For the crime of killing a man, the state of Florida killed John Arthur Spenkelink today.
At 10:12 a.m., the first of three surges of hundreds of volts races through his slight body, ending his life of 30 years. So snugly wa he strapped and restrained in an old oaken electric chair that he barely moved. Before an electrician lowered a veil over his face, his eyes were filled with hopeless terror, some of the official witnesses said.
Six minutes later, his death was declared official inside the pale green walls of Florida Prison. His deathe came as friends, relatives and opponents of capital punishment gathered across from the prison here on Highway 225.
the emotion and drama was greater outside the walls than inside as death penalty opponents shouted "F---ing murderers" and supporters bared a sign reading, "Go Sparky."
Outside the loved ones, and those who worked to save him, Spenkelink will be remembered as a cause and a lost cause. He is America's first unwilling victim of capital punishment since death penalty laws, as then written, were cast aside 12 years ago as allowing cruel and unusual punishment.
Some hope, others fear that his oft-delayed yet ultimate walk to the electric chair marks the return of capital punishment as a routine exercise in the American judicial system.
Unlike the suicidal aberration of Gary Mark Gilmore - who begged the state of Utah to shoot him on Jan. 17, 1977 - Spenkelink had fought and fought, believing almost to the end, "It wouldn't come down."
But it did, and it happened like this:
Some time about 10 a.m. only minutes after the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., refused for a sixth time to stay the execution, Spenkelink was taken from his nearby Q Wing cell to the first-floor death chamber. He wore dark blue prison pants and a white shirt rolled up at the sleeves. His head was shaved. Thirty-two witnesses seated in an adjoining room, their vision of the electric chair blocked by a blind, heard a door clang shut. Then at 10:11, abruptly and without warning, the blind was raised. There he sat: his pants were rolled up to the knees. An electrode was attached to his shaved right calf, and both legs were strapped.
Wide leather straps bound his waist, chest, arms and wrists.
A white towel tied around his neck kept his head up and back, and a thick black strap covered his mouth. His eyes were open wide, almost bulging, and he looked straight ahead at the witnesses, including the two standing in the back of the room, the two men who had fought for his body and his soul - his lawyer and his minister.
Reaching over to the skullcap that bore a metal knob on top, an electricianwith heavy gloves lowered over his face that black flap that would bar to all Spenkelink's last look to life.
They had seen his gaze for 30 seconds or so.
At 10:12 a.m. a noise and the first burst of electricity hit him. His chest heaved, his right fist clenched and his left hand moved. The legs jerked. The flesh on Spenkelink's right leg seared, by one account, and smoke rose into the death chamber. A few inches below the electrode cuff on his calf, there was a three-inch wound. It looked as if his skin had split, but there was no blood. The smell of burning flesh did not reach the official witnesses. His hands turned blue, especially near the fingertips.
Two minutes later, a doctor checked Spenkelink's heart beat with a stethoscope, unbuttoning his white shirt and raising his undershirt.
Hre doctor stepped back and a second bolt hit Spenkelink. The doctor repeated his exam and stepped back again. A third surge of electricity was started but was ended before its full cycle, and at 10:18 a.m. the doctor checked for a pulse and a heart beat and peered into Spenkelink's eyes with a penlight. The doctor nodded at prison Supt. David H. Brierton.
The blind was lowered.
It was very antiseptic, one witness said, very professional said another. It was respectful of a man's privacy in the moment of his public death, and 29 minutes later a beige hearse, followed by a police cruiser, left the prison to deliver the body to Spenkelink's family.
It was the hearse's arrival at 8:58 a.m. that marked the reality of today's event, one put off in the last hours of Tuesday when federal courts blocked his execution scheduled for 7 a.m. Wednesday. But on Tuesday, the tide shifted. The Supreme Court barred any further stays. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans met late into the night, finally deciding at 10:40 p.m. the execution could be carried out.
Today, former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark drove from New York to Washington to press a final Supreme Court appeal, but it, too, failed.
Supt. Brierton announced at an early morning press conference the 10 a.m. execution time. Soon afterward Spenkelink began a final series of visiting lasting from 3 a.m. until 6:30 a.m. There were his girlfriend, his sister and his mother.
The sister, Carol Myers, broke into tears early today as she faced reporters after the predawn visit with her brother.
"If you can call a 'contact visit' sitting across a table with him wearing handcuffs - that's a contact visit," she said bitterly, spitting the words out between sobs.
"She said prison officials only removed Spenkelink's handcuffs for him to hug her goodbye.
"He had not resigned himself." said his brother-in-law Tim Myers. "He had faith that something will transpire."
Myers spoke in a pasture opposite the prison where 75 to 100 oeople, young and old, black and white, had gathered to protest the death penalty. About the time, inside the prison, the Rev. Tom Feamster was administering holy communion to Spenkelink.
Feamster said later that Spenkelink's last word to him were: "Man is what he chooses to be. He chooses that for himself. I love you." And Feamster said, "I love you."
When the time came for Spenkelink to be escorted to the death chamber he was asked by Brierton if he had any last statement. Spenkelink reportedly said, "I don't wish to be accompanied by a prison minister." and nothing more was said.
But much was being said across the street by the assembled demonstrators. They mixed religion and radical rhetoric, and the scattered conversations and shouts of protests mixed oddly with the prayers and humns being sung by groups gathered in circles and praying for a miracle.
Surely as an innocent and accidental taunt, the hearse that would carry Spenkelink's body away drove slowly in front of the demonstrators. Several burst into tears, one became hysterical and Spenkelink's sister Carol wept openly.
Then, in one corner of the pasture, there was a tight clutch of people with Tim and Carol Myers at its heart swaying gently and singing, "All we are saying is give John a chance." Across the way, in another part of the pasture, a gospel circle was praising the Lord.
Back in Washington, at 9:50 a.m., the Supreme Court on a 6-to-2 vote refused to block the execution. Almost simultaneously here, the hearse was brought into position. When the court's action was announced in Washington protestors began demonstrating and lying down and 13 were arrested.
Then, at 10:23, nine news media representatives who are among those who witnessed the event returned to the throng of reporters and cameramen. Prison officials have been tight-lipped on all the details, grisly and otherwise, surrounding the execution. The media were left to prey on their own kind for the last tiny detail.
Spenkelkin's crime was th e1973 killing of his traveling companion, and ex-convict named Joseph J. Szymankiewicz. The two had been on an apparent robbery spree across the country and finally argued heatedly in a Tallahassee motel room.
Szymankiewicz was shot and beaten with a hatchet; Spenkelink pleaded self-defense.
The jury and the judge decided it was murder and ordered his execution. Last Friday, Gov. Robert Graham signed the warrant ordering Spenkelink's execution by noon today.
And today it was done under a clear blue sky in the palm and pine country of central Florida.
"I'm conviced there will be less brutality in our society if it is made clear that we value human life." Graham said after issuing the warrant. "It will take this kind of step."
At a press conference after the execution, Spenkelink's lawyer, David Kendall, called it barbarism.
But it was the Rev. Feamster who sought to provide an epitaph.
"You need not waste your prayers on John Spenkelink," he said. "Pray for us."
But nearby a mobile camper was parked in an area cordoned off as an assembly point for those who had come to demonstrate their support for the death penalty. On its roof, the camper sported a silver wooden coffin. A quick Florida breeze tugged at the accompanying cloth sign affixed to the windshield:
"Go Sparky." CAPTION: Picture, Spenkelink's sister, Carol, is comforted by husband, Tim. AP; Illustration, Hooded executioners wait for the veil to be dropped over Spenkelink's face before starting the current flowing. Howard Brodie for CBS via AP