Skip to comments.Old-fashioned electric chair, all but obsolete, may be used today
Posted on 07/20/2006 4:08:13 PM PDT by Dubya
HUNTSVILLE -- Although it was built in the 20th century, the most infamous exhibit in the Texas Prison Museum could be a relic from the Dark Ages: a tall, high-backed, austere, solid oak chair, fitted with leather shackles, like some kind of dungeon throne.
Washed in a spotlight's eerie glow, it appears almost medieval.
The high-voltage killing machine was the end of the line for dead men walking.
From 1924 to 1964, the Texas chair snuffed 361 lives.
The electric chair is fading into obsolescence, a dying form of dying in America.
It's an optional form of execution in four of the 38 death-penalty states and is the sole method in Nebraska, which has executed three people in the last 30 years.
"The door is closing," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "Electrocution is seen more and more as archaic and barbaric."
So an event scheduled today in Virginia is noteworthy. Barring intervention by Gov. Timothy Kaine or the U.S. Supreme Court, a 27-year-old man who opted for electrocution will become the first person executed in the electric chair in this country in more than two years.
Brandon Wayne Hedrick is set to die for the 1997 killing of a 23-year-old mother who was abducted, robbed, raped and then killed by a shotgun blast fired into her face.
Dale Alexander, the victim's mother, doesn't know why the killer asked for electrocution -- the chair hasn't been used in Virginia in more than three years -- but she resents the fact that he has a choice.
Her daughter's killer, she told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "didn't ask Lisa what did she prefer."
In 2003, a Virginia inmate convicted of killing a family of four chose the electric chair as a form of protest.
In a letter to a private investigator who had supported him, Earl Conrad Bramblett wrote, "I hope the SOBs who put me here will never forget what they see."
The director of the Texas Prison Museum may understand as well as anyone can the thinking and the mind-set of Death Row inmates.
Jim Willett worked for three decades in the Texas prison system and dutifully carried out 89 executions by injection during his tenure (1998-2001) as warden of the Walls Unit, that brooding fortress near downtown Huntsville, where condemned inmates are regularly, and efficiently, put to death.
Who would wish to die the old-fashioned way, the hard way?
"Maybe [Hedrick] just wants to jack with the [prison] staff," Willett said. "He could be saying, 'If you all are going to execute me, you'll have to go the gruesome way with me.' He figures either way it'll be pretty quick."
A busy night
The Texas electric chair opened for business Feb. 28, 1924.
Charles Reynolds rode the thunderbolt into whatever eternity awaited him. Four others followed the same night.
During the 1920s and '30s, the state sent four sets of brothers to the chair, one and then the other, a sibling doubleheader.
While reading old newspaper accounts, researching Texas electrocutions, Willett thought about the families left behind.
"I've wondered about the mothers," he said. "Was it worse to lose two sons the same night, or have one go 30 days after the first one?"
The Texas electric chair faces a glass display case containing several artifacts, including a set of hair clippers that prison guards used to shave the crown of an inmate's head and his left leg to facilitate the electrical current. A sponge was soaked in saltwater and placed between the condemned man's head and an electrode.
Assistant Warden Joe Byrd was the executioner for years. A museum photo shows Byrd, an elderly man with spectacles and wearing a cowboy hat, lips compressed, the corners of his mouth turned down.
Given the signal, Byrd administered 1,800 volts, which, according to the museum display, knocked the inmate unconscious and paralyzed his brain. The voltage was reduced momentarily "to prevent the body catching fire or exploding." Then the executioner decreases the voltage to 500 for one minute. The generator purred to a halt.
A ventilator fan overhead helped rid the small room of the smell of burned flesh.
"I spoke with a guy who was a picket officer on the corner picket above the death house," Willett said. "That was a bad place to be back then on execution night."
Don Reid, a former newspaper reporter and Associated Press correspondent, witnessed 189 Texas electrocutions and wrote about his experiences. His book title, Have a Seat, Please, repeats the formal words the warden spoke as each inmate entered the death chamber and faced the ceremony of his certain fate.
Some went stoically. Some defiantly. Lashed to the chair, masked, others trembled, whimpered, prayed.
Reid saw Herman "Humpy" Ross die. Three guards wrestled the hunchbacked killer into the chair.
Adrian Johnson walked the last mile as payment for sexually molesting a young boy and stuffing him into an abandoned icebox, where the child suffocated. Baptized in prison, the killer went to the chair at peace, a smile on his lips.
When Albert Edwards, puffing a cigarette, was asked if he had anything to say before taking a seat, the murderer launched into a long-winded meandering soliloquy. The warden didn't interrupt. Finally, Reid lost patience.
"Edwards, you've talked for half an hour or more without saying one thing of importance to your case," Reid wrote, quoting himself. "If you have something to say worthwhile, I'll see that it gets printed."
Reid recalled that the inmate tossed his cigarette butt to the floor, stepped on it -- an odd gesture under the circumstances -- and eased into the chair without another word.
The reporter also watched Joseph Johnson, convicted of killing a grocer in a robbery-shootout, depart. When the executioner threw the switch, a white Bible resting on the prisoner's knees spun from his lap and landed in the witness area.
He died at 12:08 a.m. on July 30, 1964, in the last electrocution in Texas.
Execution by injection
Willett, 56, first glimpsed the electric chair in the early 1970s, during the Supreme Court's moratorium on the death penalty. As a prison guard, he supervised a crew of inmates who cleaned and dusted the unused death chamber each Tuesday morning.
His opinions about capital punishment changed little during the time he ran the prison unit and oversaw the executions by injection of 88 men and one woman, Betty Lou Beets.
"I kind of sit on the fence," Willett said. "I hate that we do it, but on the other hand, if it were my wife or my daughter who got murdered, I'd probably ask for the death penalty. If someone in my family committed murder, I'd say prison is good enough. I tell everyone that the only way the death penalty will end in Texas is if the Supreme Court makes us stop."
He agrees that lethal injection is perceived as more humane than electrocution, which death-penalty opponents argue is cruel and unusual punishment. During a 1997 Florida execution, flames shot from the inmate's mask.
Still, some families express frustration that the injection is "too easy" or "better than they deserve."
"Lethal injection is so much like just going to sleep," Willett said. "The person happens to die while they're sleeping. I think a lot of people who come [to executions] as victims' witnesses probably are let down. It's like nothing 'bad' happens to the guy at all. They're just not here anymore.
"Some people don't get much satisfaction out of watching. And most of those are looking for some kind of vindication."
A tourist attraction?
A McDonald's restaurant billboard along Interstate 45 welcomes motorists to Huntsville.
"Home of Big Sam, Ol' Sparky and War Heroes."
Old Sparky a tourist attraction?
"I think it's a blemish on the character of an otherwise positive community," said Dennis Longmire, a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University and a staunch opponent of the death penalty.
Longmire, a longtime Huntsville resident, says promoting the electric chair as a cultural attraction -- a reason to visit the city -- is as sadly inappropriate as the ballpoint pens that he said the prison museum sold years ago. They were shaped like syringes, he said.
But people are curious, fascinated by the death seat and its place in history.
"I want to see the chair," museum visitors sometimes announce as they purchase a $4 ticket, Willett said.
When they venture to the back of the museum and it appears before them, some are astonished -- as if slapped into momentary silence.
The chair is almost close enough to touch.
A warning sign about an alarm has all but stopped museum visitors from vaulting the waist-high railing. In the past. several people entered the exhibit, a replica of the state prison's old red-brick death chamber, and plopped down as if onto the seat of some unplugged carnival amusement ride to pose, all smiles, for a snapshot, Willett said.
He gazed thoughtfully at the polished artifact, an anachronism, a curiosity.
"I run this place, so I've got the opportunity to go back there," he said. "But I've never wanted to have my picture taken with it. I just have no desire to sit in that thing.
"I really don't."
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IN AMERICA
1608 -- Capt. George Kendall, convicted of spying for France, is shot at Jamestown in Virginia in the first recorded execution in the new colonies.
1692 -- Twenty people are executed after the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts.
1846 -- Michigan becomes the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason.
1888 -- Seeking a more humane method of execution than hanging, New York builds the first electric chair. Other states soon adopt the method.
1924 -- Texas uses its electric chair for the first time. Charles Reynolds goes first, followed by four inmates the same night. Nevada executes the first inmate in a gas chamber.
1930s -- The number of executions in the United States peaks at an average of 167 per year.
1936 -- In the last public execution, Rainey Bethea, a rapist and murderer, is hanged in Owensboro, Ky.
1945 -- Army Pvt. Eddie Slovak is executed by firing squad for desertion, the first U.S. soldier executed by firing squad since the Civil War.
1972 -- The U.S. Supreme Court effectively outlaws capital punishment. The sentences of 45 Texas inmates are commuted to life in prison.
1976 -- The Supreme Court lifts the death penalty ban.
1977 -- Gary Gilmore faces a firing squad in Utah, the first U.S. execution in almost 10 years. His final words: "Let's do it."
1982 -- Texas resumes executions. On Dec. 7, Charlie Brooks Jr. of Fort Worth becomes the first person in the United States to be executed by injection.
1996 -- Utah uses a firing squad for an execution for the last time. Delaware uses hanging for the last time.
2001 -- Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh becomes the first federal prisoner executed since 1963.
2005 -- North Carolina executes Kenneth Lee Boyd, a double murderer. He is the 1,000th person executed since the ban was lifted in 1976.
2006 -- Executions nationwide since 1976: 1,031. In Texas: 369.
Death Penalty Information Center, Wikipedia, www.clarkprosecutor.org David Casstevens, 817-390-7436 firstname.lastname@example.org
Would he rather be beaten, sodomized, and shot in the face with shotgun instead?
STAR-TELEGRAM ARCHIVES/RON T. ENNIS
The first electric chair used in Texas, "Old Sparky," sits in the prison museum in Huntsville.
Read what he did. Electrocution is WAY too good for him.
Yea he is a real JERK.
Interesting. A lot has changed in 10 years.
Ride the lightning.
SPECIAL TO THE STAR-TELEGRAM/DENNIS LONGMIRE
A billboard on Interstate 45 welcomes motorists to Huntsville, home of the Walls Unit, where executions are carried out.
Looks like an ejection seat.
Of course, in a way, it is.
IMHO, we should bring back the firing squad. The thing I liked about that was "diffusion of responsibility". I think its a lot easier when you have five guys "terminating" the criminal, rather than just one.
More power to him!!
Subtle point, but the passive case here tends to diffuse the fact that he abducted her, he robbed her, he raped her, and he shot her in the face with a shotgun. It wasn't something that just happened.
I belong to what is probably a very small club, I actually sat in the electric chair in the old central corrections prison at Columbia, SC and am still here to tell about it.
I yearn for a return of the noose. There's nothing like a good old-fashioned public hanging. Have you ever yearned?
One of those "he needed killin'" situations.