Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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Jeb Bush Says He's Conflicted On The Death Penalty. His Record Tells Another Story.

Jeb Bush
Jeb Bush
Private emails and interviews with associates show a man preoccupied with speeding up executions.

During the 1986 gubernatorial campaign, one candidate demanded that the [Florida] Supreme Court start "burning the midnight oil" to plow through the [death row] appeals backlog. Another promised to personally "pull the switch" if elected. Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez pledged that if he was elected governor, "Florida's electric bill will go up." He won.

In 1990, Martinez oversaw the execution of convicted cop killer Jesse Tafero, whose head caught on fire and whose body convulsed in a cloud of smoke and ash as he fried in the electric chair. He was shocked three times over the course of seven minutes. According to the medical examiner, Tafero did not die instantly; in fact, it took him six or seven minutes. Witnesses recalled 6-inch and 12-inch flames shooting from his head. Another witness described seeing the body after the execution: The entire top of Tafero’s head was "covered with wounds," and his eyebrows, eyelashes and facial hair had been burned off. Prison authorities would later blame the gory scene on a synthetic sponge they had used in place of the usual natural one. (Years later, evidence emerged suggesting that one of Tafero's accomplices was the actual shooter.)

When Bush first ran for governor, in 1994, he mimicked Martinez's fry-'em playbook. He produced a list of 10 death row inmates whose executions he believed had been unnecessarily delayed and spent the closing days of the campaign attacking Democratic incumbent Lawton Chiles for being soft on capital punishment.

During the campaign, Bush proposed limiting death row inmates to just one appeal in state court. (Defendants could still pursue federal appeals.) "I believe the one trial, one appeal will speed the enforcement of the death penalty by two to four years in most death cases," he argued.

In one ad, Bush featured a murdered 10-year-old's mother who accused Chiles of not doing enough to speed the execution of her daughter's killer. The ad began with photos of the beaming girl and then cut to her mother. “Fourteen years ago,” she said, “my daughter rode off to school on her bicycle. She never came back. Her killer is still on death row, and we’re still waiting for justice. We won’t get it from Lawton Chiles, because he’s too liberal on crime.”

The ad backfired. Chiles noted that he had no power over an ongoing court case. "It was a gross distortion," recalled Mark Schlakman, Chiles’ special counsel. "They were just upside-down wrong on it."

Within days, Bush admitted as much. In the closing debate, he was excoriated as a crass opportunist. His poll numbers never recovered.

Chiles won re-election and the executions continued.

On March 25, 1997, another death row inmate, Pedro Medina, caught on fire in the electric chair, with blue and orange flames shooting out from behind his mask. According to court documents, “after the flame went out, more smoke emanated from under the head piece to the extent that the death chamber was filled with smoke.” The court went on to describe Medina’s body as “mutilated.” “Deposits of charred material” and third-degree burns were reported on the top of his head within a “burn ring.” There were also first-degree burns on his face and head “caused by scalding steam.”

Glenn Dickson, Medina’s minister, recalled watching from the chamber. He was so shocked that he couldn't perform the funeral. “He didn’t die instantly,” Dickson said. “It was the most gruesome thing I have ever seen in my life.”

Florida's electric chair
Florida's electric chair
The Florida legislature responded to the execution not by eliminating the electric chair but by passing a law affirming it as the state's sole method of execution. The vote was 36-0 in the Senate and 103-6 in the House.

By the time Bush ran for governor again, in 1998, he was pitching himself as a different man. He had converted to Catholicism in 1995 at the urging of his wife, Columba, and said it had softened his approach to politics in general and the death penalty in particular.

But it was tough to tell how great a conversion he'd undergone. On the campaign trail, Bush claimed to be "conflicted a little by my faith" but not to the point that he would drop his support for capital punishment. He said that if the pope called to ask him to change his position, he'd be "in awe" but not convinced. "The church does allow for capital punishment in the most heinous of capital crimes," Bush explained.

Sally Bradshaw, Bush's campaign manager in 1994 and 1998, called it "an evolution in message delivery."

Still, when Bush won, his victory gave death penalty foes a sliver of hope that a rising-star Republican governor might become an ally in the cause.

“I believe that, as a thoughtful person and a good Catholic, he was terribly conflicted,” said Talbot D’Alemberte, then president of Florida State University and an opponent of capital punishment who emailed with Bush on the topic. “I had hopes that he would leave the dark side.”

D’Alemberte and others of his ilk were mistaken. In emails, Bush more often expressed impatience than empathy with those who questioned how his faith was compatible with capital punishment. In one email, he rationalized his position by arguing that executions happened “rarely” in the state. In another, he lamented a“double standard that exists in public life. Catholics, it seems get greater scrutiny, than folks of other faith.” In yet another, Bush complained of the church's lobbying on the subject. On June 10, 1999, aides wrote to tell him that a local monsignor wanted to talk. “Ugh! On the death penalty,” he responded.

In July of his first year in office, Bush oversaw his first execution.

Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis had been convicted of brutally killing a pregnant woman and her two daughters. He spent 17 years on death row, exhausting appeals and receiving stays from two earlier dates with the electric chair. During his entire time on death row, Davis' weight concerned officials. As his execution neared, it became an urgent matter. The electric chair had a 350-pound limit. Davis came in at 349. The prison put him on a diet and spent $706 for red oak lumber to build a new chair that was wider and less rickety. The electrical current remained the same.

On the day of his execution, July 8, 1999, an arthritic, 344-pound Davis had to be wheeled to the chair by his guards.

Allen Davis' execution, July 8, 1999
Allen Davis' execution, July 8, 1999
At approximately 7:01 a.m., leather belts were strapped around his arms, chest and legs and a 5-inch-wide leather strap was placed across his mouth, forcing his nose upward. A mask was then lowered over his face.

Witnesses said that at this point Davis began issuing muffled screams or moans. When the switch was flipped, blood started to drip from under the mask, over his chin and neck, forming an 8-by-12 inch puddle on his white button-down shirt. Then-state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) claimed to see the shape of a cross in the blood -- a sign of God forgiving Davis for his sins. Brown-Waite, who was in the room, recalled the execution as "pretty gruesome,” but just.

Davis' muffled screams quieted. But he still appeared to be breathing. After the electrical current was switched off, his chest rose and fell 10 times.

“It took a few moments, seconds really, to realize what was going on, that this was not the normal, quiet, efficient execution that the state wanted portray,” said veteran Tampa reporter John Sugg, who also witnessed the execution in person. “He wasn’t dead. You could hear him. I heard him.”

By 7:15 a.m., Davis has been declared dead. His body was covered in burns -- on his head, his groin, and behind his right knee. Photos taken shortly after showed his face had turned purple, likely the result of partial asphyxiation.

Bush was unapologetic. In the days after the execution, he insisted, as prison officials would too, that the bleeding started before the electricity, and he pleaded that sympathy be directed toward Davis’ victims. The controversy, he said, was “an argument over a nosebleed.”

On June 7, 2000, Bennie Demps, a racial justice advocate within the prison system, was put to death by lethal injection. Demps had been convicted of killing a fellow prisoner. He never stopped professing his innocence, claiming he had been set up by corrupt officials. Before his execution took place, Pope John Paul II sent a letter to Bush seeking clemency. The governor declined to grant it.

The execution went awry shortly after it began. Technicians struggled for more than a half-hour to find a vein. When the curtains in the chamber finally opened, Demps screamed out that what was about to transpire was nothing more than a "low-tech lynching."

Florida's death chamber
Florida's death chamber
In a narrative of events he wrote after the fact, George Schaefer, one of Demps' attorneys, recalled the anxiety building in the witness gallery during the delay and remembered hearing “some strange drum beats or perhaps even music while waiting.” That anxiety turned to shock once Demps appeared and delivered his last words. Schaefer wrote that his client “went on to ask that I request an investigation of what had just happened to him. He said that the officials had cut into his groin and into his leg and that he had bled profusely. He said that it was very important that his body be examined because it would show where there were sutures. He mentioned he had been ‘butchered.’”

Schaefer had nightmares for a month after the execution, he said. He eventually moved to San Diego, where he currently works as a lawyer for the city handling civil litigation. “It was very traumatic for me,” he said.

At the governor's office, there was a different reaction. Asked for his thoughts after the Demps execution, Bush replied that the procedure was done "according to the textbook."

"There was no botched nature to it at all."

Source: The Huffington Post, Jason Cherkis, Sam Stein, December 4, 2015

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