Florida Juice

The Sunshine State’s love affair with the electric chair.

I still have my notes from that morning, May 4, 1990, in the Q Wing of Florida State Prison: steak, broccoli, hot Lipton tea for the last meal. The lights go off, throwing the prison into darkness, as the prison switches to its own generator. At 7 a.m., the door in the back of the death chamber opens, and there’s Jesse Tafero–slender, bald, white–standing between two guards and looking at the chair like he can’t believe it’s real. I’m attending his execution as a witness and covering it for my employer, the Miami Herald. The guards make Tafero sit down and tie him to the chair with leather straps. He says his last words and then stares out at each of us, one by one, as the guards stuff a gag into his mouth. “He is defiant,” my notes say, as if I can read his mind. The guards slip a black leather hood over his face and screw the head electrode, with its circular sponge, down onto the top of his skull. Ready, set, go. At six minutes past 7, the electricity hits Jesse Tafero and his head bursts into flame.

Some things you can’t escape–can’t burn them, can’t box them up, can’t run far enough or fast enough away. I thought of Jesse Tafero earlier this month when I read about the execution of Bud Davis in the Florida electric chair. Davis started to bleed when the electricity hit him, soaking his shirt bright red, scaring the assembled witnesses. “The chair functioned as it was designed to function,” is what Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s press secretary said.

And in a way, that’s absolutely true. If tidy executions were the point, Florida could have switched over to lethal injection a long time ago. Pretty much all the states have. But Florida has been insistent about keeping its lethal furniture, even though three times in the last nine years, beginning with Jesse Tafero, the chair has gone awry. Fire in 1990, fire in 1997, and now blood. Meanwhile, Florida continues to fend off legal challenges to its right to electrocute, behaving as if death itself weren’t punishment enough.

It’s no coincidence that modern Florida was born of electricity–without air conditioning, none of it would be possible, not those golf course condos or tall beach hotels or trailer parks or malls spreading across the shallow limestone shelf that separates Florida soil from the sea. Down there, more than in other places, electricity is power, the fine bright line between life and no life, which is the same thing as between life and death.

The electric chair came to the state in the middle of the first great Florida land boom, when Florida was conjuring itself up out of the sea of grass. Back then, Florida executed by hanging, which wasn’t a foolproof way to kill people either. Some of the noosed choked to death in those dusty jailhouse courtyards, but that wasn’t what bugged Florida about the method. The problem was that hangings were popular and sometimes drew huge, raucous, picnicking crowds, an image that didn’t quite mesh with the orange-blossom gentility the land barons were trying to create. In 1924, the Florida legislature moved death indoors to the chair, away from the curious and the mayonnaise-smeared.

Somehow, the electric throne made death seem civilized. But those carefree days when frying someone was a sign of progress are long gone. The chair has become an anachronism, an unpleasant physical reminder that the death penalty involves death. One by one, starting in Texas in 1982, states switched to lethal injection. Only four states still electrocute, and of them, Florida is by far the most enthusiastic.

You see, Florida likes the chair. Its collective blood-thirst hasn’t changed much since the days of public hangings. Following Davis’ bloody demise, Gov. Bush proclaimed that the execution let everyone know that Florida was against the murder of innocent people. After the chair misfired in 1997, Attorney General Bob Butterworth similarly explained that if people didn’t want to burn up while being electrocuted, then they should commit their capital offenses somewhere else. Burn ‘em up and warn ‘em off: The only thing unusual about the chair, Florida thinks, is that it isn’t used often enough.

Outsiders think the Florida executioners are sadistic morons. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, they’re frustrated home economists. Consider for a moment the “science” of electrocution at Florida State Prison. When flames erupted from Jesse Tafero during the execution I witnessed, prison officials blamed the fire on the water-filled sponge attached to his head that was placed there to conduct electricity from the electrode. The sponge, purchased by maintenance workers at the local five-and-dime, was highly flammable because it was synthetic, they determined. To demonstrate their theory, they bought another synthetic sponge and stuck it in a kitchen toaster, where it caught on fire. A simulated execution was conducted with a fire-resistant sea sponge: a tub of water standing in for a human body and a colander for a human head. After that, only sea sponges could enter the death chamber.

But when Pedro Medina’s head caught fire during his March 1997 execution, the Florida Supreme Court ordered the Department of Corrections to write down its electric chair protocol, previously just a folksy word-of-mouth operation in Q Wing. The ruling came out of a 1997 lawsuit filed by condemned inmate Leo Alexander Jones, who argued that the electric chair was cruel and unusual punishment. The state, by way of saying thank you, ordered Jones to watch the chair’s next trial run. This time, a metal salad bowl played the role of the human head.

I n 1997, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to keep the chair, with the dissenting justices comparing the chair to the guillotine. Since then, three justices have left the court, two of them from the pro-chair side. It’s hard to imagine that this latest “incident” won’t have an impact on the court, which is currently reviewing another legal challenge to the chair.

Heavy use of the chair–43 executions in the last 20 years–has put some wear and tear on the device. In 1999, the Department of Corrections, which had previously told the court that the chair was in good shape, up and called a structural engineer and paid him $4,000 to inspect the chair. The inspector reported that the chair itself, the wooden part, needed replacement. It just so happened that the Department of Corrections had another electric chair, a full-size replica that it had had manufactured and then placed on display at the department’s tiny and strange museum in Tallahassee. While still in the death chamber, the inspector had snapped a few quick pictures of himself sitting in the chair, and he is planning to use them as Christmas cards this year. According to the inspector, the state’s concern wasn’t the condemned: The guards were worried that if the chair broke apart during an electrocution, the thick, black, high-voltage wires screwed to the inmate might rip loose and electrocute everybody in the room.

Flames, my notes say, about Tafero’s execution. Flames and smoke. It is impossible to put into words. What does it look like when someone catches fire while strapped to a piece of wood? The flames are nearly a foot high, they arc out from underneath the black leather hood; there is smoke, the huge buzzing sound of the electricity, there are white walls and Venetian blinds and linoleum underfoot. There’s ash falling on Tafero’s shirt and he’s nodding his head, he’s heaving his chest in and out, tied down with those thick leather straps. The executioner turns the power on and off, three times in all, and in between the jolts Tafero is moving, he’s nodding, his chest rises and falls. He looks like he’s still alive. Then the electricity hits him again, and the fire rises from his head, from the black leather mask, and he shudders forward and is slammed back against the chair. It takes seven minutes before the prison doctor pronounces him dead, seven minutes of heaving, nodding, flame, and smoke. You can’t see his face because the mask covers it, but as you walk past him on your way out you notice his hands there. There’s a sore on his right pinky finger, a raw spot, flesh rubbed off to blood against the oak, from where he was clawing the chair.