Captain Nault’s office. Sitting behind Nault’s desk in shackles, he gave reporters the following statement:
“This is it here, I did kill the man. But I did not go out to kill him. I got in the cab and asked him to take me to the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Then I said, ‘You may as well take me to Puyallup.’ Then I got him to pull over. We both got out. I told him to give me his money and he did. Then I asked him if he had any more and he said he had some change and I told him to give me that, too. He reached in his pocket and then he grabbed for my gun. It was an automatic or something and then it went off. He fell and I fell on top of him, then the gun went off again. That’s the way it happened and I want every paper, the people of Puyallup, the people of Seattle and every place around here to know I am not the cold-blooded killer these people think I am. I gave myself up. If I wanted to I could have killed any number – well not any number – four or five troopers, police officers. I could have taken hostages and made deals. But, I gave myself up. They didn’t see me, but I saw them. If I was a cold-blood killer, why wouldn’t I have tried to kill more? I just hope I can get this straight. I wanted to rob him but not kill him. I’m ... thank you very much” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
When he was finished, Captain Nault led Self off to jail while Sheriff McCullough answered questions from reporters, primarily about Self’s confession. McCullough said that after robbing Gemmill of $15 and killing him, Self drove the taxicab to Tacoma and abandoned it on a side street within walking distance to the Greyhound Bus Terminal. First, he bought a one-way ticket to Spokane, then walked to the Tacoma Bus Depot. Self took an interurban bus to Sumner where he spent the night in a cheap hotel. On Thursday morning, he took a bus to Puyallup, purchased new clothes and shoes, then had a barber give him a crew cut. To conceal his stammering, he pretended to be deaf, communicating by writing brief notes. Having altered his appearance, Self hitchhiked to Orting and went into the woods to hide.
On Monday, March 21, Sheriff McCullough asked Self where he hid the murder weapon. Initially, he claimed he had thrown the gun away at the crime scene, but later said it was hidden on the farm where he had surrendered. Self voluntarily went with McCullough and Nault to help find it.
Arraignment and Trial
On Tuesday, March 29, 1960, Self was arraigned in King County Superior Court and attorneys Daniel J. Riviera and Alan F. Austin were appointed as his defense counsel. Self stood mute and a plea of not guilty was entered on his behalf, standard practice in a death penalty case. The trial was scheduled to commence on May 31, 1960, before Judge George H. Revelle.
For a death penalty case, Self’s trial was remarkably short. The jury was selected on Tuesday, May 31, and opening statements began on Wednesday morning, June 1 with deputy prosecutors James D. Burns and Hugh R. McGough outlining the case against the defendant. The jury was told that the state was seeking the death penalty because Gemmill’s murder was committed with premeditation while engaged in the commission of a robbery. Either fact qualified Self for the death penalty under Washington state law. Defense Attorney Riviera told the jury that Gemmill’s death was an unintended accident caused by the victim’s precipitous actions for which Self didn’t deserve to die.
The prosecution called witnesses to establish the sequence of events which led to Self’s identification and capture and to introduce evidence. To prove premeditation, Dr. Wilson, the autopsy pathologist, testified that Gemmill had been shot twice with a .32 caliber pistol and there was at least a five-minute interval between the two events. The evidence indicated that Gemmill was shot in the right side while sitting in the front seat of the taxicab, then pulled out and robbed. The bullet to the base of the victims skull appeared to be an intended coup de grace.
The prosecution then called Sheriff McCullough to the stand to introduce Self’s handwritten confession. Defense Attorney Riviera moved to suppress the document on the grounds that Self had confessed without having access to an attorney, although he had requested one. Judge Revelle granted the motion, however, he allowed the prosecution to introduce Self’s oral admissions into evidence through testimony, and any physical evidence, such as the murder weapon, obtained through his confession.
Self took the stand in his own defense, admitted robbing Gemmill at gun point and firing two shots into the victim’s body. He testified Gemmill lunged at him and grabbed for the gun, resulting in a struggle during which two shots were accidentally fired. Self also testified at length about his personal history and background, voluntarily listing the many times he had been in trouble and his periods of incarceration. On cross examination, he also admitted that he bought the gun to rob somebody. No other defense witnesses were called to testify.
During rebuttal, a firearms expert from the Federal Bureau of Investigation testified that Self’s pistol invariably jammed after every firing. The weapon’s action had to be manually cleared and a live round chambered between discharges, further demonstrating that Gemmill’s death was not accidental.
The trial was concluded late Friday, June 3. A jury of five men and seven women deliberated for four hours and 10 minutes before bringing in the verdict. Self was found guilty of first-degree murder and the jury voted to impose the death penalty. He was returned to the King County Jail to await sentencing.
Appealing the Conviction
On Friday, June 17, 1960, Judge Revelle sentenced Self “to be hanged by the neck until dead,” set the execution date for August 2, 1960, at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and signed the commitment order. Defense Attorneys Riviera and Austin immediately filed a notice of appeal to the Washington State Supreme Court of behalf of the defendant based on judicial error, automatically staying the execution date.
On November 9, 1961, the state supreme court upheld Self’s conviction in superior court and affirmed the jury’s imposition of the death penalty. The appeal for a new trial was denied. Self’s attorneys petitioned the state supreme court for a rehearing and filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, both of which were denied.
Finally, Self’s attorneys filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus before the state supreme court, challenging the constitutionality of Washington’s death penalty law. On January 19, 1963, the tribunal, in an unanimous decision, upheld the state’s capital punishment statute and denied Self’s writ of habeas corpus. The court dissolved Self’s third stay of execution and ordered he be returned to King County Superior Court for another execution date. Judge Revelle scheduled the hanging for Thursday, June 20, 1963.
Questioning the Punishment
Self’s attorneys Riviera and Austin had exhausted all avenues of appeal, leaving executive clemency as his last chance. Two days before the execution a small group of demonstrators marched with signs across the street from the prisons main gate, protesting Self's execution and the death penalty. Warden Bobby J. Rhay (1921-2012) had no objection to the picketing as long as the protesters stayed off state property.
On Wednesday, June 19, 1963, Governor Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011) remained in his Olympia office most of the day to consider an appeal for clemency from Self’s attorneys on the grounds that he had undergone a profound transformation since his imprisonment. Self had converted to Roman Catholicism, expressed remorse by admitting he had intentionally killed Gremmill, and was anxious for a chance at redemption.
Approximately one hour before the scheduled execution, Governor Rosellini issued a statement to the media in which he gave his reasons for declining to commute Self’s death sentence. He pointed out that under state law, "the governor has a right to grant executive clemency only if there is an indicated mistake in identity or evidence." By unanimous opinion, Self’s conviction had been upheld twice by the State Supreme Court and once by the U.S. Supreme Court. Governor Rosellini personally reviewed the facts of the case with the Board of Prison Terms and Paroles and Self's attorneys, but found no errors. He said, “Therefore, regardless of my personal feelings, under my sworn oath to uphold the constitution and laws of the state of Washington, I have no authority to interfere with the decision made by the jury and the courts” (The Seattle Times).
The Hanging of Joseph Self
On Wednesday evening, Self ate a full-course dinner, which included Cornish game hen and a crab cocktail, his last meal on death row. At 8:00 p.m., he was moved to an isolation cell nearby the gallows, where he was shaved and dressed in new clothes. Self was visited by Reverend George McCabe, Catholic chaplain at the penitentiary, who heard his confession, gave him communion and administered last rites. Then Rhay read him the death warrant.
Just after midnight, Self walked 40 feet from the cell to the gallows accompanied by two prison guards, Warden Rhay and Reverend McCabe. Some 44 persons, mostly media and prison personnel, had gathered in the execution room to witness the hanging. Self had no last words or requests and a black, cloth hood and hangman’s noose were dropped over his head. At 12:05 a.m. on Thursday, June 20, 1963, while Self mumbled prayers, the trapdoor was sprung, dropping him five feet to his death. His body was taken down 11 minutes later and a prison physician pronounced him dead.
Self donated his eyes to the Providence Hospital eye bank in Seattle. A surgical team was on hand to harvest the corneas immediately following the execution and they were flown to Seattle.
Executions in Washington
Joseph Chester Self was the 73rd person to be executed in Washington and the last person to be executed in the state until Westley Allan Dodd’s execution on January 5, 1993. During the 30 year hiatus, Washington’s capital punishment statute was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972.
In 1975, an initiative favoring the death penalty was passed by Washington voters. The state legislature subsequently enacted death-penalty legislation that the courts found constitutional, and following Dodd's execution in 1993, four more men were executed between 1994 and 2010. However, in 2018 the state supreme court held that the death penalty was unconstitutional as administered because its imposition was arbitrary and racially biased, and the sentences of the eight men then on death row were converted to life without parole.