Florida infamous botched electrocutions
The Execution Photos
by J.J. Maloney
[Ed’s Note: On Jan. 14, 2000, following the barrage of controversy created by the execution photos posted by Justice Shaw, Florida barred any further executions by electrocution, opting for lethal injection. On Dec. 16, 2006, then Gov. Jeb Bush suspended all executions in Florida after it took two doses and 34 minutes for Angel Diaz to die by lethal injection.]
The execution of Allen Lee Davis in the Florida electric chair on July 8, 1999, was so violent that it set off a shock wave that rippled around the world. When the Florida Supreme Court ruled, yet again, that execution by electrocution is not unconstitutional, a dissenting justice attached three photographs of the execution to his dissent and posted them on the Florida Supreme Court web site.
The photographs drew attention from all over the world, with many foreign visitors expressing disgust, while many Floridians rallied in support of “Old Sparky,” as the Florida electric chair is known. One Florida woman, in an email to the court, described the photographs as “wonderful.”
Each person can view the photographs, and read the following lengthy excerpt from the dissent of Justice Shaw and come to his or her own conclusion as to the propriety of capital punishment, and electrocution in particular. As Justice Shaw points out, the United States is the only country in the world that uses electrocution as a means of execution, and even in the United States only three states still use this method of execution.
Justice Shaw describes in detail three recent executions, including that of Davis, wherein the execution went awry. He points out that Davis not only died from electrocution, but from being smothered by the large leather strap that held his head to the electric chair. Witnesses described Davis as either screaming or moaning prior to the current being turned on.
Davis had been convicted for murdering a woman and her two daughters. That his crimes were heinous and totally reprehensible is not in dispute. What is controversial is how Davis was executed. His death was tortured and violent. His execution was so bungled that his cause of death was at least partially due to asphyxiation. In killing Davis in such an intentionally inept manner, the State of Florida sank to a gruesome level of barbarity. For those who don’t care that Florida violated Davis’ civil rights, and for those, in fact, who applaud the cruel and unusual punishment inflicted on Davis, I can only say that in trashing his rights Florida trashed everyone’s rights. Does anyone really want the government in charge of torture as well as incarceration and execution? A government with such power would be known as a police state.
The following is an excerpt from Justice Shaw’s dissenting opinion.
“IV. THREE RECENT EXECUTIONS
“The administration of electrocution in Florida demonstrates the cruelty inherent in this method of execution. Not only was every execution in Florida accompanied by the inevitable convulsing and burning that characterizes electrocution, but further, three executions in particular were marred by extraordinary violence and mutilation. In two of these executions, smoke and flames spurted from the headpiece and burned the heads and faces of the inmates. In the third execution, the inmate bled from the nostrils and was at least partially asphyxiated by the restraining devices; and he too was burned.
“A. Tafero’s Execution
“Florida’s electric chair malfunctioned during the execution of Jesse Tafero on May 4, 1990, resulting in a violent scene, with smoke and foot-long flames spurting from his head. This Court described the scene:
“’When Tafero’s execution began, smoke and flames instantaneously spurted from his head for a distance of as much as 12 inches. The flames and smoke emanated from the area around a metallic skull cap, inside of which was a saline-soaked synthetic sponge meant to increase the flow of electricity to the head. The cap is the source of electricity administered to condemned prisoners by the electric chair.
Because of the smoke and flames, officials of the Department of Corrections stopped the first surge of electricity. A second jolt again resulted in smoke and flames spurting from Tafero’s head. Finally, a third jolt of electricity was administered. A medical examiner found that Tafero was dead some six or seven minutes after the execution commenced.
“’Thereafter, the Governor ordered the Department of Corrections to conduct an investigation into the circumstances of Tafero’s execution. The Department reported that the equipment was in proper working order. However, it was determined that for the first time a synthetic, rather than a natural, sponge had been used in the headpiece. The Department concluded that the burning of the sponge caused the flames and smoke which were seen during Tafero’s execution . . .. The Department . . . noted that most executions last longer than seven minutes.’
“Buenoano v. State, 565 So.2d 309, 310-11 (Fla.1990).
“The mutilated condition of Tafero’s body was described in the sworn statement of a witness:
“’I have seen the bodies of three other inmates executed by officials of the Florida State Prison. I saw them at approximately the same length of time after they were executed as I saw Mr. Tafero’s body. None of the other bodies I saw before had the severe burning and scorching and damage to the head as did Mr. Tafero’s. None had any marks on the face at all.
“’The entire top of Mr. Tafero’s head is covered with wounds. There is one dominant charred area and a myriad of smaller gouged, raw areas to the upper right side and lower right of the large burned area.
The dominant charred area is on the top left side of the head. It is larger than my hand . . .. The funeral director said that this was a third degree burn. The rest of that area was a dark brownish color, slightly lighter than the charred area. The funeral director said that this would be a second-degree burn.
“Id. at 314 (Kogan, J., dissenting). Additionally, Tafero’s eyebrows, eyelashes, and facial hair were burned when flames licked his face.
“See Jones, 701 So. 2d at 87 (Shaw, J., dissenting).
“B. Medina’s Execution
“Florida’s electric chair malfunctioned again during the execution of Pedro Medina on March 25, 1997, resulting in another violent scene with smoke and flames spurting from the head-piece. Unlike Tafero, Medina’s eyebrows, eyelashes, and facial hair were not burned off. However, Medina’s head was charred and his face was scalded. The trial court in Jones described the execution:
“When Pedro Medina was executed on March 25, 1997, the following events occurred. When the electrical current was activated, within seconds . . . smoke emanated from under the right side of Medina’s head piece, followed by a 4 to 5 inch yellow-orange flame which lasted 4 to 5 seconds and then disappeared. After the flame went out, more smoke emanated from under the head piece to the extent that the death chamber was filled with smoke–but the smoke was not dense enough to impair visibility in or through the chamber. The smoke continued until the electrical current was shut off in the middle of the third cycle. Although several witnesses to the execution tried to describe the odor of the smoke, only one witness, Florida State Prison Superintendent Ronald McAndrews, described the odor as burnt sponge . . .. This Court finds that the odor smelled was burnt sponge, not burnt flesh.
“The physician’s assistant, William Mathews, examined Medina’s body. At that time, Medina was not breathing or exchanging air through his nostrils; his pupils were fixed and dilated; and he had an agonal pulse and heart sounds. When the physician’s assistant was no longer able to detect any pulse or heart sounds, the attending physician, Dr. Almojera, examined Medina and pronounced him dead at 7:10 a.m. During Dr. Almojera’s last examination Medina’s chest was seen to move two or three times in a two to four minute period. A couple of witnesses thought Medina was trying to breathe. Several witnesses did not describe it as attempted breathing, but as a lurching, spasmodic movement, a shudder, and outward not upward movement. No witness, particularly those closest to Medina, could state that he was in fact breathing or attempting to breathe.
“Jones, 701 So. 2d at 86 (Shaw, J., dissenting).
“As with Tafero’s body, Medina’s body also was mutilated by the electrocution. The findings of the pathologists who conducted the autopsies of Medina were summarized by the trial court in Jones:
“1. The head had a ‘burn ring’ on the crown of the head that was common in executions by judicial electrocution.
“2. Within the ‘burn ring’ there was a third degree burn on the crown of the head, with deposits of charred material. . .
“3. There was a first degree burn of the upper front face and head, caused by scalding steam. . .Unlike the Tafero execution, Medina had no burning of the eyebrows, eyelashes, or small hairs of the face that would have resulted if the burning had been the result of a flame rather than steam.
“Jones, 701 So. 2d at 86-87 (Shaw, J., dissenting).
“C. Davis’ Execution
“The execution of Allen Lee Davis on July 8, 1999, differed from prior executions in that here Department of Corrections (DOC) officials took post-execution color photos of Davis before he was removed from the electric chair. (Several of the photos are appended to this dissenting opinion.) These photos, when combined with eyewitness accounts, provide a vivid picture of a violent scene. According to witnesses’ accounts, when Davis was being strapped into the chair, guards placed a solid leather mouth-strap across his mouth and nose area. This mouth-strap is wide–approximately five inches from top to bottom–and it covered the entire lower portion of Davis’s face from the bottom of his chin to immediately below his nose. The strap was fastened so tightly against his face and was so wide that it pushed his nose severely upward, blocking his nostrils at least partially. A heavy fabric facemask was placed on top of this apparatus, further occluding his airway. And then, as explained below, blood began flowing from his nose prior to electrocution. This too obstructed his nostrils.
“The trial court below explained that the pathologist who conducted a post-execution autopsies on Davis concluded that he had been at least partially asphyxiated prior to electrocution: Robert Kirschner, M.D., forensic pathologist from Illinois, testified as an expert in the area of forensic pathology. Kirschner testified that he performed an autopsies on the body of Allen Lee Davis. He testified that during Davis’s autopsies, he was unable to identify the precise source of the nosebleed that Davis suffered, but that it was coming from the septal area of the left nostril. Kirschner testified that the placement of the mouth strap across Davis’ mouth inhibited Davis’ breathing and caused him to become at least partially asphyxiated before the application of electrical current to him. Kirschner testified that he is of the opinion that Davis’ death was caused by electrocution and association of partial asphyxiation which occurred before the electrocution.
“Aubrey D. Thornton, Assistant Warden at Florida State Prison, testified that he was one of the individuals responsible for strapping Allen Lee Davis into the electric chair. . . Thornton also testified that Davis’ face began to turn red after the mouth strap was applied to him.” (Emphasis added.)
“After Davis’ airflow had been blocked by the mouth-strap, the face-mask, and his own blood, Davis made several sounds under the face-mask which were described variously as muffled screams, moans, or yells, as if he were attempting to get the guards’ attention. The trial court gave the following description: ‘John W. Moser, Capital Collateral Regional Counsel for the Middle Region, testified that in his capacity as Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, he witnessed the execution of Allen Lee Davis. Moser testified that between the time Davis was secured in the electric-chair and the time the electrical current was applied to Davis, he heard what sounded like two screams from Davis.’
“Mark Lazarus, Victim Assistance Administrator for the Florida Department of Corrections, testified that he observed the execution of Allen Lee Davis. Lazarus testified that after the head piece was placed on Davis’ head, he heard two one-syllable sounds coming from Davis and that the sounds sounded like Davis was trying to ‘make some noise’ or ‘yell out.’
“Thomas Varnes, Warden at Wakulla Correctional Institution, testified that he witnessed the execution of Allen Lee Davis. Varnes testified that after the mouth strap and chin strap of the head piece were tightened and the face mask was lowered, he heard Davis moan like he was trying to say something.
“James Crosby, Warden of Florida State Prison testified that after the mouth piece was placed on Davis, and just before the execution, he heard two muffled sounds from Davis, which sounded like Davis was trying to say something. (Emphasis added.)
“Prior to and during the electrocution, blood flowed freely from Davis’ nose, ran over the mouth-strap, and spilled onto his chest, forming a pool the size of a dinner plate on his white shirt. Again, in the words of the trial court below:
“‘Sheila McAllister, Correctional Probation Officer at Wakulla Correctional Institution, testified that she witnessed the execution of Allen Lee Davis . . . McAllister also testified that while the current was on she observed blood on Davis’ chest, and she observed something dripping from behind Davis’ mask.’
“Michael R. Collins, employed with Florida State Prison as a nurse, testified that he attended the execution of Allen Lee Davis . . .. Collins further testified that after the electrical current was stopped and after Mr. Matthews, the Florida State Prison physician’s assistant, was examining Davis, he observed blood on Davis’ shirt in his chest area and on his upper right side, by his collar. Collins stated that the blood was dripping from under the mask.
“William Muse, Lieutenant with the Florida Department of Corrections, assigned to Florida State Prison, testified that he witnessed the execution of Allen Lee Davis . . .. Muse testified that after the cycle of current had been terminated, he observed blood on Davis’ shirt, blood on the strap, and blood coming from Davis’ nostril [s]. (Emphasis added.)
“In light of the placement of the mouth-strap, the positioning of the face-mask, and the flow of blood from his nostrils, it is reasonable to conclude – as did Dr. Kirschner – that Davis was being smothered before he was electrocuted.
“And finally, as with Tafero and Medina, Davis’ body was mutilated by burns on the head, face, and leg, as noted in the trial court’s order:
“The deposition of William Hamilton, M.D., Medical Examiner for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, was read into the record due to Hamilton’s unavailability . . .. Hamilton testified that Davis had burns on his scalp and forehead, on his superpubic and right upper medial thigh region, and behind the right knee. (Emphasis added.)
“The color photos taken by DOC show a ghastly post-execution scene: Davis is wearing a white shirt and dark pants and is restrained in the wooden chair by thick leather straps placed across his arms, legs, torso, and mouth; the electrical head-piece is attached to the top of his head with a leather strap that runs under his chin; a sponge placed under the head-piece obscures the entire top portion of his head down to his eyebrows; because of the width of the mouth-strap, only a small portion of Davis’ face is visible above the mouth-strap and below the sponge, and that portion is bright purple and scrunched tightly upwards; his eyes are clenched shut and his nose is pushed so severely upward that it is barely visible above the mouth-strap; although the exterior openings of Davis’ nostrils are partially visible, it appears as though the interior openings may be covered by the mouth-strap; a stream of blood pours from his nostrils, flows over the wide leather mouth-strap, runs down his neck and chest, and forms a bright red pool (approximately eight by twelve inches) on his white shirt. The scene is unquestionably violent.”