(Content Warning: Descriptions of botched executions, electrocution)
The Death Penalty has appeared to be fighting its last battles in the US for several years amid dropping execution rates, fewer death sentences, drug shortages, and Supreme Court victories for abolitionists. However, the desperation of some states to continue to kill their condemned prisoners has led to the revival of methods that were once mostly retired in favor of the “humane” killing method of lethal injection. Tennessee revived their electric chair in 2018 with the executions of Edmund Zagorski and David Earl Miller. These men chose electrocution after rising numbers of reports about botched lethal injections where prisoners continued to gasp for breath for more than 30 minutes (one for over an hour), and reports from witnesses that the executed were clearly in pain or reported burning sensations.
Let’s look at some of the history of electric chair use in America:
The electric chair was first invented and legalized as a “humane” and more scientific alternative to hangings in the 1880s. From the beginning of its use, it became clear that the process was fallible, horrific, and certainly not painless.
“On August 6, 1890, William Kemmler became the first person to be sent to the chair. After he was strapped in, a charge of approximately 700 volts was delivered for only 17 seconds before the current failed. Although witnesses reported smelling burnt clothing and charred flesh, Kemmler was far from dead, and a second shock was prepared. The second charge was 1,030 volts and applied for about two minutes, whereupon smoke was observed coming from the head of Kemmler, who was clearly deceased. An autopsy showed that the electrode attached to his back had burned through to the spine.” (Source)
Alabama lawyer Bryan Stevenson and Death Row exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton both spend considerable time in their books recounting horrific details of electric chair executions of the modern period, including the smell of burnt flesh throughout the prison and the uncertainty about the amount of time it would take to kill someone.
Bryan Stevenson recounts the execution of Herbert Richardson in “Just Mercy”. The previous execution, of Horace Dunkins, Jr, was botched as the electric chair was improperly wired and did not initially kill the man. It had to be re-wired and a second jolt of electricity was sent, 9 minutes after the first, to kill Mr. Dunkins. This was not a one-time incident; for example, in 1997 Pedro Medina’s head burst into flames during his electrocution in Florida. Throughout its decades in use, there were numerous reports of prisoners being electrocuted multiple times before they were declared dead, all due to malfunctions or “human error”. These types of events caused a considerable amount of uncertainty for the prisoners, lawyers, and prison staff involved in executions.
The Boy Who Was Executed Twice
Willie Francis survived his first execution in 1946, at the age of 16, because prison staff in Louisiana did not properly set up the electric chair.
“The young man went to the electric chair in November 1946. Willie’s head was shaved. Wet gauze was secured to his head to facilitate the lethal current. A leather mask was placed over his face. And he was strapped into “Gruesome Gertie,” the traveling electric chair that generated its own power with a built-in engine.
Jailers flipped the power switch — twice. And Willie, bodied convulsed, occasionally shouting out that he was still alive, survived both times.
Durand said he doesn’t know for sure why Willie survived that first execution attempt. There is speculation that two jailers, who witnesses said later were drunk, set up the electric chair incorrectly. In any case, local officials debated the propriety of trying to kill Francis again. They eventually set a new execution date: May 9, 1947.”
This article and the documentary “Willie Francis Must Die Again” take a look at Willie Francis’ case, his likely innocence, and both of his executions.
For more information on electrocutions and botched executions, you can see the following links:
Listing of Botched Executions in the “Modern Era”:
Description of what was previously the last electrocution in Tennessee(2007): https://www.nashvilletnlaw.com/blog/the-last-electric-chair-execution/
(CW: disturbing autopsy photo) botched lethal injection of Angel Diaz: https://prisonphotography.org/2014/05/30/these-botched-execution-photos-are-more-than-gruesome-they-are-a-mirror-to-america-itself/