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Execution by electrocution, usually performed using an electric chair, is an execution method originating in the United States in which the condemned person is strapped to a specially built wooden chair and electrocuted through electrodes placed on the body. This execution method was created by employees of Thomas Edison during the War of Currents, and has been used only in the United States and, for a period of several decades, in the Philippines (its first use there was in 1924 under American occupation, last in 1976).
Historically, once the condemned person was attached to the chair, various cycles (differing in voltage and duration) of alternating current would be passed through the individual's body, in order to cause fatal damage to the internal organs (including the brain). The first jolt of electric current was designed to cause immediate unconsciousness and brain stem death; the second one was designed to cause fatal damage to the vital organs. Death was frequently caused by electrical overstimulation of the heart.
Although the electric chair has become a symbol of the death penalty in the United States, its use is in decline due to the rise of lethal injection, which is widely believed to be a more humane method of execution. Although some states still maintain electrocution as a method of execution, today it is only maintained as a secondary method that may be chosen over lethal injection at the request of the prisoner. As of 2010, electrocution is an optional form of execution in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia. They allow the prisoner to choose lethal injection as an alternative method. In the states of Kentucky and Tennessee, the electric chair has been retired except for those whose capital crimes were committed prior to legislated dates in 1998 (Kentucky: March 31, 1998; Tennessee: December 31, 1998) and who chose electrocution. In both states, inmates who do not choose electrocution or inmates who committed their crimes after the designated date are killed by lethal injection. The electric chair is an alternate form of execution approved for potential use in Arkansas and Oklahoma if other forms of execution are found unconstitutional in the state at the time of execution. On February 8, 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court determined that execution by electric chair was a "cruel and unusual punishment" under the state's constitution. This brought executions of this type to an end in Nebraska, the only remaining state to retain electrocution as its sole method of execution for murder.
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In 1881, the state of New York established a committee to determine a new, more humane method of execution to replace hanging. Alfred P. Southwick, a member of the committee, developed the idea of running electric current through a condemned man after hearing a case of how relatively painlessly and quickly a drunk man died due to touching exposed power lines. As Southwick was a dentist accustomed to performing procedures on subjects in chairs, his electrical device appeared in the form of a chair to restrain the inmate while being electrocuted.
The first electric chair was produced by Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly. Brown worked as an employee of Thomas Edison, hired for the purpose of researching electrocution and developing the electric chair. Kennelly, Edison's chief engineer at the West Orange facility was assigned to work with Brown on the project. Since Brown and Kennelly worked for Edison and Edison promoted their work, the development of the electric chair is often erroneously credited to Edison himself.
Brown intended to use alternating current (AC), then emerging as a potent rival to direct current (DC), which was further along in commercial development. The decision to use AC was partly driven by Edison's claim that AC was more lethal than DC.
To prove the danger of AC electricity and its suitability for executions, Brown and Edison publicly killed many animals with AC for the press in hopes of associating alternating current with electrical death in the midst of the current wars with George Westinghouse. It was at these events that the term "electrocution" was coined. The term "electrocution" originally referred only to electrical execution (from which it is a portmanteau word), and not to accidental electrical deaths. However, since no English word was available for the latter process, the word "electrocution" eventually took over as a description of all circumstances of electrical death with the new rise of commercial electricity. Most of their experiments were conducted at Edison's West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory in 1888. The demonstrations of electrocution apparently had their intended effects, and the committee adopted the AC electric chair in 1889.
The first person sentenced to be executed by the electric chair was William Kemmler, a convicted murderer. An appeal was made to the New York Court of Appeals on the grounds that use of electricity as a means of execution constituted a cruel and unusual punishment and was thus contrary to the constitution of the United States and the state of New York. On December 30, 1889, the writ of habeas corpus sworn out on Kemmler's behalf was denied by the court, with Judge Dwight writing in a lengthy ruling:
"We have no doubt that if the Legislature of this State should undertake to prescribe for any offense against its laws the punishment of burning at the stake, breaking at the wheel, etc., it would be the duty of the courts to pronounce upon such attempt the condemnation of the Constitution. The question now to be answered is whether the legislative act here assailed is subject to the same condemnation. Certainly it is not so on its face, for, although the mode of death described is conceded to be unusual, there is no common knowledge or consent that it is cruel; it is a question of fact whether an electric current of sufficient intensity and skillfully applied will produce death without unnecessary suffering."
Kemmler was executed in New York's Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890; the "state electrician" was Edwin F. Davis. The first 17-second passage of current through Kemmler caused unconsciousness, but failed to stop his heart and breathing. The attending physicians, Edward Charles Spitzka and Charles F. Macdonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming Kemmler was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out, "Have the current turned on again, quick, no delay." The generator needed time to re-charge, however. In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled, and the areas around the electrodes singed. The entire execution took about eight minutes. George Westinghouse later commented that "they would have done better using an axe," and a witnessing reporter claimed that it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging."
The electric chair was adopted by Ohio (1897), Massachusetts (1900), New Jersey (1906) and Virginia (1908), and soon became the prevalent method of execution in the United States, replacing hanging. Most of the states that currently use or have used the electric chair lie east of the Mississippi River. The electric chair remained the most prominent execution method until the mid-1980s when lethal injection became widely accepted for conducting judicial executions.
Other countries appear to have contemplated using the method, sometimes for special reasons. Minutes of the British War Cabinet released in 2006 show that in December 1942, Winston Churchill mused that Adolf Hitler might be executed in Trafalgar square using an electric chair borrowed from the United States. 'This man is the mainspring of evil. Instrument — electric chair, for gangsters, no doubt available on lease-lend'.
A number of states still allow the condemned person to choose between electrocution and lethal injection. In all, twelve inmates nationwide—seven in Virginia, three in South Carolina and one each in Arkansas and Tennessee—have opted for electrocution over lethal injection. The last use of the chair was on January 16, 2013, when Robert Gleason, Jr. decided to go to the electric chair in Virginia.
After 1966, electrocutions ceased for a time in the US, but the method continued in the Philippines. A well-publicized triple execution took place in May 1972, when Jaime Jose, Basilio Pineda and Edgardo Aquino were electrocuted for the 1967 abduction and gang-rape of the young actress Maggie de la Riva.
Notable individuals who went to the electric chair include: George Stinney, Leon Czolgosz, Bruno Hauptmann, Hans B. Schmidt, Harry Pierpont, Giuseppe Zangara, Sacco and Vanzetti, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Ruth Snyder, Lepke Buchalter, Anna Marie Hahn, Floyd Allen, Donald Henry Gaskins, Albert Fish, Charles Starkweather, Gerald Stano, Larry Gene Bell and Ted Bundy.
There was a botched electrocution at Sing Sing in 1903. Fred Van Wormer was electrocuted and pronounced dead. But, upon arrival to the autopsy room he was seen to be breathing once again. The executioner had gone home, but was called back to re-electrocute Wormer. Before the executioner returned, Wormer had actually died. Nonetheless, Wormer's corpse was set into the chair again and electrocuted with 1700 volts for thirty seconds.
In 1895, Maria Barbella became the first woman to be sentenced to death in the electric chair, but she was released on appeal in 1896. The first woman to die in the electric chair was Martha Place at New York's Sing Sing Prison on March 20, 1899.
The electrocution of housewife Ruth Snyder at Sing Sing on the evening of January 12, 1928, for the March 1927 murder of her husband was made famous when news photographer Tom Howard, working for the New York Daily News, smuggled a hidden camera into the death chamber and photographed her in the electric chair as the current was turned on. The photograph was a front-page sensation the following morning, and remains one of the most famous newspaper photographs of all time.
A record was set on July 13, 1928, when seven men were executed consecutively in the electric chair at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville.
On August 8, 1942, six German agents convicted of espionage and attempted sabotage in the Quirin case for their role in Operation Pastorius during World War II were executed by electric chair at the District of Columbia jail.
James French was executed on August 10, 1966, the last person electrocuted until 1979. French was the first person executed in Oklahoma since Richard Dare was electrocuted June 1, 1963 and the only person executed in 1966.
On May 25, 1979, John Arthur Spenkelink became the first electrocuted person after the Gregg v. Georgia decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1976. He was the first person to be executed in the United States in this manner since 1966.
The use of the electric chair has declined as legislators sought what they believed to be more humane methods of execution. Lethal injection became the most popular method, aided by media reports of botched electrocutions in the early 1980s.
The electric chair has been criticized because of several instances in which the subjects were killed only after being subjected to multiple electric shocks. This led to a call for ending of the practice because many see it as cruel and unusual punishment. Trying to address such concerns, Nebraska introduced a new electrocution protocol in 2004, which called for administration of a 15-second-long application of 2,450 volts of electricity; after a 15-minute wait, an official then checks for signs of life. New concerns raised regarding the 2004 protocol resulted, in April 2007, in the ushering in of the current Nebraska protocol, calling for a 20-second-long application of 2,450 volts of electricity. (Prior to the 2004 protocol change, an initial eight-second application of 2,450 volts was administered, followed by a one-second pause, then a 22-second application at 480 volts. After a 20-second break, the cycle was repeated three more times.)
In 1946, the electric chair failed to kill Willie Francis, who reportedly shrieked "take it off! Let me breathe!" after the current was applied. It turned out that the portable electric chair had been improperly set up by an intoxicated trustie. A case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court (Francis v. Resweber), with lawyers for the condemned arguing that although Francis did not die, he had, in fact, been executed. The argument was rejected on the basis that re-execution did not violate the double jeopardy clause of the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution, and Francis was returned to the electric chair and successfully executed in 1947.
Recorded incidents of botched electrocutions were prevalent after the national moratorium ended January 17, 1977; two in Alabama, three in Florida, one in Georgia, one in Indiana and three in Virginia. All five states now have lethal injection as the default method if a choice is not made.
As of 2013[update], the only places in the world which still reserve the electric chair as an option for execution are the U.S. states of Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. (Arkansas and Oklahoma laws provide for its use should lethal injection ever be held to be unconstitutional.) Inmates in the other states must select either it or lethal injection. In the states of Tennessee and Kentucky only inmates sentenced before a certain date can choose to be executed by elecric chair. In the state of Florida, on July 8, 1999, Allen Lee Davis convicted of murder was executed in the Florida electric chair "Old Sparky". Davis' face was bloodied and photographs taken, which were later posted on the Internet. The 1997 execution of Pedro Medina in Florida created controversy when flames burst from the inmate's head. Lethal injection has been the primary method of execution in the state of Florida since 2000. On February 15, 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court declared execution by electrocution to be "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Nebraska Constitution.
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