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Fiery Execution Triggers Stay of Next Date With 'Old Sparky'

September 11, 1997|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — When blue flames shot up from the head of Pedro Medina during his March execution in Florida's electric chair, perhaps the only person more horrified than the 30 witnesses was Leo Jones. He's next.

But this week, the Florida Supreme Court moved to indefinitely delay Jones' execution after hearing oral arguments that using the electric chair--a 74-year-old contraption known as "Old Sparky"--violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment." Jones, 47, was to die Monday.

Appearing before the seven justices in Tallahassee this week, Martin McClain, an attorney representing Jones, contended that Medina's fiery execution is proof that the chair inflicts "cruel" punishment. And he asserted that the fact that only six states--mostly in the South--still mandate electrocution in death penalty cases makes it an "unusual" punishment.

Indeed, McClain's hope is that the Florida high court will use the Jones case to unplug Old Sparky for good. The chair is a three-legged oaken seat in which more than 225 men have been put to death since it was built by prisoners at Florida State Prison in 1923.

But twice in recent years the wooden seat has sparked controversy--as well as national debate on capital punishment--when, as the switch was thrown, fire erupted from the leather headpiece worn by the condemned. Flames singed the head of convicted cop killer Jesse Tafero in 1990 and caused so much smoke in the death chamber during the execution of Medina, a 39-year-old Cuban immigrant, that a window to the outside was thrown open.

State officials say problems with the Tafero and Medina executions resulted from sponges in the headpiece that were improperly moistened. When the chair is working properly, said Assistant Atty. Gen. Richard Martell, death is instantaneous and painless.

But opponents of electrocution, including McClain, say the practice is barbaric. "The trend is away from the electric chair, and the fact is it is just not acceptable anymore," McClain said. "The scientific evidence is that electrocution is not the painless, sanitary way of killing we once thought it was."

What is clearly unusual in the Jones case, and possibly cruel, is that the longtime death row inmate was made to watch a dry run of his own execution after the state Supreme Court ordered the chair be tested. In June, Jones and dozens of lawyers and prison officials looked on as 2,300 volts of electricity were passed through an aluminum bowl, a piece of wood and a pipe.

A prison spokesman said Jones, who confessed to the 1981 ambush murder of a Jacksonville police officer, "sat peacefully through the testing."

McClain disputes that, and adds that Jones--who now says police beat a confession out of him--also has been made to listen to hours of testimony about what happens during an electrocution. In July, neurophysiologist Donald Price testified that he believed that "execution by electrocution is excruciatingly and intensely painful and induces feelings of horror."

Price, a professor at the Medical College of Virginia, disputed the state's claim that three bursts of electricity administered over 34 seconds instantly kills the brain and blocks all sensation in the condemned man even if the heart continues beating. Were that so, Price said, he would have found damage when he examined a slice of Medina's brain tissue. He did not.

"If the brain were cooked in any way, it would obscure these areas," said Price, referring to a section of tissue. "It would look like a boiled egg. It didn't look that way."

As the justices ponder the case, McClain has returned to state court to file a motion for a new trial, charging that Judge A.C. Soud, who sentenced Jones 16 years ago, helped bribe another judge involved in another Jones case years earlier. Twice this year Soud has denied claims that the state's use of the electric chair constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

McClain also has asked Soud to vacate Jones' murder conviction and death sentence after locating a man McClain says witnessed another man firing the rifle shot that killed Officer Thomas Szafranski.

*

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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