Add comment July 11th, 2012 Headsman
On this date in 1952, 58-year-old Chester Gregg nonchalantly died in Ohio’s electric chair for killing his wife the previous year.
Gregg shotgunned Alma Colliday Gregg, his estranged spouse and the head of the “lonely hearts” club through which the pair oiginally met, in her Kenton apartment after she filed for divorce.
As that killing made him a two-timer — he’d been paroled from a 1927 murder rap in Kentucky; the daughter of that victim petitioned unsuccessfully to attend Gregg’s execution — his clemency prospects were remote.
Apparently, he was acquainted with an Ohio child named Jay Chapman (newspaper reports have termed Gregg Chapman’s “childhood friend”, but Chapman would only have been about 13 at this time: we intend no derogation to intergenerational friendship in saying that this is not the connotation of “childhood friend”). And Chapman would go on, as Oklahoma’s medical examiner in the 1970s, to play a subtle but important role in the modern death penalty: he invented the “traditional” lethal injection three-drug cocktail.
Dr. Chapman, who at least has the comfort of not having the lethal needle named after him a la Joseph Guillotin, knocked out the standard sodium thiopental-pancuronium bromide-potassium chloride sequence at the request of legislators looking for a less unpleasant alternative to that ubiquitous 20th century contraption, the electric chair. (That’s also how Gregg was put to death.)
But apparently, Chapman assumed that trained medical personnel who knew how to administer IVs and measure drugs would be conducting the procedure.
In fact, as executions “medicalized”, professional medical associations like the AMA barred members from participating as a breach of professional ethics. More recently, supply interruptions for lethal drugs have made a mess of the entire process. The upshot has been some high-profile botches — including Ohio itself outright failing in a recent lethal injection attempt — necessitating a 2007-2008 U.S. execution moratorium to sort out legal challenges to the needle.
It’s a far cry from Chapman’s vision of a litigation-proof method: “We felt that by going with this type of regimen, no one could suggest that it was cruel and unusual because people undergo this very protocol every day for anesthetic for surgery world-round,” he said in 2009.
The doctor’s own interest in the subject was merely instrumental: fewer appeals avenues mean more executions. “I’m an eye for an eye person,” Chapman told the London Guardian.* “The lethal injection is too easy for some of them.”
For that reason, Chapman is quite alright with the switch his home state an others have recently made to conducting lethal injections with only a single massive overdose of a single drug, either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital. Whatever gets the case out of courts, and onto the gurney.
As for the ghost of Chester Gregg, he really doesn’t enter the picture either way.
“It’s a totally separate thing,” Chapman said of his executed former neighbor. “It’s just an experience I had along the way.”
* There are some May 2010 photos of Chapman in the Guardian magazine archive.
Also on this date
- 1780: Five for the Gordon Riots
- 1892: Ravachol, anarchist terrorist
- 1836: Louis Alibaud, failed regicide
- 472: Anthemius, twilight emperor of Rome