On this date in 1987, Jimmy L. Glass died in Louisiana’s electric chair — having come one vote short of having the device declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The 20-year-old Glass escaped from a parish jail with fellow inmate Jimmy Wingo on Christmas Eve, 1982, robbing and murdering an elderly couple in the process. Each blamed the other; both got the chair.*
But should they have?
Glass would lend his name to a landmark 1985 Supreme Court decision contesting Louisiana’s method of execution.
By a 5-4 decision, the high court held that electrocution, still at that point the country’s prevailing method of execution despite its medieval reputation for grisly botches, remained a constitutional method of inflicting death.
[E]vidence suggests that death by electrical current is extremely violent and inflicts pain and indignities far beyond the “mere extinguishment of life.” Witnesses routinely report that, when the switch is thrown, the condemned prisoner “cringes,” “leaps,” and ” ‘fights the straps with amazing strength.’ ” “The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands.” The prisoner’s limbs, fingers, toes, and face are severely contorted. The force of the electrical current is so powerful that the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and “rest on [his] cheeks.” The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool.
“The body turns bright red as its temperature rises,” and the prisoner’s “flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking.” Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire, particularly “if [he] perspires excessively.” Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound ” like bacon frying,” and “the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh” permeates the chamber. This “smell of frying human flesh in the immediate neighbourhood of the chair is sometimes bad enough to nauseate even the Press representatives who are present.” In the meantime, the prisoner almost literally boils: “the temperature in the brain itself approaches the boiling point of water,” and when the postelectrocution autopsy is performed “the liver is so hot that doctors have said that it cannot be touched by the human hand.” The body frequently is badly burned and disfigured.
The violence of killing prisoners through electrical current is frequently explained away by the assumption that death in these circumstances is instantaneous and painless. This assumption, however, in fact “is open to serious question” and is “a matter of sharp conflict of expert opinion.” Throughout the 20th century a number of distinguished electrical scientists and medical doctors have argued that the available evidence strongly suggests that electrocution causes unspeakable pain and suffering. Because ” ‘[t]he current flows along a restricted path into the body, and destroys all the tissue confronted in this path . . . [i]n the meantime the vital organs may be preserved; and pain, too great for us to imagine, is induced. . . . For the sufferer, time stands still; and this excruciating torture seems to last for an eternity.‘ ” L.G.V. Rota, a renowned French electrical scientist, concluded after extensive research that
“[i]n every case of electrocution, . . . death inevitably supervenes but it may be very long, and above all, excruciatingly painful . . . . [T]he space of time before death supervenes varies according to the subject. Some have a greater physiological resistance than others. I do not believe that anyone killed by electrocution dies instantly, no matter how weak the subject may be. In certain cases death will not have come about even though the point of contact of the electrode with the body shows distinct burns. Thus, in particular cases, the condemned person may be alive and even conscious for several minutes without it being possible for a doctor to say whether the victim is dead or not. . . . This method of execution is a form of torture.”
At least neither the juridical near miss nor Brennan’s graphic description of his impending manner of death dented Jimmy’s sense of humor. Asked for his last words, the “swaggering” inmate, already strapped in the chair, replied
Yeah, I think I’d rather be fishing.
* Wingo was put to death four days after Glass.