Florida Gov. Robert Graham should soon receive the report of an investigating committee that has been looking into charges that John Spenkelink was abused by prison guards shortly before he was executed.
Spenkelink was electrocuted May 25 at the Florida State Prison at Raiford for murder. He was the first American to die at the hands of the state since 1977, and the first to be executed against his will in 15 years. Another Death Row inmate at Raiford touched off the investigation with a letter to the Florida State University student newspaper, The Florida Flambeau, in Tallahassee.
The inmate, who has not been identified, wrote that "six or seven correctional officers were involved in wrestling (Spenkelink) to the floor, removing his trousers, thus enabling a man from the prison hospital to forcefully insert hugh gobs of cotton into John's rectum. . ."
The inmate said Spenkelink protested the treatment, meant to prevent him from defecating at the moment of death, and threatened to expose it publicly when he made his final statement in the execution chamber.
The Death Row prisoner wrote the Flambeau, "It was at this point that the lieutenant in charge of preparing John for the [death] chamber was heard to say, 'Goddamit, tape that son of a bitch's mouth shut and tape it good!'"
The inmate said that because of the taping and other signs of manhandling, Spenkelink was made to wear a black bandana that covered his face from the eyes down when prison guards led him from his cell to go to the death chamber.
Witnesses -- there were 20 in an official capacity -- said a blind was drawn during the time that Spenkelink was led in and strapped into the chair, concealing the preparatory activities from them, and that when the blind was raised there was no mask or bandana.
Graham asked Florida Inspector General Richard Williams and Miami criminal lawyer Irwin J. Block to oversee an investigation of the charges to determine whether Spenkelink's civil rights had been violated in his last hours.
Bradford County medical examiner Dr. George E. Beyers Jr. told committee members that he was unable to verify or refute charges that Spenkelink was beaten or treated roughly before his execution. He said no autopsy was performed on Spenkelink's body, although state law requires autopsies after executions.
Beyers said that had he performed an autopsy, "I could have picked up things like bruises, a fractured skull and broken bones, all except for broken ribs." Byers said, "Electric shock tends to break ribs."
Byers said he decided against an autopsy because "we knew the cause of death" and because of its cost. He said that if an autopsy had been performed on Spenkelink, the state would have been obligated to perform one on each of the 134 awaiting executions at Raiford.He said the total cost of about $500,000 would have to be borne by Bradford County, the site of the prison. Bradford, he notes, is one of the poorest counties in the state.
Prison Superintendent David Brierton said he has made changes in the procedure followed in Spenkelink's execution. He said he would extend visiting hours for families and friends of the condemned. He had refused to allow Spenkelink to give news interviews, to take communion from the minister of his choice or meet with his family on the day of his execution.
Brierton told the investigators that he turned down Spenkelink's final requests because of security fears. He said, "I was worried about someone . . . bringing something in to allow him to kill himself. I thought all the variables were present for Mr. Spenkelink to take his own life."