18 April 2008
Old Sparky -- how the US killed human beings
TOP: An African-American prisoner is prepared for execution in "Old Sparky," Sing-Sing [about 20 miles north of New York City] Prison's infamous electric chair.
Photograph circa 1900 by William M. Van der Weyde. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
BOTTOM: The electrocution of Jessie Joseph Tafero in Florida's electric chair, 4 May 1990.
This survey of the electric chair written by Tom Head.
The electric chair is a quintessentially American invention. No less a figure than Thomas Edison petitioned for its first use, though his motives for doing so were less than pure. The world's first execution by electrocution took place in 1890, and it remained the most common form of execution until the 1980s. Death row inmates in ten states may still choose the electric chair (and in recent years, two prisoners have -- in 2004 and 2006, respectively).
How It Works: The prisoner is shaved, strapped to a chair, and fitted with electrodes attached to conductive sponges -- one on the head, one on the leg -- creating a direct current. The prisoner is then hooded. The executioner pulls a switch, and 2,000 volts race through the prisoner's body as the internal body temperature approaches 140 degrees. If performed correctly, the procedure is supposed to cause immediate unconsciousness followed by near-instantaneous death.
Complications: The procedure is extremely gruesome to contemplate, and can burn conscious prisoners alive if performed incorrectly. Horrific accounts of botched electrocutions have essentially made the electric chair a relic of the past, an option selected by prisoners who fear lethal injection or simply want a more distinctive exit.
Old Sparky is the nickname of the electric chairs of Texas, New York, Louisiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida. It was the nickname of the long-retired electric chair at the now-closed West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia; the electric chair is still at the prison, which is now a tourist attraction. It was also the nickname of the electric chair in South Carolina that was housed at the Central Correctional Institution (CCI)  until the chair was relocated to the newly built Broad River Correctional Institution and removed from service in 1989.
"Old Sparky" is sometimes used to refer to electric chairs in general, and not one of a specific state.
It was the sole means of execution in Florida from 1924 until 2000, when the Florida legislature under pressure from the U.S. Supreme Court replaced it with lethal injection. Florida death row inmates now may be executed in the electric chair only if they choose it. It was located in Florida State Prison in the north Florida town of Starke. It was notorious for malfunctioning in its final years, namely in the cases of Jesse Tafero (executed May 4, 1990), Pedro Medina (executed March 25, 1997), and Allen Lee Davis (executed July 7, 1999). Reportedly flames shot out of the convicts' heads during the execution of Tafero and Medina, raising the question whether use of the electric chair was cruel and unusual punishment. After the Medina execution, then Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth commented, "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." 
The malfunctions probably were due to practices of the prison staff and not because of the electric chair itself. There was evidence that the first two malfunctions occurred because of how sponges were used in the headpiece containing an electrode. To assure proper contact between the inmate's head and the electrode, a saline-soaked sponge stuffed between the two was necessary. In the Tafero incident, a natural sponge was replaced with a synthetic sponge that caught fire during the execution. For Medina, prison officials apparently did not properly soak the sponge in saline, and it caught fire also. Davis' execution photographs clearly showed that his nose had been severely compressed by a badly fitted headstrap.
The 1999 execution of Allen Lee Davis created international news after witnesses saw his white shirt rapidly turn red with blood during his execution. Prison officials later determined the blood came from an unusually profuse nosebleed most likely caused by an improperly fitted headstrap. The source of the blood was not evident to witnesses during execution, because Davis' head was covered with a traditional hood. A prison inspector general took photographs of Davis's body, still bloody and strapped in the chair, shortly after execution. These photographs later became key evidence in several cases mounting yet another challenge to the constitutionality of Old Sparky. These lawsuits ultimately came to the Florida Supreme Court in the fall of 1999, when a bare majority (4 of the 7 Justices) found that the electric chair was constitutional in a case brought by death row inmate Thomas Provenzano. One of the dissenting Justices, Leander J. Shaw, Jr., took the extraordinary step of attaching to his opinion three color photographs of Davis's bloody body in the chair. This publication marked the first time those photographs had appeared on the Internet or, for that matter, anywhere outside of court and prison files.
The effect was to create an immediate and sometimes macabre international debate over the death penalty in general and Florida's adherence to electrocution in particular. The Florida Supreme Court's web servers repeatedly crashed under the demand for access to the photographs, reputed to be the first actual photographs of an American state execution in decades. Many Europeans saw in these photographs evidence of American barbarism, and they were actually used during a protest demonstration in Madrid in support of a Spaniard on Florida's death row. Some death penalty supporters in the United States viewed the photographs as a deterrent, apparently believing they had been posted on the Website as a warning to all would-be murderers. A few parents even reported showing the photographs to their children to warn them against the ways of crime (Compare The Newgate Calendar).
Some Florida politicians vowed never to eliminate the electric chair despite the debate, but events rapidly changed after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from the Florida Supreme Court's split decision upholding electrocution. This action stunned some in Florida's leadership. The nation's high court had declined to review appeals after the prior two malfunctions, so observers concluded that the nation's high court now had come to view Florida's death penalty problems more dimly. Partly on the advice of Attorney General Butterworth, Florida's Governor Jeb Bush [brother of President George W. Bush] summoned the legislature into special session, and in early 2000 it quickly approved lethal injection as the means of execution that must be used unless the inmate asks to be electrocuted. The Attorney General then notified the Federal court and it agreed to dismiss the case based on the change in law.
References to Old Sparky
* The Green Mile by Stephen King and its film adaptation use Old Sparky as the official method of execution.
* In an episode of King of the Hill, Dale Gribble, excited about being on the executioner list as a new employee of a local prison, asks the prison warden where Old Sparky is. The warden explains that Old Sparky is no longer, replaced by lethal injection. Dale then asks where Old Squirty is, a variation on the original title.
* In the Futurama episode "A Tale of Two Santas", Bender is to be executed by a powerful electromagnet, which New New York City Mayor Poopenmeyer refers to as Old Maggie.
* Gruesome Gertie
* Yellow Mama
* Florida Supreme Court decision in Provenzano v. Moore
* An article describing the Davis execution
* Florida Juice: The Sunshine State's love affair with the electric chair at Slate.com
* This page was last modified on 3 April 2008, at 06:57.
Jessie Joseph Tafero (born October 12, 1946 — died May 4, 1990), was a convicted rapist and murderer executed via electric chair in the state of Florida for the murders of Florida Highway Patrol officer Phillip Black and Donald Irwin, a visiting Canadian constable and friend of Black.
The crime, trial, and execution
On the morning of February 20, 1976, Black and Irwin approached a car parked at a rest stop for a routine check. Tafero, his partner Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs, her two children (ages 9 years and 10 months), and Walter Rhodes were found asleep inside. Tafero had previously been in prison and was on probation. Jacobs had previous convictions for prostitution and drug charges.
Black saw a gun lying on the floor inside the car. He woke the occupants and had first Rhodes then Tafero come out of the car. According to Rhodes, Tafero then shot both Black and Irwin with the gun, which was illegally registered to Jacobs, and led the others into the police car and fled the scene. They later disposed of the police car and kidnapped a man and stole his car. All three were arrested after being caught in a roadblock. When they were arrested, the gun was found in Tafero's waistband.
Prior to his conviction for murder, Tafero had been convicted of rape, robbery, burglary and drug charges while Jacobs had been convicted of prostitution and selling amphetamine. (See Northwestern University School of Law website.) Rhodes was on parole for assault with intent to commit robbery. Tafero and Jacobs were also wanted for drug and weapons charges in South Carolina. The prosecution would argue that Tafero and Jacobs had more motive to avoid arrest.
At their trial, Rhodes testified that Tafero and Jacobs were solely responsible for the murders. Tafero and Jacobs were convicted of capital murder and were sentenced to death while Rhodes was sentenced to 3 life sentences. He was released in 1994 following parole for good behavior. The children were placed in the care of Sunny Jacobs' parents until their deaths in a 1982 plane crash. The children were then separated and placed in the care of other relatives and close family friends.
Tafero and Jacobs continued their relationship through letters while serving time in the prison. Because there was no death row for women in Florida, Jacobs was put into solitary confinement for the first five years of her imprisonment, let out only once or twice a week for exercise. She learned yoga and used it to help her survive her ordeal; after being moved to the general prison population, Jacobs began teaching yoga to other prisoners.
Because the jury had recommended a life sentence for Jacobs, the court commuted Jacobs' sentence to life in prison, but not Tafero's.
Jessie Tafero was electrocuted. However, the machine, dubbed "Old Sparky", malfunctioned, causing six-inch flames to shoot out of Tafero's head. In all, three jolts of electricity were required to render Tafero dead, a process that took 6.5 minutes.
The Jesse Tafero case became the cause célèbre among death penalty opponents, who cited the brutal circumstances of his execution as reasons it should be abolished.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found reason to overturn the conviction of Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs. She was released after accepting a plea bargain in which she pled nolo contendere (technically an Alford plea of "guilty", but without admitting factual guilt) to all of the charges against her.
After her release, Jacobs was reunited with her children and became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. She moved to Ireland, where she now lives with her new partner Peter Pringle (also a Death Row exoneree) and continues to teach yoga, offering it also to prison inmates in her new country. She wrote the 2007 book, "Stolen Time", about the events that changed her life, as well as a forthcoming book about yoga, "If you can breathe, you can do it". Jacobs also campaigns for human rights, working with Amnesty International and other organizations. Tafero and Jacobs' story, and the stories of five other exonerees, was told in a play called "The Exonerated" performed in London at The Riverside Studios. She was portrayed in a TV movie version by actress Susan Sarandon, as well as a documentary film created by her childhood friend Micki Dickoff.
"In 1990, for instance, a sponge used in the headpiece of Florida's electric chair wore out. There's no factory or parts catalog for execution devices, so the prison sent a guy to pick up a sponge at the store. Problem was, he bought a synthetic sponge instead of a genuine sea sponge, and when Jesse Tafero was strapped in, his head caught fire."
Unreliability of Rhodes's testimony
Prior to his release, Rhodes had admitted several times that he had lied about his involvement in the shooting. In Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs's version of events, she and Tafero had accepted a lift from casual acquaintance, Rhodes (who was in breach of his parole, although this was not known to the couple). Rhodes then carried out the shooting. He was the only person on which traces of gunpowder were found. He changed his story repeatedly over the years (Cite, St Petersburg Times). Sunny "Sonia" Jacobs has always maintained that she and Tafero were completely innocent of the crime, and that her plea was in response to advice from her lawyer. (Cite. Guardian Monday February 20, 2006).
* List of individuals executed in Florida
* Capital punishment in the United States
* Capital punishment debate
* List of Florida executions
* List of all prisoners executed in Florida
* Myth of Innocence article
* Sunny Jacobs. Stolen Time. Doubleday. ISBN 0385611404
* Guardian article about the case
Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesse_Tafero"
* This page was last modified on 1 April 2008, at 21:31.
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