1983: John Eldon Smith, mafioso Willy Loman

3 comments December 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1983, Georgia’s electric chair* got its first use in 19 years.

The Headsman is not a theologian, but does believe John Eldon Smith’s quotable last words

Well, the Lord is going to get another one.

— would be conditioned on the Lord’s policy on crimes like this:

Joseph [Ronald] Akins’ former wife, appellant Rebecca Akins Smith Machetti, together with her husband, appellant John Eldon Smith, a/k/a Anthony Isalldo Machetti, a/k/a Tony Machetti** … plotted the death of Joseph Akins with the intent of redeeming the proceeds of Akins’ insurance policies, and other benefits, the beneficiaries of which were Mrs. Machetti and her three daughters by her marriage to Akins … appellant Tony Machetti drove to Macon, Georgia … contacted Ronald Akins and lured him into the area of the crime, ostensibly to install a television antenna … when he and his wife arrived at the appointed time the appellant Tony Machetti killed both of them with a shotgun.

Trial testimony against Smith said that the insurance salesman was hoping with his shotgun-slaying prowess to become a made man.

And the supposed last words, it should be noted, are not apparent on the secret audio recording of the execution, available here, although the religious theme presents itself in the form of a Catholic benediction. The rest is all clinical efficiency, a far cry from the next year’s dreadful botch.

The Dec. 16, 1983 New York Times report — executions were still oddities that drew national coverage at this time — quoted a witness remarking on the “antiseptic and sterile” process, which the Times writer described thus:

A square of material was draped over Mr. Smith’s face and a leather-strapped cap containing an electrode was placed over his head.

So tightly was he strapped to the chair, witnesses said, it was difficult to tell when the three unidentified executioners pressed three small buttons, one of which sent 2,000 volts of electricity through the condemned man’s body for two minutes. According to prison tradition, none of the executioners knew if his was the lethal button.

Far more noteworthy than either the day’s procedure or its subject was the context of a noticeably accelerating execution pace.

From resumption of executions in 1977 through 1982, there had been only six people put to death in the U.S.; Smith capped a year with five more, including back-to-back days (Robert Wayne Williams had been electrocuted in Louisiana on December 14).

Anti-death penalty lawyer and activist Henry Schwarzschild was quoted in the article bemoaning “a new period where executions are utterly likely” and prophesying 30 to 50 in the year ahead thanks to prisoners’ appeals expiring.

There were, in the event, 21 American executions during the ensuing twelvemonth, almost tripling the country’s total up to that time; the annual total has never since 1983 returned to single digits.

* One of several electric chairs named “Old Sparky”

** The non-wiseguy name’s similarity to a John McCain alias is presumably pure coincidence.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Gallows Humor,Georgia,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,USA

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1999: Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis, the end of the road for Old Sparky

46 comments July 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1999, America’s obesity epidemic met Florida’s death penalty politics in the ugly electrocution of Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis.

The reader will discern that Tiny earned his nickname ironically. Reportedly 159 kg (350 pounds) at his death, he’d put his ample heft to work bludgeoning a pregnant mother of two beyond recognition with a revolver handle back in 1982 … and then shooting to death the now-motherless two.

As his appeals meandered through the courts, Davis got fatter — and got high blood pressure, arthritis, hypertension and a wheelchair. Meanwhile, the death penalty was meandering its own way across the weird political chessboard of the Sunshine State.

For the American death penalty nowadays, it’s Texas and then everyone else … but time was that Florida was the capital of capital punishment.

It conducted the first “modern” involuntary execution in 1979. It had carried out three executions before anyone else had more than one. And when the the drip-drip-drip pace of one or two execution nationwide per year in the early 1980’s finally burst into a torrent, Florida led the way with eight of the 21 executions in 1984.

Not until late in 1986 did Texas overtake Florida in the body count sweepstakes.

All that time, Florida was happily using its vintage electric chair, Old Sparky (one of several electric chairs with that moniker), built in 1923 of 100% oak wood and prison labor. And the more the chair’s quasi-medieval ickiness drove other states to lethal injection, the more Floridians cherished electrocution.

Law-and-order Tampa mayor Bob Martinez won the governorship in 1986 on the promise that “Florida’s electric bill will go up.” There was a high-profile botch in 1990, and another in 1997 — flames shooting from the inmates’ heads. What was the state’s Attorney General going to do about it? “People who wish to commit murder, they’d better not do it in the state of Florida because we may have a problem with the electric chair.” Under pressure to move to lethal injection — the chair’s unsightly malfunctions were spawning legal and public relations nightmares that were gumming up the gears — the legislature voted nearly unanimously to keep Old Sparky.

And then along came a giant.

After three-quarters of a century and 266 jobs, Old Sparky was “falling apart” … and that was going to be a problem for a man of Davis’ carriage.

The killer’s lawyers argued that Davis was so fat he couldn’t conduct electricity efficiently and would be slowly cooked to death. According to Slate, Florida authorities were nervous that he’d break the chair during his electrocution and send a disconnected live cable scything into someone else in the room.

It was time for the unthinkable: Florida retired Old Sparky and built a new chair … and supersized it. (Image, from the Florida Department of Corrections)

And it worked, in that it killed Tiny. But what a mess — especially when an ensuing Florida Supreme Court opinion once again upheld the constitutionality of electrocution, and a dissenting judge attached the photos on this page to his opinions. Naturally, they became a grisly Internet sensation.

Old Sparky’s custom-built successor would only manage this single execution before Florida finally got on the lethal injection bandgurney.

Or at least, it’s only managed one so far. Old electric chairs don’t die, they just fade away … and in Florida, Tiny Davis’s chair remains available for condemned prisoners who choose it. Since this date in 1999, none have.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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