Written by Lee Carter, Vice Chairman of the Prince William County Young Democrats
“Either way, Ricky Gray will die very quickly, with very little, if any, pain.”
That’s what Jackson Miller, the Delegate from Manassas, said to the Associated Press about his bill to mandate the use of the electric chair in death penalty cases.
Ask any electrician who’s suffered an electrical injury how much pain is involved. Ask anyone who’s ever been hit with a taser if there was “very little, if any, pain.” They will beg to differ - guaranteed. The pain that an electrical injury inflicts is immeasurable, and that’s just what convicted inmates will experience if everything goes according to Delegate Miller’s plan.
The very first death by electric chair was a man named William Kemmler in 1890. After the initial shock, Kemmler’s executioner pronounced him dead, but he noticed a small problem afterward – Kemmler was bleeding from a cut on his hand. Obviously, dead men don’t bleed, so the warden ordered another shock. Before the executioner could restart the current, Kemmler began to bleed from the mouth and he started to groan as he regained consciousness. After the second shock was finished, the room was filled with the sound of sizzling meat, and the smell of burnt hair. Kemmler had, quite literally, been cooked to death - and he felt the whole thing.
This sort of botched electrocution isn’t relegated to the 19th century either. Right here in Virginia in 1982, Frank Coppola was shocked to death with two 55-second exposures to an electrical current. The first failed to kill him, and while the second succeeded, it also set his leg and his head on fire.
Then there’s John Evans in Alabama in 1983. This time it was the first shock that set the man on fire. The fire was extinguished, and Evans was shocked again. When the attending physicians found a heartbeat after the second shock, Evans’ attorney begged for an end to the execution attempt. The attorney was denied, and Evans was shocked a third time. At the end of the 14-minute ordeal, Evans’ body was left charred and smoldering in the chair like a Christmas ham left in the oven too long.
In 1984, the State of Georgia executed Alpha Otis Stephens. He was shocked for two minutes straight, after which time they had to let the body cool for six minutes to avoid setting the still living man on fire. A second shock finally finished the job.
In 1985, Indiana executed William Vandiver by electric chair. That one took five shocks and 17 minutes, leaving the room thick with smoke and the smell of burnt flesh. "It did not go according to plan," said the doctor that declared Vandiver dead.
In 1999, Florida executed Allen Lee Davis by electric chair. Davis bled so profusely after the first shock, that Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw remarked “the color photos of Davis depict a man who – for all appearances – was brutally tortured to death by the citizens of Florida.”
Even without getting into the moral and ethical discussion of whether we should be executing prisoners in the first place, what’s obvious is that the electric chair is very much a cruel and unusual punishment. And when the government of Virginia kills someone, they’re doing so because we consent – they do so on our behalf. If we’re going to do this, we need to find a better, less painful way.
As Delegate Miller said, “The numerous victims of Ricky Gray didn’t get a choice on how they wanted to die.”
The people of Virginia are not Ricky Gray, Delegate. We simply must not be.
In recent years, the United States has had difficulty obtaining the drugs, because of moral objections from European sellers. But – there are options aside from the electric chair that are more humane and in line with the State’s role of carrying out the death penalty as a judicial function – not as cruel and unusual torture - that are not being brought to the table for discussion.
The Prince William County Young Democrats are following bills and issues in Richmond, and want to get the area’s young voters engaged in discussion about things that matter to them.