March 25th, 2009 Sarah Owocki
The electric chair has gotten a bad rap in recent years, and nowhere is this more evident than in the 1997 Florida execution of Cuban refugee Pedro Medina.
The improper application of an electricity-conducting sponge caused a “crown of foot-high flames” to shoot from Medina’s head, in a botched execution that caused Florida to reexamine its use of the electric chair and accelerated the trend towards lethal injection as the preferred method of execution — modern, sanitary and humane. But electrocution was once preferred for just those very reasons — well, that, and politics.
The thought of designing an apparatus to stimulate death by electrocution first came to dentist Dr. Albert Southwick in 1881, who watched an drunk man touch the terminal of an electricity generator in Buffalo, New York. Impressed at how quickly and painlessly the man died, he mentioned the incident to his friend, a state senator, who promptly brought the matter to the attention of the governor. The state legislature was then asked to consider how modern day electricity might emerge as an alternative to the often grisly process of hanging, in which incompetent executioners often inadvertently subjected prisoners to slow deaths by strangulation or decapitation.
Several years later, an inventor by the name of Harold Brown, an employee of the famous Thomas Edison, designed the first electric chair, deliberately adopting the Alternating Current (AC) form of electricity because Edison did not want his Direct Current (DC) form associated with the gruesome business of death — a sordid chapter in the history of public relations. The first execution was carried out in New York State in 1890, but the novel method was far from foolproof: it took two attempts, and the inmate was reported to have gone down in the same sort of smoke, flames, and smell of Medina’s over a hundred years later.
Still, the method caught on, and over the course of the 20th century, the electric chair became an indelible symbol of the death penalty in the nation’s consciousness.
“The chair” didn’t begin to decline until the mid-1980s, when newspaper accounts about botched executions, together with the emerging technology of lethal injection, again prompted some states to reexamine their death penalty statues.
It was around this time that Pedro Medina first came to the US from Cuba, part of the Mariel boat lift of 1980, in which Fidel Castro “permitted” some 125,000 Cuban prisoners and mentally ill to depart from the Mariel harbor for the fertile shores of America. (Medina himself had been released from a psychiatric hospital in Cuba and diagnosed with illnesses including paranoid schizophrenia and major depressive disorder with psychosis.) The boatlift polarized public sentiment in the United States.
These factors combined to lend Medina, a black man, a low status indeed in the eyes of prosecutors and jurors when, two years after his arrival on American shores, he was convicted of murdering his neighbor, Dorothy James.
Medina was executed in Albert Southwick’s brainchild 15 years later, despite pleas from James’ daughter, Lindi James, who said that she did not believe Medina had killed her mother and that her mother would not have wanted him executed regardless, and from Pope John Paul II, who also made a public call for mercy on Medina’s behalf. Medina’s lawyers also filed a petition claiming he was insane and thus incompetent to be executed, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that, while he had mental problems, he could still be executed.
Early in the morning on March 25, 1997, Medina went out in flames.
A crown of foot-high flames shot from the headpiece during the execution, filling the execution chamber with a stench of thick smoke and gagging the two dozen official witnesses. An official then threw a switch to manually cut off the power and prematurely end the two-minute cycle of 2,000 volts. Medina’s chest continued to heave until the flames stopped and death came. (From the Death Penalty Information Center’s botched executions page.)
The source of the malfunction was not immediately apparent; prison officials claimed the fire had been caused by a corroded copper screen in the electric chair’s headpiece, but later investigation revealed that it was due to improper application of an electricity-conducting sponge to Medina’s head. Attorney General Bob Butterworth hailed the deterrent value of malfunctions: “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.”
Others, including the warden conducting the execution, were not as sanguine.
The debacle of Medina’s execution caused a media sensation and led to a case by another Florida death row inmate, Thomas Provenzano, claiming that lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.
Provenzano lost his case, but with the release of bloody photographs of the 1999 execution of Allen Lee Davis, more states began moving against the use of the electric chair. Of the six states that today retain it (Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and, yes, Florida), none currently use it as their only method of execution.
Rather, lethal injection has become the norm.
But for how long? There may be no AC/DC marketing gambit in the new, modern business of death, and no crown of flames. But maybe all we’ve really done by moving to the needle is render invisible ongoing Medina-like botches.
Also on this date
- 1586: Saint Margaret Clitherow, pressed Catholic
- 1915: 22 Singapore mutineers
- 1887: William Jackson Marion, who'd be pardoned 100 years later
- 1843: 17 who drew the black beans
- 1977: Alphonse Massamba-Débat, Congolese Communist
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA