I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…
The electric chair by nature is an inhospitable piece of furniture.
It’s definitely the last piece of furniture you’d ever try out.
It sure looks uncomfortable as hell. The one they used to use in Illinois, which is the one I got a good look at the other day, looked like a seat only Frankenstein could love. It had a built-in black mask to fit over the prisoner’s face, with a triangular cut-out for the nose to stick through. The mask is pressured back against the face, forcing the head into a vise to stop the prisoner from flying forward when the electricity hits. Two leg clamps at the bottom of the chair prevent the lower body from doing the same thing. There’s a strap for the chest, another for the abdomen. One electrode for the top of the head, another for the right calf.
The electric chair was invented by a dentist, of course.
They always keep a fire extinguisher handy in the event the prisoner bursts into flame, so as to minimize the damage to the chair. It happens more than you’d like to think, and the chairs are expensive.
The chair I saw was in a film called, “The Chair.” It depicts the legal effort to spare a convicted murderer execution. There is no effort to claim innocence, but rather rehabilitation of an admitted former monster, weighed against the state’s argument that the monster’s execution, nine years after the conviction, will deter others.
“Nobody really believes that capital punishment deters, no matter what they say,” the lawyer, who appears to be rehearsing his argument — while drinking from a bottle — says. “Because if we as a society really believed in the deterrent effect of capital punishment, we’d hold that execution at high noon in the middle of Soldier Field. And we would see to it especially that the children of this community watched it, because they’re the ones who ought to be deterred. If we really believed that you can frighten people into abstaining from the commission of serious felonies, like murder, we’d hold the execution in the middle of Soldier Field, and we’d have every kid under the age of sixteen in the entire community in there, we’d require their attendance. We’d rank ‘em up around that electric chair just as close as we can get ‘em, so they could smell the burning flesh. That would deter them. We don’t believe that. We hide it in a basement and do it at midnight. This is not an attempt at deterrence: this is vengeance; this is retaliation; this is an attempted usurpation of the prerogative of God — because vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” The lawyer, who doesn’t believe in God, takes another long pull from the bottle.
This is fifty-five years ago. That lawyer did manage to save his client from sitting in the chair, from becoming the last man in Illinois to die in it. The film that documented Donald Moore’s struggle, with the help of famed New Yorker lawyer Louis Nizer, used the Cook County, Chicago, electric chair to create one last shock — at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. No one else died in the electric chair in Illinois after 1962.
But old habits do die hard. You can still settle into one today in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, or Virginia.