Heightened security outside the Missouri prison
Heightened security outside the Missouri prison before the execution of Franklin. Photo by AP
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Joseph Franklin during his 1998 murder trial. Photo by AP

Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist who targeted blacks and Jews in a cross-country killing spree from 1977 to 1980, was put to death Wednesday in Missouri, United States.

Franklin, 63, was executed at a state prison for killing Gerald Gordon in a sniper shooting at a suburban St. Louis synagogue in 1977. Franklin was convicted of seven other murders across the country and claimed responsibility for up to 20 overall, but the Missouri case was the only one that brought a death sentence.

Franklin also admitted to shooting and wounding civil rights leader Vernon Jordan and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since the attack in 1978. Flynt had sued to stop Franklin's execution because he doesn't believe the death penalty is a deterrent.

The execution, Missouri's first in nearly three years, was delayed for several hours due to last-minute legal challenges. When it went ahead, it was Missouri's first-ever use of the drug pentobarbital for an execution.

Franklin declined to make a final statement. Wearing black rimmed glasses with his long hair tucked behind his ears, he swallowed hard as the drug was administered, breathed heavily a couple of times then simply stopped breathing.

Franklin's lawyer had launched three separate appeals: One claiming his life should be spared because he was mentally ill; one claiming faulty jury instruction when he was given the death penalty; and one raising concerns about the use of pentobarbital.

But Franklin's fate was sealed early Wednesday when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal appeals court ruling that overturned two stays granted Tuesday evening by district court judges in Missouri. The rulings lifting the stay were issued without comment.

Franklin, a paranoid schizophrenic who grew up in Mobile, Alabama, was in his mid-20s in 1977 when he began drifting across America, robbing up to 16 banks to fund his travels.

He bombed a synagogue in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July that year. No one was hurt, but the killings began soon after that, many of them sniper shootings. Franklin had a particular dislike for interracial couples — several of his victims were black men and the white women with them.

He arrived in suburban St. Louis and picked out Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel synagogue from the phone book. On Oct. 8, 1977, a bar mitzvah ended and guests were in the parking lot when Franklin opened fire from a grassy area nearby, killing Gordon, 42.

The killings continued for three more years. Franklin was finally caught after killing two young black men who were about to go jogging with two teenage white girls in Salt Lake City in August 1980.

Years later, in federal prison, he admitted to the St. Louis County killing. He was sentenced to death in 1997. In the days leading up to the execution, Franklin said in several interviews that he was sorry for his crimes and was no longer a racist.