Machinery of Death 

Putting Tennessee's electric chair on trial

Putting Tennessee's electric chair on trial

By Jeff Woods

With Philip Ray Workman facing execution on April 6, possibly by electrocution, his lawyers are questioning whether Tennessee’s electric chair might malfunction, burning and disfiguring their client but leaving him still breathing in a brain-dead state. The response from the state commissioner of corrections is less than reassuring, and the electric chair’s history—uncovered by Workman’s lawyers—shouldn’t inspire public confidence in the state’s competence to carry out an execution humanely.

Never before used, the state’s current electric chair was built in 1989 to replace one nicknamed ”Old Sparky,“ which executed 125 men between 1916 and 1960. The maker of the new electric chair is Fred Leuchter Jr., a self-proclaimed expert on executions. Around the time he built the chair for $35,000, Leuchter became the darling of neo-Nazi hatemongers and Holocaust deniers after he claimed to have demonstrated scientifically that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Turns out Leuchter isn’t an engineer as he claimed to be; his science has been exploded as bogus, and he’s the subject of a just-released documentary film on the nature of evil titled Mr. Death.

Not surprisingly, the electric chair Leuchter built for Tennessee needed alterations. Experts hired by attorneys for condemned prisoners told the state that the chair would botch executions, severely shocking inmates but not actually killing them. And in 1994, the state hired Arkansas electrical engineer Jay Wiechert to fix that. Wiechert increased the current to the chair, and he now maintains it will function as intended.

But he also works as a consultant for the state of Florida, whose now infamous electric chair has shot flames from inmates’ heads. And because of Wiechert’s modifications to Tennessee’s chair, a company named JVM Custom Machinery Group—which had by this time acquired the rights to Leuchter’s instruments of death—warned that it was withdrawing the ”Leuchter guarantee.“

In a letter to the Department of Corrections, JVM wrote that Wiechert’s changes ”are dangerous and inconsistent with proper execution technology and procedure.“ The company added: ”These modifications may result in åtissue cooking’ of the executee and further, fibrillation of the executee’s heart resulting in failure to execute and a brain dead vegetable at the conclusion of the execution procedure.“

Leuchter himself agrees. He told WTVF-Channel 5, ”It will be tantamount to being burned at the stake, and we no longer do that.“

What was the state’s response to JVM’s letter? There was none that Workman’s lawyers could find in their search of the Department of Corrections’ files. Amazingly, Corrections Commissioner Donal Campbell says he never heard of the letter until the Nashville Scene showed it to him last week. Here’s an excerpt from our interview with him:

Q: Now that you’ve seen the letter, are you concerned?

Campbell: No

Q: Why not?

Campbell: I think we’re ready. We’re prepared.

Q: What makes you confident?

Campbell: I’m confident that we’re where we need to be.

Q: Who says the electric chair will work?

Campbell: We will be prepared.

Q: You’re asking the public to assume that it will work properly?

Campbell: I’m not asking you to assume. I’m telling you.

Q: You’re asking the public to trust you on this?

Campbell: They’ve trusted me for five years managing this department, and I think we’ve been effective.

Q: Are you confident that the electric chair will execute someone fairly quickly and painlessly?

Campbell: We feel that we are prepared to carry out an effective execution.

Q: But the question is whether it’s an instrument of torture or not.

Campbell: My response is the same.

Q: You say you’ll carry out an effective execution. Does that mean that you’re not going to torture the prisoner in the process?

Campbell: We do not have an execution scheduled by electrocution, so this may be a moot issue.

The state of Tennessee clearly should hope it’s a moot issue, and Campbell is correct that it may be. Workman, a born-again Christian who says he’s innocent, is trying to persuade Gov. Don Sundquist to commute his death sentence for the 1981 murder of Memphis police Lt. Ronald Oliver. On March 9, the state parole board will hold a hearing on Workman’s new evidence, which indicates that when Workman robbed a Wendy’s restaurant, another policeman actually shot and killed Oliver by mistake in the confusion.

Even if Workman is executed, he could choose not to die by electrocution. On March 1, prison officials are to ask Workman to pick between death by electrocution or lethal injection. That’s in accordance with a 1998 Tennessee state law offering lethal injection as a choice.

But Workman says he won’t choose, so under the statute, he would be electrocuted. Legislators made electrocution the default option, so to speak, because of fears that otherwise they might violate the prohibition against changing the punishment for a crime after it occurs. Robert Glen Coe, the other Tennessee inmate now nearing his execution date, has picked lethal injection.

”Workman has expressed a sincere religious belief that he cannot participate in any killing, including his own, and if he were to sign a piece of paper choosing lethal injection over electrocution, he would be violating a religious tenet that he holds,“ says Workman’s lawyer, Chris Minton. ”I’m doing my best to talk him out of it. Lethal injection is a less painful way to go. But he’s not budging. He’s done a lot of praying about it. With him, it’s åwhat would Jesus do?’ And his answer is that Jesus wouldn’t participate in any killing, including his own.“

Even if Sundquist won’t grant clemency, and even if Workman won’t choose a method of death, the U.S. Supreme Court might stop his electrocution. Just this month, the high court blocked the execution of a killer in Alabama, apparently so the justices can decide the constitutionality of electrocutions. Robert Lee Tarver Jr. had already eaten his last meal and given away his possessions when the stay of execution came. His lawyers argue electrocutions are impermissibly cruel.

”Alabama death-row prisoners executed by electrocution are consistently burned excessively, occasionally electrocuted more than once due to human or mechanical failures and are always at risk of unnecessary pain and suffering,“ the Alabama inmate’s appeal says.

It doesn’t seem likely that the justices would allow another electrocution elsewhere before they decide the issue. But unlike Workman, Tarver can’t pick the method of his execution because Alabama uses only electrocution. Would the Supreme Court stop Workman’s electrocution knowing that he can avoid it merely by choosing lethal injection?

That’s a question Workman’s lawyers hope the court won’t have to answer.

”Alabama death-row prisoners executed by electrocution are consistently burned excessively, occasionally electrocuted more than once due to human or mechanical failures and are always at risk of unnecessary pain and suffering,“ the Alabama inmate’s appeal says.

It doesn’t seem likely that the justices would allow another electrocution elsewhere before they decide the issue. But unlike Workman, Tarver can’t pick the method of his execution because Alabama uses only electrocution. Would the Supreme Court stop Workman’s electrocution knowing that he can avoid it merely by choosing lethal injection?

That’s a question Workman’s lawyers hope the court won’t have to answer.

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