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Friday, September 10, 2021

Executions: Violent Death by Electricity and Gas

     When Robert Wayne Williams was put to death in Angola [prison's] electric chair in 1983, Louisiana's first execution in nineteen years, wardens were amazed that the chair literally cooked William's scalp and legs, which smoked and sizzled for several minutes. Twenty-four hours later, the corpse reeked so strongly that mourners found it difficult to remain in the funeral parlor where Williams was laid out. Angola's warden, Ross Maggio, had to call sources outside the prison simply to learn if this was the way it was supposed to happen.

     The gas chamber was harder still for many to watch in action. The apparent violence of asphyxiation grievously offended [execution] witnesses in state after state, from the 1983 execution of Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi to the gassing of Donald Eugene Harding on April 11, 1992, Arizona's first execution in thirty years. A Tucson television reporter sobbed uncontrollably during Harding's ten-minute execution; two other reporters "were rendered walking vegetables for days"; the attorney general vomited halfway through; a prison staff member who ran the execution likened it to watching a man suffer a series of heart attacks; and the prison's pro-death penalty warden said he'd resign if the state told him to run another asphyxiation. But Harding's death was probably no different from those suffered in Arizona's gas chamber since it was installed as "a humane measure" in 1933, replacing a gallows that had decapitated a condemned woman.

Ivan Solotaroff, The Last Face You'll Ever See, 2001

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