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In the hot seat in Jackson, Ga.

Electric chair's humaneness called into question

For four seconds, 1,800 volts will penetrate the skull through an electrode placed at the center of the forehead.

"The people in favor of capital punishment say after the first shock the person feels nothing. Other people say that's not necessarily true. It's really hard to tell," says Theodore Bernstein, a retired professor of electrical engineering who studies deaths by electrocution. "You've got the guys bound and gagged and tied down. There's no way of knowing what he's going to feel."

The second 900-volt cycle, which lasts seven seconds, stuns the heart, lungs and kidneys.

"What you'll see is some atrophy of the fingers, some muscle spasms. You may see some movement in a shoulder. You don't see violent convulsions or that sort of thing," says Tony Turpin, northern region director for the Georgia Department of Corrections and former warden of the prison that houses Georgia's death row inmates. "Georgia has been relatively event-free in our executions."

The third 300-volt cycle quivers the heart's thread-like fibers for 109 seconds, forcing the muscle to shut down. It's supposed to take a total two minutes to die in Georgia's electric chair. But it has taken longer.

"After the first two-minute power surge, there was a six minute pause so his body could cool before physicians could examine him (and declare that another jolt was needed)," death penalty expert Michael Radelet wrote about the 1984 botched execution of Georgia inmate Alpha Otis Stephens. "During that six-minute interval, Stephens took 23 breaths."

The Georgia General Assembly voted last winter to replace electrocution with lethal injection. Alabama and Nebraska now are the only states that use the electric chair as the sole method of execution.

But, unlike the eight other states that have replaced electrocution with lethal injection, Georgia does not offer inmates a choice between the electric chair and the needle. The Georgia law, which went into effect this year, applies only to crimes committed after May 1, 2000.

At least for some, Georgia still mandates electrocution.

About 50 miles south of Atlanta, at the state penitentiary in Jackson, the 127 men on death row live in four cell blocks isolated from the rest of the prison population. (The one woman under a death sentence is incarcerated at an Atlanta prison.) From any death-row cell, you look through bars at a chain-link grate about 12 feet in front of you. Behind the grate are a few fans and televisions. Well-behaved inmates, some of whom have lived on death row for more than 20 years, earn the cells closest to the fans and the televisions.

Photographs are not allowed.

Each cell is small and florescent-lit. Most are bare, but some are hung with crocheted decorations the inmates knitted themselves. There are three white angels hanging in one cell, a Winnie the Pooh in another. The most prodigious crocheted craft, a four-and-a-half-month affair, is a three-dimensional motorcycle. The inmate knitted each miniature part, even a flip-down pedal, and sewed it together.

When visitors come, which is rare, the men on death row stand close to the front of their cells, their chests puffed out, many of them wearing smiles. The place smells like sanitizer.

"What's up?" asks Turpin, death row's former warden.

"Same old thing," one of the men answers.

"You're losing your hair," Turpin says to another.

"Thank you for noticing," the man says.

A day or two before a scheduled execution, the condemned man is placed on death watch. A prison staff member monitors his behavior. He moves to a single cell away from death row. He gets special visits from family and clergy, as well as his own television. He can smoke in there, too.

On the day of the execution, a van picks him up. He rides to H-5, the building that houses the electric chair. The inmate spends up to five hours sitting in a 6-by-9-foot holding cell adjacent to the death chamber. There are no windows. The aluminum cot and the toilet are cold. He eats his last meal there.

After dinner, his head is shaved, as is his right leg below the knee. He showers, in a single stall next to the cell. He puts on a new uniform. He may wait an hour or two more.

About 15 minutes before the execution, up to 30 witnesses are escorted into the viewing room. They sit on one of three wooden pews in front of a double-paned glass window. The electric chair is behind the glass, a microphone dangling from a cord above it.

The inmate gives his final statement, which is tape recorded, in the holding cell, just before he leaves for the death chamber. He walks out of the cell and looks up. There, set about 4 feet into the ceiling, is a tiny window. It is his last look at the sky. He takes maybe eight steps to the chair. He steps onto the platform where it sits, all shiny pine and brown leather. A group of men quickly tighten and buckle straps across his waist, wrists, thighs and ankles. They crank a metal knob behind him to push him forward and tighten the slack.

The warden gives the inmate two minutes to say something to the audience, usually made up of his friends and family, the friends and family of his victims, the media and half a dozen state officials. The warden offers the inmate a prayer from the prison chaplain, then reads the execution order. The chinstrap is buckled and electrodes are attached to the head and leg. A leather flap is placed over the face. The attorney general gets on the phone to the board of pardons and paroles to make sure there is no last-minute stay.

"At that point, we take over," Turpin says. "We begin the execution process."

In the room behind the death chamber, there are three black handheld boxes, roughly the size of packs of gum. From each protrudes a tiny silver button. Three wires, one extending from each box, are braided so that you can't tell which one activates the generator. Three prison staff members press the buttons simultaneously. The electrocution begins.

Creative Loafing questioned Mike Mears, , executive director of the Georgia Indigent Defense Counsel and author of The Death Penalty in Georgia about electrocution vs. lethal injection.

CL: Is lethal injection a better form of execution than any other out there?

Mike Mears: The problem with lethal injection is it makes people think it's OK. It gives one the appearance or the illusion of putting a puppy to sleep. It's not really any better than the electric chair. It makes it better for the people watching it.

Do you think you're going to see a lot more death sentences handed out because of lethal injection?

I think it makes the jurors less squeamish about their decision. I think it salves their conscious a little bit when they think it's going to be lethal injection rather than the electric chair. If you're going to execute somebody, probably the most humane way to do it is by hanging. There's absolutely no sensation of pain. Your lights just go off.

State Rep. Eugene Tillman, D-Brunswick, says he introduced the legislation to switch to lethal injection because the state ought to offer a more humane method of execution. He didn't offer a choice of execution to the current death-row population because he wanted to avoid a wave of appeals: Defense attorneys might delay executions by filing motions that their clients were sentenced specifically to death by electrocution.

But the legislation that lawmakers thought placed them on firm legal ground may have done the opposite. Paula Bernstein of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington is among the death-penalty opponents who say Georgia legislators unwittingly have invited a constitutional challenge.

And, last week, the Georgia Supreme Court hinted — for the second time this year — that it is willing to give a thorough hearing to evidence challenging the constitutionality of the electric chair. Should the court rule electrocution cruel and inhumane, it would be the first such ruling in the country and would likely force lethal injection in lieu of electrocution for all condemned inmates in Georgia.

During a typical lethal injection, a machine compresses three inverted syringes, one at a time, into an IV hooked to the inmate's arm. The first syringe is filled with sodium pentothal. "It simply puts you into a mild state of euphoria so that your muscles will relax," Mears says. "It also makes it easier for the other drugs to get into the system. If your body is not relaxed when the other drugs hit, your body's reaction is going to be so strong it could possibly pop the needle right out of your arm."

The machine then compresses the second syringe, filled with pancuronium bromide. It paralyzes the muscle across the bottom of your lungs, the muscle that forces breath. "So if you're still aware of what's going on, what you feel is this unbelievable sensation of holding your breath and not being able to catch your breath," Mears says.

The third syringe is filled with potassium chloride, which paralyzes the heart. "Both those last drugs are supposed to act in tandem to really make sure you die," Mears says.

Georgia prison officials say they have no immediate plans to purchase lethal-injection equipment. Unless the state Supreme Court rules electrocution unconstitutional, it will be at least 12 years before lethal injection debuts, according to Department of Corrections spokesman Scott Stallings. That's because a capital crime will take months if not a year or more to reach trial. The appeals process can last more than a decade for an inmate on death row, where the average length of stay is 12 to 15 years.

"The electric chair is going to be here," Stallings says. "We're going to be in this business a while."

Since the death penalty's reinstatement in 1976, about 320 men and one woman have been sentenced in Georgia to death by electrocution. Of them, 128 are on death row, 23 have been electrocuted, six were later found not guilty, three died awaiting execution, and the rest — approximately half — had their sentences reduced.

No one has died in the Jackson death chamber since June 1998. In late August, Alex Williams came close. Two days before his scheduled execution, the state Supreme Court granted a stay of Williams' execution because the justices were waiting, in another case, to rule on the constitutionality of the electric chair. They must make that decision by the end of their term, in about a month.

No one currently is scheduled to die in Jackson, according to the state Attorney General's Office.

"We just follow the mandates," says Turpin, who was warden during Georgia's last three executions. "People ask me often, 'Are you for capital punishment?' I'm not paid for my opinion. That's not my job."

mara.shalhoup@creativeloafing.com