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  • Mike Martinez

Political Assassinations: John H. Wood, Jr.


On Tuesday morning, May 29, 1979, John Howland Wood, Jr., a judge on the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, walked outside of his townhouse in San Antonio, Texas, and opened the door to his automobile. As he lifted his leg to step inside, a dumdum bullet fired from a high-velocity rifle slammed into his back, shattering into multiple fragments and knocking him to the ground. Judge Wood died instantly. He was 63 years old.

Judge Wood’s murder is discussed in Chapter 12 of my forthcoming book titled Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders.

The murder of a federal judge, the first such slaying of the twentieth century, generated massive news coverage. It was little wonder. Judges and justices at all levels of government spend most of their professional careers issuing judicial orders and opinions that affect the lives of ordinary citizens as well as large companies and institutions of government. As the final arbiter of legal matters in a nation built on the landmark principle of the rule of law, judicial officers must be able to act independently without fear of political reprisals or physical violence.

Judge Wood’s murder was deeply unsettling because he was well known for his handling of high-profile criminal cases. He had served on the bench for eight years. President Richard M. Nixon originally appointed Wood, a prominent Texas attorney, to the bench in 1970. The native Texan was exactly the sort of man that the Nixon administration, with its emphasis on law and order, was looking to appoint to the judiciary. As a judge, the former World War II naval officer established a reputation as tough on crime. “Maximum John” was especially harsh in sentencing drug traffickers.

As soon as reports of the crime filtered in, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sprang into action. One agent characterized the shooting as the “crime of the century.” Under pressure to solve the murder as quickly as possible, the Bureau dispatched agents into the field as part of “the most extensive FBI investigation since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.” Given the judge’s propensity to sentence defendants to the maximum prison term allowed by law, investigators suspected that his shooting was related to his docket of pending criminal cases. They were correct.

One alleged Texas drug kingpin, Jamiel Chagra, was worried that Judge Wood, who was scheduled to preside over Chagra’s pending trial, would favor prosecutors and, after ensuring a conviction, mete out the maximum penalty allowed by law. To prevent Wood from handling the case, Chagra hired a career criminal, Charles Harrelson (the father of actor Woody Harrelson), to kill the judge. On May 29, 1979, Harrelson appeared in the parking lot outside of the judge’s San Antonio townhouse and shot him dead.

Wood was the first federal judge murdered in the twentieth century. In later years, Judge Richard J. Daronco was killed in 1988, Judge Robert Smith Vance was assassinated in 1989, and Judge John Roll was shot and killed during an assault on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 (although presumably Roll was not the intended target).

Police caught up with the triggerman owing to an anonymous tip and a tape recording of Jamiel Chagra talking with his brother, Joe, during a prison visit. Armed his evidence, investigators pursued Harrelson for months. The fugitive eventually surrendered to authorities following a standoff with police in September 1980. Subsequently claiming he was high on cocaine at the time, Harrelson confessed to killing Judge Wood. He also said that he had assassinated President Kennedy in 1963. “At the same time I said I had killed the judge, I said I had killed Kennedy, which might give you an idea to the state of my mind at the time,” he explained in a later interview. Harrelson received two life sentences in prison for his crimes. He died of a heart attack on March 15, 2007, in the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX)—the infamous Supermax facility—near Florence, Colorado. He was 68 years old.

Charles Harrelson was a classic Type 3 killer. Unlike Type 1 and Type 2 assailants, Type 3 actors do not act because they are passionate about a political issue or seek to compensate for a real or perceived deficiency in personality. Type 3 actors are not insane and suffering from hallucinations or delusions of grandeur, as is so common with Type 4 killers.

Type 3 personalities are remorseless actors, sociopaths driven by a lack of empathy to snuff out the lives of others. Charles Harrelson admitted that he regarded a human head as “a watermelon with hair on it.” To someone who genuinely sees his fellow human beings this way, firing a rifle into the person’s back is not an especially noteworthy act but for the fact that authorities might apprehend and punish the shooter. Jimmy Chagra allegedly paid Harrelson $250,000 to commit the crime, but even this motive was not the primary force influencing the assassin’s actions. Harrelson had killed people for a lot less money than $250,000. Perhaps he acted for inscrutable reasons: To prove he was tough, to exercise control over hairy watermelons, or to experience the thrill of flaunting societal conventions and eluding capture from bumbling law enforcement officers. Harrelson reveled in his notoriety.

Whatever the reasons, Type 3 actors such as Harrelson believe they are entitled to act however they see fit. The rules of human interaction simply do not apply to them. Immanuel Kant argued that every morally autonomous person should act as though his action were a universal moral precept. If they knew anything of Kantian moral philosophy, no doubt Type 3 actors would denounce such abstractions as hogwash unworthy of anyone’s time or attention. For the Type 3 actors, life is a game to play. Either a player wins or he loses, but he never places himself into another man’s shoes to experience life from another perspective. These emotionally stunted individuals cannot see beyond their own selfish desires.


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© 2020 J . Michael Martinez