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National Perspective | CRIME

Use of 'Old Sparky' Ignites Death Row Debate in Florida

March 09, 1998|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — Four convicted killers--three men and a woman dubbed the "Black Widow"--are scheduled to be strapped into Florida's notoriously unpredictable electric chair this month in a rash of executions that civil libertarians fear signals a decision to challenge Texas as the capital of capital punishment.

"Florida's lawmakers' obsession with the use of 'Old Sparky,' as they affectionately term the electric chair, is particularly gruesome," said Larry Spalding, legislative counsel for the Florida American Civil Liberties Union. "The next thing we'll see is a constitutional amendment to change our motto from the Sunshine State to the Electric Chair State."

Although 380 men and women are on death row in Florida, no one has died in the chair since last March, when flames erupted from the headgear of Pedro Medina in an execution that touched off a yearlong debate on the efficacy and humaneness of Old Sparky. The state Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote, subsequently decided that using the chair did not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Still, some lawmakers have proposed unplugging Old Sparky, a three-legged wooden seat built by convicts in 1924. But in debate last week, a majority in both the Florida House and Senate seemed unmoved by arguments that the condemned should have a choice in how they die.

"Dead is dead," said Sen. Ron Klein, a Democrat from Boca Raton. "Whether we do it by lethal injection or the electric chair, we need to do it."

Sentiments such as that trouble Spalding, who fears that "with the backlog on death row, we could start executing two or three people a month and start approaching Texas numbers."

Two people, including pickax killer Karla Faye Tucker, have been executed by lethal injection in Texas this year, leaving 447 inmates on death row there. Last year, Texas executed 37 people, equal to the total executed in all other states.

Capital punishment is traditionally an election-year issue, and Florida will choose a new governor this fall. In Tallahassee, the state capital, Spalding said he had heard considerable speculation already that if GOP front-runner Jeb Bush is elected, "we could have the battle of the Bushes to see who can execute the most." George W. Bush, the former president's other son, is Texas governor.

Opponents of capital punishment here are not expecting much public relations help from this month's death seat candidates. First up, on March 23, is serial killer Gerald Stano, convicted of three murders in the Daytona Beach area but suspected in more slayings.

Scheduled for the following day is Leo Jones, condemned for killing a Jacksonville police officer in 1981. On March 31, the chair is to be occupied by Daniel Remeta, who fatally shot an Ocala convenience store clerk in 1985.

In between Jones and Remeta, the chair is reserved for Judias Buenoano, 54, nicknamed the Black Widow after being convicted of poisoning a husband with arsenic, drowning her paralyzed son by pushing him out of a canoe when he was wearing leg braces and attempting to kill her fiance by planting a bomb in his car.

Martin McClain, a lawyer for the Capital Collateral Regional Council, a state-funded agency that represents death row inmates, acknowledged that none of those slated to die this month have the telegenic likability or personality that Tucker projected to the media.

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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