Electric chair

The electric chair could make a comeback in South Carolina


January 10, 2018

The electric chair could make a comeback in South Carolina.

S.C. state senators Wednesday discussed making it easier for the state Corrections Department to carry out death sentences by electrocution – an option that hasn’t been used in nearly a decade.

The proposal is necessary, some senators say, because the state can’t get its hands on the chemicals necessary to carry out lethal injections.

Lawmakers on Wednesday also considered a proposed “shield law” to protect the identities of pharmaceutical companies that provide chemicals for lethal injections. Those companies currently won’t sell to South Carolina, fearing legal challenges, protests and bad publicity.

Neither proposal moved forward Wednesday, but a state Senate committee plans to discuss the ideas more this spring.

South Carolina last used the electric chair in June 2008 for the execution of James Earl Reed. The 49 year old was convicted in 1996 of the execution-style murder of his ex-girlfriend’s parents.

The state hasn’t executed any death row inmates since March 2011. In part, that is because the last of the state’s lethal injection chemicals expired in 2013.

The state can’t execute any of its current 36 death row inmates – all men – unless they ask to be killed in the electric chair, Corrections Department director Bryan Stirling told senators Wednesday.

None of the death row inmates have made that request, Stirling said.

In 2008, Reed, who fired his own defense attorney and unsuccessfully represented himself, was the first S.C. inmate in four years to choose electrocution over lethal injection.

Because it cannot be carried out, South Carolina’s death penalty is ineffective, senators were told Wednesday.

“We’ve had people on death row for over two decades now,” said Stirling, who took over the prisons system in 2013.

One death row inmate is scheduled to be executed later this month but is expected to get a postponement from a federal court so his appeal can be heard, Stirling told the Senate panel. If that delay isn’t granted, the state quickly is approaching an execution it can’t carry out.

“It’s possible that can happen,” Stirling said.

Don Zelenka, an attorney in the state Attorney General’s Office, said at least one S.C. prosecutor has opted not to pursue the death sentence because the Corrections Department can’t do the job.

A proposal by state Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, would change that. The former assistant solicitor’s bill would allow the Corrections Department to use the electric chair when lethal injection is unavailable.

State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said he could support the proposal because it helps corrections officers do their jobs, even though he disagrees with the death penalty, which, critics say, is an ineffective deterrent more often used on minorities and the poor.

“This, to me, is a question about efficiency, not about the death penalty,” Hutto said.

Hutto and others were more skeptical of Timmons’ other proposal, the “shield law.”

Lindsey Vann, executive director of the Columbia-based Justice 360 nonprofit, which represents death-row inmates, called that proposal a “secrecy” law that would “create a state secret out of administering the death penalty.”

Shielding pharmaceutical companies’ identities would absolve them of accountability and create the potential for botched executions, Vann said. “If the government is going to exercise this power … they should do so in a transparent manner and with accountability to the citizens of this state.”

Stirling told senators the state’s electric chair, located at the Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia, still works.

South Carolina has executed 282 inmates since 1912, including 280 men and two women. Of those executed, 208 were black and 74 were white. The youngest inmate executed was 14; the oldest was 66.

Corrections officials began using lethal injection in August 1995, two months after state lawmakers OK’d the practice.

DEATH ROW AND SC

The dates

1995: S.C. legislators approve lethal injection to execute inmates on the state’s Death Row; however, those inmates can opt for electrocution

June 2008: Late S.C. inmate electrocuted

March 2011: Last S.C. inmate executed by lethal injection

The numbers

282: Inmates S.C. has executed since 1912

280: Men executed

2: Women executed

208: African Americans executed

74: Whites executed

66: Oldest inmate executed

14: Youngest inmate executed

States to try new ways of executing prisoners. Their latest idea? Opioids.


December 11, 2017

The synthetic painkiller fentanyl has been the driving force behind the nation’s opioid epidemic, killing tens of thousands of Americans last year in overdoses. Now two states want to use the drug’s powerful properties for a new purpose: to execute prisoners on death row.

As Nevada and Nebraska push for the country’s first fentanyl-assisted executions, doctors and death penalty opponents are fighting those plans. They have warned that such an untested use of fentanyl could lead to painful, botched executions, comparing the use of it and other new drugs proposed for lethal injection to human experimentation.

States are increasingly pressed for ways to carry out the death penalty because of problems obtaining the drugs they long have used, primarily because pharmaceutical companies are refusing to supply their drugs for executions.

The situation has led states such as Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma to turn to novel drug combinations for executions. Mississippi legalized nitrogen gas this spring as a backup method – something no state or country has tried. Officials have yet to say whether it would be delivered in a gas chamber or through a gas mask.

Other states have passed laws authorizing a return to older methods, such as the firing squad and the electric chair.

“We’re in a new era,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University. “States have now gone through all the drugs closest to the original ones for lethal injection. And the more they experiment, the more they’re forced to use new drugs that we know less about in terms of how they might work in an execution.”

Supporters of capital punishment blame critics for the crisis, which comes amid a sharp decline in the number of executions and decreasing public support for the death penalty. As of late November, 23 inmates had been put to death in 2017 – fewer than in all but one year since 1991. Nineteen states no longer have capital punishment, with a third of those banning it in the past decade.

“If death penalty opponents were really concerned about inmates’ pain, they would help reopen the supply,” said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates the rights of crime victims. Opponents “caused the problem we’re in now by forcing pharmaceuticals to cut off the supply to these drugs. That’s why states are turning to less-than-optimal choices.”

Prison officials in Nevada and Nebraska have declined to answer questions about why they chose to use fentanyl in their next executions, which could take place in early 2018. Many states shroud their procedures in secrecy to try to minimize legal challenges.

But fentanyl offers several advantages. The obvious one is potency. The synthetic drug is 50 times more powerful than heroin and up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

“There’s cruel irony that at the same time these state governments are trying to figure out how to stop so many from dying from opioids, that they now want to turn and use them to deliberately kill someone,” said Austin Sarat, a law professor at Amherst College who has studied the death penalty for more than four decades.

Another plus with fentanyl: It is easy to obtain. Although the drug has rocketed into the news because of the opioid crisis, doctors frequently use it to anesthetize patients for major surgery or to treat severe pain in patients with advanced cancer.

Nevada officials say they had no problem buying fentanyl.

“We simply ordered it through our pharmaceutical distributor, just like every other medication we purchase, and it was delivered,” Brooke Keast, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Corrections, said in an email. “Nothing out of the ordinary at all.”

The state, which last put someone to death in 2006, had planned its first fentanyl-assisted execution for November. The inmate involved, 47-year-old Scott Dozier, was convicted of killing a man in a Las Vegas hotel, cutting him into pieces and stealing his money.

According to documents obtained by The Washington Post, Nevada’s protocol calls for Dozier first to receive diazepam – a sedative better known as Valium – and then fentanyl to cause him to lose consciousness. Large doses of both would cause a person to stop breathing, according to three anesthesiologists interviewed for this report.

Yet Nevada also plans to inject Dozier with a third drug, cisatracurium, to paralyze his muscles – a step medical experts say makes the procedure riskier.

“If the first two drugs don’t work as planned or if they are administered incorrectly, which has already happened in so many cases . . . you would be awake and conscious, desperate to breathe and terrified but unable to move at all,” said Mark Heath, a professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University. “It would be an agonizing way to die, but the people witnessing wouldn’t know anything had gone wrong because you wouldn’t be able to move.”

John DiMuro, who helped create the fentanyl execution protocol when he was the state’s chief medical officer, said he based it on procedures common in open-heart surgery. He included cisatracurium because of worries that the Valium and fentanyl might not fully stop an inmate’s breathing, he said. “The paralytic hastens and ensures death. It would be less humane without it.”

A judge postponed Dozier’s execution last month over concerns about the paralytic, and the case is awaiting review by Nevada’s Supreme Court. In the meantime, Nebraska is looking toward a fentanyl-assisted execution as soon as January. Jose Sandoval, the leader of a bank robbery in which five people were killed, would be the first person put to death in that state since 1997.

Sandoval would be injected with the same three drugs proposed in Nevada, plus potassium chloride to stop his heart.

Even at much lower concentrations, intravenous potassium chloride often causes a burning sensation, according to Heath. “So if you weren’t properly sedated, a highly concentrated dose would feel like someone was taking a blowtorch to your arm and burning you alive,” he said.

Fentanyl is just the latest in a long line of approaches that have been considered for capital punishment in the United States. With each, things have often gone wrong.

When hangings fell out of favor in the 19th century – because of botched cases and the drunken, carnival-like crowds they attracted – states turned to electrocution. The first one in 1890 was a grisly disaster: Spectators noticed the inmate was still breathing after the electricity was turned off, and prison officials had to zap the man all over again.

Gas chambers were similarly sold as a modern scientific solution. But one of the country’s last cyanide gas executions, in 1992, went so badly that it left witnesses crying and the warden threatening to resign rather than attempt another one.

Lethal injection, developed in Oklahoma in 1977, was supposed to solve these problems. It triggered concerns from the start, especially because of the paralytic drug used. Even so, the three-drug injection soon became the country’s dominant method of execution.

In recent years, as access to those drugs has dried up, states have tried others. Before the interest in fentanyl, many states tested a sedative called midazolam – leading to what Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called “horrifying deaths.”

Dennis McGuire, who raped and killed a pregnant newlywed in Ohio, became the first inmate on whom that state’s new protocol was tried. Soon after the 2014 execution began, his body writhed on the table as he gasped for air and made gurgling, snorting noises that sounded as though he was drowning, according to witnesses.

The same year, Oklahoma used midazolam on an inmate convicted of kidnapping and killing a teenager; authorities aborted the execution after Clayton Lockett kicked, writhed and grimaced for 20 minutes, but he died not long after. Three months later, Arizona used midazolam on Joseph Wood III, who was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend and her father. Officials injected him more than a dozen times as he struggled for almost two hours.

Like officials in other states, Arizona officials argued that the inmate did not suffer and that the procedure was not botched. Later, they said they would never again use midazolam in an execution.

Joel Zivot, a professor of anesthesiology and surgery at Emory University, called the states’ approach ludicrous. “There’s no medical or scientific basis for any of it,” he said. “It’s just a series of attempts: obtain certain drugs, try them out on prisoners, and see if and how they die.”

The bad publicity and continuing problems with drug supply have sent some of the 31 states where capital punishment remains legal in search of options beyond lethal injection. Turning to nitrogen gas would solve at least one issue.

Nitrogen is literally in the air we breathe – you can’t cut off anyone’s supply to that,” said Scheidegger, who strongly supports the idea.

In addition to Mississippi, Oklahoma has authorized nitrogen gas as a backup to lethal injection. Corrections officials and legislators in Louisiana and Alabama have said they hope to do the same.

And yet, critics note, there is almost no scientific research to suggest that nitrogen would be more humane.

Zivot is among those skeptical that nitrogen would work as hoped.

“There’s a difference between accidental hypoxia, like with pilots passing out, and someone knowing you’re trying to kill him and fighting against it,” he said. “Have you ever seen someone struggle to breathe? They gasp until the end. It’s terrifying.”

Dozier, the inmate Nevada hopes to execute soon with fentanyl has said he would prefer death by firing squad over any other method. In more than a dozen interviews, experts on both sides of the issue expressed similar views.

Of all the lethal technology humans have invented, the gun has endured as one of the most efficient ways to kill, said Denno, who has studied the death penalty for a quarter-century.

“The reason we keep looking for something else,” she said, “is because it’s not really for the prisoner. It’s for the people who have to watch it happen. We don’t want to feel squeamish or uncomfortable. We don’t want executions to look like what they really are: killing someone.”

TENNESSEE: Measure allowing use of electric chair for executions headed to governor


April 18, 2014

Tennessee could electrocute death row inmates if lethal injection drugs are unavailable under legislation that’s headed for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.

The Senate voted 25-3 on Thursday to agree to changes to the legislation made by the House, which approved the measure 68-13 the day before.

The legislation keeps lethal injection as the preferred method for executions, but allows the electric chair if the state were unable to obtain the necessary drugs or if lethal injections were found unconstitutional.

And electrocutions would be allowed regardless of when the crime was committed.

Under Tennessee law, death row inmates could choose to be electrocuted if their crimes were committed before 1999, when lethal injection became the preferred method.

There are 76 inmates on Tennessee’s death row, including 1 woman.

(source: Associated Press)

TENNESSEE -Senate authorizes electric chair for executions


April 10, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – The Senate has voted to allow the state to electrocute death row inmates if lethal injection drugs cannot be obtained.

The measure sponsored by Sen. Ken Yager passed on a 23-3 vote on Wednesday.

The Harriman Republican said current law allows the state to use its alternate execution method only when lethal injection drugs are not legally available. But Yager said there was no provision for what do if there was a shortage of those drugs.

The state’s lethal injection protocol uses a sedative commonly used to euthanize animals, but states are exhausting supplies.

The state’s last electrocution was in 2007. The companion bill is awaiting a House floor vote.

Previous story

A plan to bring back the electric chair is making its way through the Tennessee legislature, though some lawmakers have voiced uneasiness about returning to an execution method the state largely had abandoned.

A House committee approved a bill Tuesday morning that would make electrocution the state’s method for killing inmates sentenced to death if lethal injection were declared unconstitutional or the drugs needed to carry it out were unavailable. But a handful of members said they have reservations about the electric chair, which the state has used only once since 1960.

(www.wbir.com)

“It seems barbaric to me,” said state Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Nashville. “I’d rather go with the gas chamber, myself. … The electric chair bothers me.”

Tennessee switched to lethal injection when it brought back the death penalty in the 1990s, but lawmakers gave inmates the option of choosing the electric chair for crimes committed before Jan. 1, 1999. One inmate, Daryl Keith Holton, was electrocuted in 2007.

In recent years, lethal injection has come under scrutiny. Death penalty opponents have pressed manufacturers to stop making available the drugs used in lethal injections, and courts have begun to weigh whether the method really produces the painless death that supporters claim. That has led state officials to reconsider electrocution, which the attorney general said last month never has been found unconstitutional.

State officials nonetheless expect House Bill 2476 would be challenged in court if it were to pass. Jernigan, sighing heavily, spelled out why, describing the damage electrocution does to the body. But state Rep. Dennis Powers, the Jacksboro Republican who filed the bill, stood by the measure.

“What seems barbaric is someone that’s been on death row 29 years,” he said. “This is really not about the death penalty. The death penalty is already the law in Tennessee. This is about how we do it.”

Jernigan responded by noting that some states allow death by firing squad. State Rep. Kent Williams, I-Elizabethton, said that method did not phase him either.

“That’d be the easiest way to go,” he said, adding, “I don’t know why we got away from hanging.”

“We’re wanting to make sure that these people on death row go ahead and get the just sentence that they deserve,” Powers replied. But some members still weren’t convinced.

“I just kind of feel that some kind of injection is a more humane way … than it is, I think, to just fry somebody,” said state Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar.

“Our job is not to judge. Our job is to arrange the meeting between the (defendant) and the creator, for him to judge,” Powers said.

HB 2476 now heads to the House Finance Committee and could be voted on by the full House of Representatives by the end of the legislative session. The state Senate is scheduled to vote on companion legislation, Senate Bill 2580, on Wednesday.

Man has witnessed all of Florida’s executions in the past 25 years


february 26, 2014

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — John Koch has a plastic container of manila envelopes that he sorts through rarely.

Each envelope contains hand-written notes, usually a script, and a piece of audio that is mostly cassette tapes.

“Now I’m putting them on CDs, I’m getting smart now,” said Kock.

The envelopes are dated with name written on them. The names represent every Florida inmate who’s received the death penalty in almost the last 25 years, some of whom have been the subject of Oscar-winning films.

“I saw Aileen Wuornos go,” he said.

Others like Allen Lee Davis of Jacksonville become known for a lavish request.

“His last meal was a large lobster tail, fried potatoes, half a pound of shrimp. This man was a large man,” Koch said.

Koch’s also documented a notorious murderer who went down in state history.

“I watched also the first woman to be executed in the state of Florida,” he said “That was Buenoano.”

Koch landed his front row seat at the hands of a policy within the Florida Department of Corrections. It allows news reporters to serve as witnesses during an execution.

“They give you two pencils and they give you a notebook to write on,” Koch said.

Koch is a Florida native who has been on the radio in the Live Oak area since the mid-1970s. He’s as much as an institution as the Dixie Grille where he likes to grab breakfast from time to time.

Koch began witnessing executions after one of Ted Bundy’s victims was found near Suwanee River State Park.

“I was there the day Robert Leonard, then Sheriff Robert Leonard, brought out the little girl’s body,” he said. “And I broke the story.”

About a decade later when Bundy was set to be electrocuted in 1989 Koch made sure he saw the story through. “And I started fighting on my end to get in there.”

He says he vividly remembers what happened when Bundy walked into the room.

“He looked over at the chair and you could see him give up,” Koch said. “That moment, that moment, he realized he ain’t going nowhere. It’s over.”

Koch says he also realized no one had ever regularly reported on what happens when an inmate is brought in to die. “What was the process? How does it work? What’s going on?”

So, he chose to continue witnessing executions as a way to inform people about a decades-old process that’s largely private and controversial. To this day members of the Catholic Church hold signs outside the Duval County Courthouse to show their opposition to capital punishment.

“Punishment is not the answer. The answer is you get the person to change. And it doesn’t change the horror that’s gone on or the loss that’s gone on,” says a protester outside the courthouse.

Koch though refrains from opinion and tries his best to remove himself from what’s happening in front of him.

“What’s your immediate feeling after watching somebody die? Nothing really,” he said. “Because they would have no feelings for you, none whatsoever.”

Each time he just writes down what he sees.

“I’ve always watched the hands. That always tells me a lot, whether they are nervous, they’re calm,” Koch said. “You can see the communication going back and forth between the team leader and the executioner.

“It’s gory. I hate it. It’s not fun watching people die whether they deserve it or not. I can feel the soul being wrenched early before it’s time. I sense all of that, but I put that aside and I’ve got 30 seconds to tell you a very important story.”

In all Koch has reported on the death of 63 Florida inmates and he doesn’t have plans to stop. He says people tell him to turn what’s inside his manila envelopes into a book.

But for now, he wants to stick to the only job he says that gives him goose bumps.

“Yeah, yeah, see, look at the goose bumps. I still get them and that is the reason I do any of this.”

Death Penalty By Electric Chair Could Make A Comeback For US Executions


february 6, 2014 (huffington)

Virginia could revive the electric chair as a method to execute prisoners, as European companies and one major distributor in the US block the sale of drugs required for lethal injections.

 

Experiments with a new ‘cocktail’ of drugs have proved controversial so far. Last month, murderer Dennis McGuires took 25 minutes to die, and was seen gasping painfully in his last moments when he was executed in Ohio.

 

The Washington Post reported that Virginia could soon have the power to compel prisoners to the electric chair, with a new law going through the state government’s house of representatives.

At the moment, death row prisoners in Virginia are allowed to choose between lethal injection and electrocution.

 

If lawmakers block the plan, a de facto moratorium on executions could be forced by inmates, who could legitimately demand execution by lethal injection, with the state having no facilities to carry that out.

 

Supply of lethal injection drugs expires, Virginia electrocutions could return


feb.01.2014 (nbc12)

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) 

While states across the country are running low on lethal injection drugs, Virginia’s stockpile has expired, and electrocutions could return.

 

A proposal is now headed to the Virginia Senate, a bill that would make electrocutions the default method of capital punishment if lethal injections are not available.

 

The Commonwealth’s supply of lethal injection drugs expired Nov. 30, 2013, and eight people are currently on Virginia’s death row. There are no executions scheduled, largely because of the lengthy appeal process.

 

But in an interview Friday, Virginia ACLU Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said the debate now unfolding in Richmond could worsen problems already inherent with capital punishment.

 

“We have people in Virginia still in jeopardy of being executed for being innocent,” Gastañaga said. “And they’re up there debating how we should kill people, not whether we should kill people.”

 

A companion bill has already passed the Virginia House of Delegates in a 64-32 vote, with more than half of delegates from the Richmond area supporting the proposal.

 

In an email from the Virginia Department of Corrections, Director of Communications Lisa E. Kinney said the Department is now exploring options to purchase new lethal injection drugs. Other parts of the country are currently facing a shortage, partly because European companies hesitant to have their drugs used for executions.

 

“[Virginia’] drugs have come from a domestic company,” Kinney said. “The Department has no position on the pending bills.”

 

Questions on whether forced electrocutions are humane will continue take center stage if the proposed legislation heads to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s desk. But in a phone interview Friday, the patron of the Senate bill, Sen. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson) said gruesome tales of electrocution are often exaggerated.

 

“We see nothing to the extent of the horror stories of the Green Mile, the movies people watch,” Carrico said.

 

Proponents of the electric chair also point to the 25 minutes an Ohio man took to die, with a new combination of lethal injection drugs.

 

“When people start seeing that these drugs are not becoming exactly effective, it is a more inhumane way to do it than electrocution,” Carrico said. “And what about the victims’ families? Many of them could never see their loved ones again because of these heinous crimes. We need to think about them.”

Carrico’s proposal, Senate Bill 607, is expected to receive a full Senate vote next week

A history of capital punishment in Texas


Milestones in capital punishment in Texas:

1819 — George Brown is first person executed in Texas, by hanging.

1863 — Chipita Rodriguez is first woman executed in Texas, by hanging.

1923 — Lee Nathan becomes the last of 394 people executed by hanging.

1924 — Charles Reynolds becomes first inmate to die in the electric chair in Huntsville as state takes over executions.

1963 — Joseph Johnson is the last of 361 Texas prisoners to die in the electric chair.

1972 — U.S. Supreme Court finds death penalty “cruel and unusual;” death sentences of 52 people in Texas are commuted to life in prison.

1976 — U.S. Supreme Court holds Georgia death penalty statute constitutional, setting stage for resumption of executions.

1977 — Texas adopts lethal injection method.

1982 — Texas inmate Charlie Brooks becomes first in U.S. to receive lethal injection.

1998 — Karla Tucker becomes first woman executed in Texas since Civil War.

2000 — Texas executes a record 40 prisoners in one year.

2013 — Texas schedules execution of Kimberly McCarthy, number 500 by lethal injection.

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Sources: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, “Espy File” database compiled by historians M. Watt Espy and John Ortiz Smykla.