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Flames Erupt in Electric Chair’s Death Jolt

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The perennial American debate over the cruelty or value of the death penalty surfaced anew here Tuesday after a gruesome electric chair execution in which flames leaped from the head of a convicted murderer after the switch was thrown.

Pedro Medina, a 39-year-old Cuban immigrant, was pronounced dead at 7:10 a.m., but not before a prison official wearing protective gloves helped douse the flames that shot from the condemned man’s head, and so much smoke filled the death chamber that a window to the outside was opened.

“It was horrible. A solid flame covered his whole head, from one side to the other. I had the impression of somebody being burned alive,” said attorney Mike Minerva of the state’s Capital Collateral Representative, which represents death row inmates, including Medina. “In fact, you could smell it on the other side of glass. Very strong. Lots of smoke.”

While opponents of capital punishment quickly cited Medina’s fiery death as graphic evidence of the barbarity of execution, state Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth said he hoped the prisoner’s final seconds would serve as a deterrent to others.

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“People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the state of Florida because we may have a problem with our electric chair,” said Butterworth.

Florida’s electric chair is called “Old Sparky,” a three-legged oaken seat built by prisoners at Florida State Prison in Starke and used since 1923 to administer a fatal 2000-volt dose of current to more than 225 convicted killers.

Florida executions have been botched before. Old Sparky was unplugged for several months in 1990 after smoke and flames were seen near the head of convicted cop killer Jesse Tafero during an excruciating electrocution in which three jolts of current were administered over four minutes.

A months-long investigation concluded that a synthetic sponge substituted for a natural sponge inside the leather helmet worn by the condemned impeded the flow of electricity.

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By contrast, Medina’s death was quicker, but much more spectacular.

Observers said Medina appeared calm as he was being strapped into Old Sparky, never making eye contact with witnesses.

“Pedro was somewhere else when he was in there,” said the Rev. Glenn Dickson, a Presbyterian minister who had spent much of the night talking to Medina. “He told me he was not afraid of dying.”

“I am still innocent,” Medina said moments before a black hood was dropped over his face and prison superintendent Ron McAndrew nodded to the executioner.

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“Almost immediately a flame 4 to 6 inches high shot from a top portion of the headpiece,” said Eugene Morris, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, one of about 30 persons who witnessed the execution. “It burned clearly enough that it could be seen for six to eight seconds.

“It was total surprise, disbelief,” Morris said. “In a split second you could tell something had gone wrong.”

Witnesses reported that Medina lurched backward into the chair and balled his hands into fists as electricity was turned on. The flames erupted immediately.

Told by doctors in attendance that Medina felt no pain during his execution, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles commented: “We’ve had an occasion of smoke before. But the question is really, ‘Is this something torturous or painful?’ ”

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Medical examiner Belle Almojera said the answer was no. “In my professional opinion, he died a very quick, humane death,” the doctor said in an affidavit. “I did notice smoke coming from the hood. At no time while there was smoke did I observe any pain or suffering on the part of the inmate.”

In January, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic pro-nuncio, Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, had urged Chiles to grant Medina clemency, and the daughter of the woman Medina was convicted of slaying in 1982 also pleaded for his life. But the governor turned down those requests, and the state Supreme Court affirmed the sentence.

Medina’s lawyers also argued that their client’s earlier lawyers were deprived of information that cast serious doubts about his guilt in the murder of Orlando teacher Dorothy James, 52. Medina was a former neighbor of James, who was found stabbed to death.

Lawyers also insisted that Medina, who arrived in the U.S. from Cuba in 1980 during the Mariel boat lift, was mentally ill. In recent hearings, psychologists who had examined Medina concluded he was feigning craziness in an effort to save his life. An Orlando judge ruled that although he had some mental problems, he was sane enough to be killed.

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Last fall the lawyers representing death row inmates petitioned the state high court to ban Old Sparky, calling it a barbaric instrument of torture that inflicts cruel and unusual punishment. Florida is one of just six states that still require the use of the electric chair for executions.

But the court denied a hearing.

“I am angry that the state does things like this to people,” said Minerva. “And I’m frustrated because the barbaric nature of executions doesn’t seem to affect the public at all.”

Corrections officials said private laboratories would be hired to review Old Sparky’s workings. The next execution in Florida is scheduled for April 15.

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Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Florida’s Death Chair

To carry out the death penalty, Florida uses a three-legged oak electric chair built in 1923. Here’s how it is supposed to work:

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First electrode: Detachable leather skullcap with wire mesh underneath. A sponge, soaked in brine, is sewn to the mesh and linked to power source with nut and bolt. A leather mask covers the face.

The charge: When an execution is carried out, the condemned prisoner is subjected to three cycles of electricity, peaking at 2,000 volts.

Second electrode: Connected to right calf

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Tuesday’s problem

Right side of leather face mask caught fire during execution.

* 1996 U.S. executions

36 Lethal injections

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7 Electrocutions

1 Hanging

1 By firing Squad

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* 1971-1995

Of 313 total executions in the U.S., 121 were by electrocution.

Researched by ANNA VIRTUE and SCOTT WILSON / Los Angeles Times


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