Capital punishment on trial

After witnessing a state execution, a Florida reporter says the electric chair is inhumane.

Topics: Jeb Bush,

On Monday, the Florida Supreme Court postponed the execution of Thomas Provenzano, set for Sept. 14, so it could consider his attorneys’ claim that the state’s use of the electric chair is unconstitutional. Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of GOP presidential frontrunner George W., defends the chair, calling it “appropriate” punishment.

I have to disagree.

This past July I watched the last Florida execution, with two dozen other witnesses, through a glass window, as if viewing some bizarre promotional stunt in a radio studio. I saw 344-pound Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis scream in horror through his leather mask, and writhe against his straps. I watched blood pour down the front of his white button-down shirt, a spectacle no one present could quite explain.

Leave for another day the debate over capital punishment itself, or whether Davis deserved mercy for the brutal murder of a pregnant Jacksonville woman and her two young daughters. What remains stunningly incomprehensible to me is why, on the eve of the new millennium, Florida would want to remain one of four states that still use the electric chair when lethal injection is available.

More than a century after the electric chair was invented, Florida leads the nation in electric-chair executions. The only other states that exclusively practice electrocution are Georgia, Alabama and Nebraska. Nearly all of the other 38 states with a death penalty give prisoners at least a choice of lethal injection, with rare alternatives including the gas chamber, hanging or firing squad. Texas, where George W. Bush is now governor, led the majority of states in switching to lethal injection in 1982.

Since 1976, Florida has executed more people than any state except Texas and Virginia. Twice in the last decade, in 1990 and 1997, flames have sprouted from the heads of executed men at Florida State Prison. There have been electrical burns to heads and legs. But Davis’ execution was the first that became a bloody spectacle.

I was there because my name had come up in the reporter pool. I debated whether to take the spot because I knew I would soon be taking another assignment with my newspaper, the Palm Beach Post, that had nothing to do with death penalty reporting. Besides, it wasn’t a local case. But in the end, I told myself that as a citizen, I ought to have the guts to witness the most important act the state commits in the public’s name.

I did not sleep the night before at the Day’s Inn in Starke, an aptly named rural town in north-central Florida where the prison is one of the area’s largest employers.

Davis, 54, was so massive that he had to be rolled to the chamber in a wheelchair. To accommodate his girth, the wooden frame of the electric chair had been specially rebuilt, for the first time since inmates constructed Florida’s original chair in the 1920s. The fear was that if the chair collapsed, guards and other attendants in the execution chamber might be electrocuted by the exposed wiring.

There was a microphone for his last words, but Davis shook his head and said nothing. With his head shaved, he looked like Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in the movie “Apocalypse Now.” Until they put the mask over his face, Davis could see us. Among the witnesses were the victim’s husband and father, who did not speak or change expression.

To the end, he would not explain why he had beaten to death Nancy Weiler and shot and killed her two young daughters, Kristina and Katherine, in their home. Was he mentally retarded, as his lawyers had claimed? Or just plain evil, a man willing to commit a heinous triple murder in what may have been a botched robbery? His parents, quiet people, lived in the same neighborhood as the victims. They had no answers either.

After the microphone was turned off, the mask was placed over his head, and with a whirring buzz, the electricity came on. I thought I knew something about what to expect. I had written about the electric chair and covered reactions to previous executions on the prison grounds. I was prepared for the chest heaves that went on minutes after what state experts said was an instantaneous death, the so-called “agonal breaths.”

But I was not prepared for Davis’ two moaning, muffled screams shortly before 2,300 volts coursed through his body. Nor was I prepared for the blood that poured down his white shirt.

Outside the chamber, dazed reporters compared details. The blood had appeared first on his chest. Had it formed a jagged circle? A cross? Eight inches across? Ten? When doctors lifted the mask briefly, we could see blood on his face. Was it from the nose or the mouth? We flipped through our notes, written with state-issued pencils on notepads provided by the Department of Corrections.

Corrections spokesmen huddled for a brief conference about what to say. Pressed, one admitted the blood was “not normal.” But the execution had been carried out properly, he said.

Later in the day, Bush said state doctors found the blood came from a nosebleed. Davis, who suffered from high blood pressure among other ailments, had been taking blood thinners, including aspirin.

The execution was a fitting end for man who had committed a horrible crime, Bush concluded. “I remain convinced that the electric chair is an appropriate way to carry out death sentences in Florida,” Bush said.

His opinion is shared by Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth and a majority of legislators. They cite the prevailing medical opinion that the executed person dies the instant the electricity surges through, although that is the subject of periodic debate in court.

But there is a whiff of something else in their defense of the electric chair: If the person does suffer, so be it. If the body is mutilated in some way, let that send a message to other criminals. Their victims suffered terribly. So should they.

There is a chance the court may be on the verge of retiring the chair. The last vote, in 1997, upheld the chair 4-3. The dissenting justices called the chair “a dinosaur more befitting the laboratory of Baron Frankenstein than the death chamber at the Florida State Prison.”

Since then, three justices have retired, including two in the pro-chair majority. There are hints newer appointees may be leaning toward lethal injection.

Still, it’s a big step to overturn nearly 80 years of established Florida practice. It’s a bigger step given that Bush and the state’s Republican legislative majority remain firm advocates of the electric chair. On Aug. 30 leaders of that majority inspected the chair and concluded it is doing its job, blood or no blood.

Observed state Rep. Victor Crist, “No one has ever walked away from it.”

I did walk away, but I will never see the electric chair the same way again.

Charles Elmore is a reporter for the Palm Beach Post.

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