Despite the affectionate nicknames--Old Smokey, Yellow Mama, Old Sparky--there has been nothing gentle about America’s most lethal line of furniture.
More than 4,300 people in 26 states have gone to the electric chair since William Kemmler, convicted of the ax-murder of his lover, was electrocuted at New York’s Auburn State Prison on Aug. 6, 1890.
Now, 111 years later, experts predict the electric chair will soon become a relic. No inmate has been electrocuted for 13 months, and most states that have the chair have switched to lethal injection, considered less likely to be outlawed as cruel and unusual punishment.
Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, expects to see the electric chair retired “very shortly. It’s bad press for the death penalty. It’s not the kind of emblem that proponents want to have.”
Several states that once relied exclusively on the chair now offer condemned inmates a choice of electrocution or lethal injection. Only Nebraska and Alabama have the chair as the sole method of execution.
Pro-death penalty lawmakers in both states are trying to switch to lethal injection; opposition has come from die-hard supporters of the chair and from legislators who prefer abolishing capital punishment.
In a standard electrocution, the condemned prisoner is shaved and strapped to a chair before electrodes are attached to the head and ankle.
The executioner pulls a handle, sending up to 2,200 volts through the prisoner for 30 seconds or more. Doctors check the inmate’s heart; if it is still beating, another jolt is applied.
During electrocutions, internal organs burn and skin changes color. Condemned prisoners sometimes urinate or vomit blood; witnesses have said they smelled burning flesh. William Brennan, the late U.S. Supreme Court justice, assailed the practice as the “technological equivalent of burning people at the stake.”
Abolitionists such as Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers scoff at the notion that lethal injection is progress.
“That term is a euphemism,” Chambers said. “If I did something like that to someone, they’d call it poisoning. It’s designed to prettify the death penalty, portray it as something other than the barbaric throwback it is.”
Chambers predicts that electrocution will soon be outlawed by the courts, and hopes no substitute method is established.
“I’m opposed to any method of killing by the state, I don’t care how benign and user-friendly,” Chambers said.
In Alabama, state Sen. Hinton Mitchem was among the legislators who worked in the 1970s to resurrect a death penalty law that would withstand court challenges.
Like many Alabamians, Mitchem has no objection to continued use of the state’s electric chair, nicknamed Yellow Mama. But he fears electrocution may be ruled unconstitutional and has pushed to make lethal injection an option.
“To save our death-penalty bill, we need to change it,” he said.
Mitchem’s bill was opposed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rodger Smitherman, a black lawmaker who wants a moratorium on executions while the death penalty’s fairness is studied.
“Blacks are afraid that if we pass the lethal-injection bill, it would encourage juries to execute more individuals than we do now,” said Mitchem, who is white. “They feel the electric chair is a little more inhumane than lethal injection, and maybe in some cases that’s true.”
The electric chair, like the guillotine and gas chamber, owes its existence to the paradoxical quest for humane executions.
New York authorities in the 1880s were seeking an alternative to hanging, and encouraged experiments with electrocution. Two pioneers of electric power, George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison, wrangled over the chair’s development.
Though some witnesses described Kemmler’s electrocution as gruesome, the chair became America’s foremost method of execution. It was used on Bruno Hauptmann, the convicted kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets; and serial killer Ted Bundy.
The advent of lethal injection has pushed the electric chair into an increasingly marginal role. Since January 1999, there have been only eight electrocutions--none since Virginia executed Michael Clagett on July 6, 2000.
Defunct electric chairs are in storage or police museums. The chair from New York’s Sing Sing prison, where the Rosenbergs died in 1953, is displayed at the Newseum in Arlington, Va.
After several grisly executions--one inmate bled from the nose and two had flames shoot from their heads--Florida switched to lethal injection last year to avert a U.S. Supreme Court review of whether electrocution was cruel and unusual.
Georgia’s Legislature then switched to lethal injection for inmates condemned for crimes committed after May 1, 2000. Prisoners already on death row still face electrocution.
Bright was among the lawyers urging Georgia’s Supreme Court last month to outlaw the chair. Electrocution inflicts “excruciating pain,” he argued. The state’s medical experts said it causes instant unconsciousness.
In Ohio, which offers a choice between lethal injection or electrocution, prison officials asked lawmakers last month to abandon the chair because of concerns about possible malfunctions.
Ohio’s next execution is scheduled for Sept. 12, and the condemned man, John Byrd Jr., has requested electrocution.
“If they’re going to take his life,” said public defender David Bodicker, “he wants them to have to do it in the most difficult manner.”