Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Sudden Death?

Published Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sudden Death?

In the late 1880s, inventor Thomas Edison and industrialist George Westinghouse were vying to distribute electricity in America. Edison favored the use of direct current. Westinghouse was pushing his alternating current method as being far superior and more efficient.

Fearful of losing business to Westinghouse, Edison started a smear campaign against his competitor, saying alternating current was unsafe. To prove his point, Edison arranged for a public demonstration in 1887 in which a metal plate was attached to a 1,000-volt Westinghouse generator.

A large dog was then placed on the plate. Thus did the word electrocution come into the English language.

The New York Legislature adopted electrocution as its method of capital punishment the next year. With a little pressuring and conniving by Edison, Westinghouse's alternating current method was picked as the death-delivery system for the electric chair. Edision reasoned that people wouldn't want that same electricity coursing through their houses that was used to electrocute criminals.

On Aug. 6, 1890, William Kemmler, convicted of murdering a woman with an ax, became the first person in America to die in the electric chair. Richard Moran, a sociologist who wrote "Executioner's Current" in 2002, speculated that Edison may have bribed the reporter covering the execution. The headline in the next day's paper read: "Kemmler Westinghoused."

Moran also noted that Kemmler's execution went horribly wrong. Edison had managed to gather up three used Westinghouse generators through a dealer. The first jolt of electricity lasted 17 seconds because a leather belt on one of the second-hand generators was about to fall off. After the power was switched off, one of the medical doctors present noticed that blood was oozing from a cut at the base of Kemmler's thumb where a fingernail had pressed into it. The doctor order the power turned on again.

That application lasted four minutes. Kemmler's chest heaved and his skin began smoldering. The New York Herald reported that 25 witnesses were in the execution chamber: "Strong men fainted and fell like logs on the floor" from the sight and the stench. Asked about the execution afterwards, Westinghouse responded: "They would have done better with an ax."

Nearly 117 years later, the electric chair has been banished in Florida in favor of the more "humane" lethal injection. Which brings us to the question:

Was Angel Diaz's grotesque execution Dec. 13, to use a popular expression, "good enough for government work"?

Diaz, 55, was convicted for the shooting death of a Miami topless-bar manager 27 years ago during a robbery attempt.

Done correctly and professionally, perhaps injection is more painless than the past alternative. But it took Diaz 34 minutes to die, gasping at times, because the needles had gone through his veins, an autopsy showed.

A special commission formed after former Gov. Jeb Bush suspended executions has found that the official executioner was badly trained; the state's medical professional was not in the chamber during of the death work.

"They did exactly the wrong thing," Columbia University anesthesiologist Mark Heath said last week of the manner in which the three-drug "cocktail" was administered to Diaz. Health said Diaz, in his opinion, "was not properly anesthetized."

The executioner who was in charge of the lethal injection told the investigating panel that he had "no medical training or qualifications." He is paid $150 for each execution and has had no medical training in seven years.

The lethal-injection review panel was in Tampa on Monday hearing additional testimony. The medical professional who oversaw the execution testified over a telephone, his voice electronically altered to protect his identity. He would not discuss his qualifications, saying only that he had done more than 80 executions in five states.

He disputed autopsy findings by doctors who said the needles went through the Diaz' veins at the beginning of the execution. Instead, the needles tore the veins when Diaz was transported for the autopsy, he contended.

By all accounts, Diaz was a violent, dangerous criminal. He was serving a sentence for second-degree murder in his native Puerto Rico when he escaped and fled to the United States. And there are those who feel like the writer of a letter to the New York Post that appeared a few days after Diaz was executed: "Whether or not he suffered during his execution shouldn't cause those involved in the process to lose any sleep. After all, we are talking about a convicted murderer."

Actually, we're talking about killing people convicted of murder. The state, under the United States' Constitution, has the responsibility to do that in a manner that is not cruel or unusual.

The commission is scheduled to make recommendations for changes in the lethal-injection method by March 1, just before the start of the legislative session. Before its work is done, perhaps their members will reflect on some of the last works said by Kemmler, the electric chair's first victim.

As he was strapped in, he had one request for the warden: "Take your time and do it right."

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