Wednesday, April 30, 2014

'Old Sparky' worked extra hard in Texas

The Death Penalty in Texas: 
A 40 Year Retrospection 

Part 2: By Dorothy Charles Banks
Special to The Villager
August 2000 

Old Sparky is the common named given to electric chairs in several states. Texas's electric chair is presently housed in Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas. The last electrocution took place in Texas July 30, 1964.
First known electrocution in the United States

"The first person sentenced to be executed by the electric chair was William Kemmer, a convicted murderer. An appeal was made to the New York Court of Appeals on the grounds that use of electricity as a means of execution constituted a cruel and unusual punishment and was thus contrary to the constitution of the United States and the state of New York. On December 30, 1889, the writ of habeas corpus  sworn out on Kemmler's behalf was denied by the court, with Judge Dwight writing in a lengthy ruling:

"We have no doubt that if the Legislature of this State should undertake to prescribe for any offense against its laws the punishment of burning at the stake, breaking at the wheel , etc., it would be the duty of the courts to pronounce upon such attempt the condemnation of the Constitution. The question now to be answered is whether the legislative act here assailed is subject to the same condemnation. Certainly it is not so on its face, for, although the mode of death described is conceded to be unusual, there is no common knowledge or consent that it is cruel; it is a question of fact whether an electric current of sufficient intensity and skillfully applied will produce death without unnecessary suffering."

"Kemmler was executed in New York's Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890; the "state electrician" was Edwin  F. Davis. The first 17-second passage of current through Kemmler caused unconsciousness, but failed to stop his heart and breathing. The attending physicians,  Edward Charles Spitzka and Charles F. Macdonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming Kemmler was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out, "Have the current turned on again, quick, no delay." The generator needed time to re-charge, however. In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled, and the areas around the electrodes singed. The entire execution took about eight minutes. George Westinghouse later commented that "they would have done better using an axe," and a witnessing reporter claimed that it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging."
 

"The first woman to be executed in the electric chair was Martha M. Pease , executed at Sing Sing Prison on March 20, 1899." (Wikipedia)

From 1819 until 1923, Texas, along with several other states, hanged criminals sentenced to death. When hanging was noted as cruel and inhumane, electrocutions took its place. The State of Texas authorized use of the electric chair in 1923. All executions were  performed in a designated chamber located behind the prison chapel in Huntsville, Texas. The method was supposed to take executions to a  level of acceptance. The idea was sold to the public as quick and humane.

Prior to 1923 counties in Texas were responsible for their own execution sites. Texas executed its first condemned inmate, an African American, February 7, 1924. The same night four additional African American prisoners from various rural counties in East Texas were also electrocuted, starting at 12:09 a.m. and ending at 2 a.m., when the last man was put to death.

In 1924 five Black men were executed back-to-back, all tried and convicted for committing murder. That early morning of executions was called the "Harvest of Death." The last inmate to be executed was Joseph Johnson, in Harris county, July 1964. From 1923 to 1964 Texas electrocuted 361 male inmates; 229 were African Americans, 108 were White and 23 were Hispanic. "Old Sparky" was not immediately set aside in 1964. No other method of execution had been created to replace it. Texas was not ready to stop executing criminals. At the time executions were scheduled for midnight. The reason was twofold: midnight left time for an 11th hour stay or commutation of sentence, leaving time for the news to reach the warden. Early morning executions were also employed as a tool to dissuade protests.

The U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that the death penalty was "cruel and unusual punishment." However, Supreme Court Justices could not unanimously decide if the death penalty was actually a "cruel and unusual punishment." The same year four judges said the death penalty was not cruel and unusual punishment. Some judges agreed that the death penalty was somewhat random and disproportionately administered to African Americans and other minorities.

A court ordered moratorium from 1972 until 1973 stopped all executions nationwide. At the time Texas had 45 men on death row, and seven more in county jails. Their sentences were commuted to life in prison by Governor Dolph Biscoe. Revision of the Texas Penal Code reassessed capital punishment in 1973. The revision stipulated that executions would resume in Texas, January 1, 1974. The first condemned prisoner, a White male, was put on death row in February. He cheated the State of Texas, and the electric chair when he committed suicide. He hanged himself July 1, with bed sheets in his cell.

Texas adopted lethal injection in 1977. Charlie Brooks, a Black man from Tarrant County, was executed December 7, 1982, a few minutes after 6 p.m. He was charged with  the kidnap and murder of a Forth Worth auto mechanic. In 1995 the Texas legislature passed a law making it official that all Texas prisoners were to be executed at 6 p.m.

Preparation for execution in the electric chair

As of 2000 nine states still utilized the electric chair. Preparation for an electrocution entails a last meal request that has to be eaten in 30 minutes. The inmate takes a shower.  Both requests are optional. At a specified time the inmate's head and right leg are shaved. Electrodes moistened with saline solution are strapped to his leg. The electric chair, made of wood, usually oak, is equipped with a metal cap with one electrode fitted to the head. A second electrode is attached to the back. The condemned, with a hood over his (or her) head, is secured in the chair with leather straps across the chest, arms and legs. When the switch is thrown the first time, the prisoner's body automatically leaps forward against the straps.

The voltage of electricity released varies from state to state. It is also determined by the inmate's body weight. The first shock paralyzes the body, destroying the brain. It has been reported that some prisoners take longer to die than others. During an electrocution the inmate's body temperature elevates to 138 degrees  Fahrenheit, making it too hot to touch. Body reactions include foaming of the mouth, body sweat, gurgling, heaving chest and release of feces.

Fatal dose cocktail

The three drugs used to conduct an execution by lethal injection costs $86.08. Pro-death advocates feel that executions by lethal injection affords the condemned the luxury of dying quickly, easily. On the flip side of the coin, anti-death penalty advocates reason that a lethal injection, no matter how humane, is unjustified. They compare it to putting an animal to sleep. On the surface lethal injection appears to be less grizzly than the electric chair and hanging. If the condemned has been a habitual drug user, causing severe scarring to his or her veins, that makes it hard to find a suitable vein in which to inject the needle. That temporary set back is not sufficient to delay the execution.

The injection concoction has been described as a "deadly cocktail" that drips from an IV into the inmate's arm. The first drug to invade the body is sodium thiopental, a barbiturate that renders the inmate unconscious. The next is pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant that paralyzes the diaphragm and lungs; the third is potassium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest. The complete execution takes about seven minutes, barring there are no complications. The fatal dosage depends on the inmate's body size.

Starting in 1955 close relatives and friends were permitted to witness executions. These witnesses, coming from a list composed by the condemned, are taken to the death chamber at separate times. The witnesses are searched for weapons, and briefed as to what to expect from beginning to end. Only the condemned can see the witnesses in both rooms. In Texas, relatives and friends of the condemned are separated.  Friends and relatives of the victim are placed in separate rooms, with a concrete wall between them.

 When the curtain is pulled back from the showcase size window, all eyes immediately fall on the condemned prisoner strapped to a gurney, partially covered with a white sheet, and dressed in a freshly laundered pair of white pants and shirt. An IV is attached to the left arm. A microphone is close to the inmate's mouth so that his or her last statement can be heard by witnesses. After he or she is finish talking, the warden makes sure the condemned has nothing else to say. If the answer is no, he signals to start the fatal cocktail.

Once the process is underway, sometimes the condemned makes a gurgling sound or an audible gasp. When the execution is finished, the inmate is announced dead by a prison physician. Witnesses are then escorted out of the execution chamber, returning to the waiting room in the front building at separate times.

If witnesses and family members choose to do so, they are free to talk to the media after the execution. In Texas witnesses from both sides never come in contact with each other on the prison ground. However, once they leave they can talk to each other if they choose to do so.

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