March 26, 1997 in Nation/World

Flames Leap From Inmate’s Head At Execution Window Opened To Clear Smoke; ‘Old Sparky’ Called A Deterrent

Mike Clary Special To The Los Angeles Times
 

The perennial American debate over the cruelty and value of the death penalty began anew here Tuesday after a gruesome electric chair execution in which flames leaped from the head of a convicted murderer as the switch was thrown.

Pedro Medina, a 39-year-old Cuban immigrant, was pronounced dead at 7:10 a.m., but not before a prison official wearing protective gloves helped douse the flames which shot from the condemned man’s head, and so much smoke filled the death chamber that a window to the outside was opened.

“It was horrible. A solid flame covered his whole head, from one side to the other. I had the impression of somebody being burned alive,” said attorney Mike Minerva of the state’s Capital Collateral Representative, which represents death row inmates, including Medina. “In fact, you could smell it on the other side of the glass. Very strong.”

While opponents of capital punishment quickly cited Medina’s fiery death as graphic evidence of the barbarity of execution, state Attorney General Bob Butterworth said he hoped the prisoner’s final seconds would serve as a deterrent to others.

“People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the state of Florida because we may have a problem with our electric chair,” Butterworth said.

Florida’s electric chair is called “Old Sparky,” a three-legged oaken seat built by prisoners at Florida State Prison in Starke and used since 1923 to administer a fatal, 2,000-volt dose of current to more than 225 convicted killers.

Florida executions have been botched before. Old Sparky was unplugged for several months in 1990 after smoke and flames were seen near the head of convicted cop killer Jesse Tafero during an electrocution in which three jolts of current were administered over four minutes.

An investigation concluded that a synthetic sponge substituted for a natural sponge inside the leather helmet worn by the condemned impeded the flow of electricity.

By contrast, Medina’s death was quicker but much more spectacular.

Observers said Medina appeared calm as he was being strapped into “Old Sparky,” never making eye contact with witnesses.

“Pedro was somewhere else when he was in there,” said the Rev. Glenn Dickson, a Presbyterian minister who had spent much of the night talking to Medina. “He told me he was not afraid of dying.”

“I am still innocent,” Medina said moments before a black hood was dropped over his face and prison superintendent Ron McAndrew nodded to the executioner.

“Almost immediately a flame 4 to 5 inches high shot from a top portion of the headpiece,” said Eugene Morris, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, one of about 30 people who witnessed the execution. “It burned clearly enough that it could be seen for six to eight seconds.

Witnesses reported that Medina lurched backward into the chair and balled his hands into fists as electricity was turned on. The flames erupted immediately.

Told by doctors in attendance that Medina felt no pain during his execution, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles commented, “We’ve had an occasion of smoke before. But the question is really, ‘Is this something torturous or painful?”’

Medical examiner Belle Almojera said the answer was no. “In my professional opinion, he died a very quick, humane death,” the doctor said in an affidavit. “I did notice smoke coming from the hood. At no time while there was smoke did I observe any pain or suffering on the part of the inmate.”

xxxx BAN WAS SOUGHT Last fall, lawyers representing death row inmates petitioned the state high court to ban “Old Sparky,” calling it a barbaric instrument of torture that inflicts cruel and unusual punishment. But the court denied a hearing.


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