America’s long and elusive search for a humane death penalty

The United States has long held conflicted opinions on capital punishment. The death penalty predates the Constitution; the British colonies executed criminals under English common law. Ever since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, however, the country has grappled with how to prevent capital punishment from breaking the Eighth Amendment, which mandates that "excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

The case of the electric chair -- America's unique contribution to capital punishment -- shows that the politics and opposition to the death penalty haven't changed much in the past century.


Since 1982, lethal injection has gradually become the execution method of choice across the 32 states that practice the death penalty. AFP PHOTO/Paul BUCKPAUL BUCK/AFP/Getty Images

In the 1880s, the state government of New York formed the Electrical Death Commission. The three-person panel was tasked with finding a more humane way to carry out death sentences by electrocution -- a word invented at around that time. (It is a portmanteau of electricity and execution, and did not refer to accidental electrical deaths until much later.) Hanging was the typical way to execute someone at the time. Other options included the guillotine, suffocation or firing squad. In 1879, the Supreme Court had decided in Wilkerson v. Utah that death by firing squad did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Wallace Wilkerson was led out to a jailyard soon after his sentence was affirmed. He could see the guns pointing his way, having declined a blindfold. When the shots were fired, they failed to kill him, hitting him in the arm and abdomen instead. As the New York Times described the scene a century later, "'My God!' Wilkerson shrieked. 'My God! They have missed!' More than 27 minutes passed as Wilkerson bled to death in front of astonished witnesses and a helpless doctor."

It was unsurprising that some politicians were compelled to search for a new way to carry out death sentences.

Dr. Alfred P. Southwick, a renowned dentist from Buffalo and a former steamboat engineer, had pressured the New York governor to convene the commission after witnessing a drunk man die after touching a live generator terminal in 1881. In 1889, Southwick invented the first electric chair, and New York passed the first electrical execution law. The inventors who succeeded in taming electrical currents were split on the chair: Thomas Edison supported it, while George Westinghouse opposed it.

After spending a few months testing the chair, electrocuting cats, dogs, horses and orangutans in a country-spanning traveling tour, New York scheduled the first electric chair execution on August 6, 1890. William Francis Kemmler, who had killed his girlfriend Tillie Ziegler with an axe, was strapped into a chair attached to a Westinghouse generator at the prison in Auburn, NY. Media, elected officials, law enforcement and 14 doctors were all present at the execution. Edison had developed his own electric chair technology, which was not used in this inaugural execution. He had told the press that death by electric chair should be called "Westinghousing." Westinghouse was worried about all the press, and apparently gave $100,000 to Kemmler's legal team to help their appeal. Kemmler had appealed his sentence, and his lawyers claimed that the never-tested electric chair was cruel and unusual punishment. Again, the Supreme Court disagreed.

The 1,000 volts that were supposed to prove Kemmler's death warrant, however, only left him foaming at the mouth and convulsing in pain, while the spectators were left with the unpleasant stench of singed flesh. Someone yelled, "My God, he's alive!" and doctors quickly attended Kemmler's body. Another 60 seconds of electricity --this time at 2,000 volts -- were sent through Kemmler's body. He finally died, but the country was left not so encouraged by this new humane form of execution.

In July 1891, four more criminals were killed by the electric chair. A stronger electrical current was used, and "witnesses declared the executions a success."

The electric chair became the preferred method of carrying out the death penalty in the 20th century. Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, New York, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia and Virginia all had electric chairs nicknamed "Old Sparky." Alabama's electric chair, decorated with the paint used to line highways in the state, was named "Yellow Mama." Pennsylvania and New Jersey's electric chair was named "Old Smokey." Louisiana's electric chair was called "Gruesome Gertie."

Plenty of people opposed the electric chair too, just as they had opposed previous methods of capital punishment. In 1930, the League to Abolish Capital Punishment predicted that the death penalty was on the way out, because public opinion had changed. The death penalty may not have been on the way out, but the electric chair would spend the rest of the century becoming less and less popular.

The electric chair became a rarity for the same reason it was ushered into prisons across the country in the first place. In the late 20th century, lawmakers started looking for a more humane form of capital punishment. An alarming number of botched electric executions had taken place across the country.

In 1985, the Supreme Court decided Glass v. Louisiana. At the time, all people sentenced to death in Louisiana went to the electric chair. Jimmy Glass' lawyers said this violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court let the lower court's decision against Glass stand, but Justices William J. Brennan and Thurgood Marshall dissented. Brennan wrote that electrocutions might be "nothing less than the contemporary technological equivalent of burning people at the stake."

The Florida Supreme Court questioned the constitutionality of the electric chair in the 1999 case Provenzano vs. Moore after three messy executions.  Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis was put to death in July 1999. The Florida Times-Union reported,

He roared unintelligibly, twice, after a strap was wrapped tightly across his mouth and his head was covered with a skullcap and hood. After the electrocution lever was pulled at 7:10 a.m., Davis' back straightened, his hands clenched and his chest seemed to expand. His body came to rest and blood appeared on the front of his shirt. Initially, a red dot appeared in the center of his chest. The stain slowly grew to a splotch about 8 inches across. His chest heaved repeatedly; he appeared to still be alive. But he was pronounced dead at 7:15. Cory Tilley, spokesman for Gov. Jeb Bush, said: ''We are absolutely, 100 percent comfortable that the chair performed flawlessly as it was designed to perform. . . . Everybody's getting all worked up about a nosebleed.'' But opponents of the death penalty insisted the chair doesn't work. D. Michael McCarron, executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference, which represents Florida's bishops, said, ''If there is any doubt whatsoever about the proper functioning of that chair, tomorrow's scheduled execution of Thomas Provenzano should not go forward. . . . They ought to stop.'' Provenzano opened fire in 1984 at the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando. He had been scheduled to die Wednesday, but was given a 48-hour stay Tuesday night. His execution had been reset for 7:01 a.m. today, but has been postponed.

When Jesse Tefero was electrocuted in 1990, flames burst from his headpiece. Pedro Medina, electrocuted in 1997, was burnt more than "normal." The Supreme Court ruled that the electric chair was not cruel and unusual punishment, but the state decided to transition to lethal injection. No inmates since Davis have chosen to die by electric chair.

Virginia made a similar transition after a malfunction in 1994.

In 2001, the Associated Press published a story about opposition to the electric chair. 

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.

At that point, the electric chair was already on the way out. Georgia became the first state to outlaw the electric chair in 2001. In 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled the electric chair cruel and unusual punishment. The state later made lethal injection its default method of execution. And in 2008, the United States Supreme Court decided -- as they had previously done with the electric chair -- that lethal injection did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Public opinion toward the death penalty have sunk in the past two decades, but a majority of Americans still support it. In 2012, 60 percent of Americans supported the death penalty.

Only eight states allow electrocution today -- Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Since it has become more difficult to obtain the drugs used in lethal injection -- many manufacturers in Europe refuse to sell them to the United States if they are destined to be used for capital punishment. Some states -- like Virginia -- have tried to make the electric chair the default form of execution in the state if the necessary chemicals aren't available.

Rather than consider abolishing the death penalty, the recent botched execution in Oklahoma is likely to inspire a rethinking of methodology, as has happened previously in history. After it happens, there will still be people vocally opposing it, there will still be people who think it is necessary, and there is certainly going to be more botched executions making people rethink whether we should abolish the death penalty -- or find a new way of doing it once more.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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