Pulling the Plug on the Electric Chair

ByABC News

May 4, 2001 -- When Florida's Supreme Court posted photos of the bleeding, bubbling corpse of 340-pound triple-murderer Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis on the Web, the court may have sentenced to death a particularly American form of execution: the electric chair.

Opponents have long argued that electrocution was cruel and unusual punishment — even before the chair took a man's life for the first time in the late 1800s, George Westinghouse, one of the pioneers of electricity, argued against it. He was opposed by Thomas Edison.

But after Florida made the gruesome photos Davis public on the Internet, it prompted a new surge in opposition, leading several states to drop the chair as a method of execution, or give inmates a choice of lethal injection, including in Florida.

Inmates overwhelmingly opt for lethal injection. And now, according to most experts, the electric chair is on its last legs.

In Georgia, electrocutions have been suspended since March, when the state supreme court halted the execution of double-murderer Ronald Spivey hours before it was scheduled — because it wanted to consider claims that the electric chair violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Georgia last year passed a law instituting death by lethal injection for anyone sentenced to die for a crime committed after May 1, 2000, but Spivey committed his crime in 1976.

In fact, there are only two states where the chair is still effectively in use — Nebraska and Alabama — where inmates sentenced to die have no alternatives.

Michael Rondelet, a social sciences professor at the University of Florida says the electric chair is a cruel way to kill a man, and that it would disappear just as the noose, the method of execution that the chair replaced, has largely disappeared as a way of punishment.

The electric chair "is going to go the way of burning at the stake or sawing a person in half," he said. And twenty years from now, he said, our children may be debating the cruelty of lethal injection, if they don't abolish the death penalty altogether.

A Lesson at the Last Minute

When Florida officials executed Davis in July 1999, the hefty triple-murderer died a death as grisly as the crime he committed — the brutal beating of a young mother and her two daughters.

He was executed like most prisoners: wheeled into the death chamber, strapped in, with his face shrouded.

But then, right before the executioner threw the switch, Davis let out two unintelligible screams. The current slammed into his body, forcing him to jerk back against the chair and at the straps binding him to the chair.

At that moment, a trickle of bright red blood began to dribble from under the mask, onto the white shirt he was wearing.

The blood continued to flow, dripping onto the leather restraints and leaking through the holes for the buckle until it left a dinner plate-sized stain in the middle of his chest.

An Issue of Implications

Reports of Davis' death are only the latest in a series that have most scholars today debating not the demise of the electric chair, but the implications of the change.

Rondelet has said concerns about the cruelty of the electric chair are like the concerns that made hanging less popular — and that it might lead to the end of the death penalty altogether.

John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, disagrees. The change means nothing to the future of the death penalty, he said. "It's just a change in fashion."

McAdams pointed out hangings and firing squads are still in use.As recently as 1996, Delaware hanged convicted double-murderer Billy Bailey.

If the increasing popularity of lethal injection "does anything at all, it legitimizes the death penalty by making it antiseptic, modern, high-tech," said McAdams.

However, Craig Brandon, author of The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History, said the electric chair is a unique case, because the machinery is growing decrepit, and few people know how to use it anymore.

He added that the more unusual executions that have taken place in recent years were at the request of the prisoner, and few are going to opt for a likely painful death in a poorly maintained electric chair.

Every state that has given up on the electric chair, Brandon said, "not a single one has ever gone back."

In the Georgia case against Spivey, a group of death penalty opponents is suing to film the execution, in the hope that a graphic video will finish what the bloody pictures of Tiny Davis began, and throw the switch on the electric chair.