Execution by Electrocution

views updated

Execution by Electrocution

Book excerpt

By: Fred A. Leuchter

Date: November 27, 1989

Source: Fred A. Leuchter. "Execution by Electrocution" In Modular Electrocution System Manual: State of Tennessee. Boston, Mass.: Fred A. Leuchter Associates, 1989.

About the Author: Fred A. Leuchter ran a company which specialized in the design and manufacture of execution equipment, including devices for delivering execution by electrocution. Leuchter famously argued that the Holocaust could not have taken place after traveling to concentration camps to carry out research into gas chambers. In 1990, he was exposed as having no formal engineering qualifications, even though he sold his equipment to several states, starting in Tennessee.


The methods of execution that are allowed in the United States are: lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, hanging, and firing squad. Lethal injection is, increasingly, the preferred method. Electrocution, however, is still used in ten states, although it is the sole method used in Nebraska. In Illinois and Oklahoma, electrocution is held in reserve in case lethal injection were to be ruled unconstitutional. In Tennessee, where the electric chair described below was first used, all those sentenced to death after January 1, 1999, will be executed by lethal injection. Those sentenced before choose between lethal injection and electrocution.

The electric chair was first introduced in New York in 1888, supposedly as a more humane method of execution than hanging. It was used to execute one William Kemmler in 1890 and other states began to adopt the method. Since 1976, 152 people have been executed by electrocution in the electric chair, compared to 841 by lethal injection, eleven in the gas chamber, three by hanging and two by firing squad.

Even when carried out correctly, electrocution is a gruesome process. The condemned person is shaved and strapped into the chair with belts crossing his body. A skullcap-shaped electrode is placed on the scalp and forehead and a second electrode fixed to the leg. Electricity will pass through his body between the two electrodes.

The prisoner is blindfolded and the execution team withdraws to the observation room. A warden signals the executioner to pull a handle which connects to the power supply. An electric shock of 500 to 2000 volts passes through the prisoner's body, lasting for about thirty seconds. The current is then turned off and, once the body has cooled, doctors check to see if the heart has stopped. If not, then another jolt is applied and the process continues until the prisoner is dead. The manual extract below describes the equipment and process in more detail.




The design of an electrocution system involves the consideration of a few, but very significant, requirements. Voltage, current, connections, duration and number of current applications (jolts).


First, the system should contain three (3) electrodes. The head should be fitted with a tightly fitting cap containing an electrode with a saline solution moistened sponge. It is through this electrode that the current is introduced. Second, each ankle should be tightly fitted with an electrode, causing the current to divide and guaranteeing passage through the complete trunk of the subjects body. Use of one (1) ankle electrode (instead of two [2]) will almost always ensure a longer and more difficult electrocution. These two (2) ankle electrodes are the return path of the current. Contact should be enhanced by using saline salve or a sponge moistened with a saline solution at each of the ankle connections. It is of the utmost importance that good circuit continuity, with a minimum amount of resistance, be maintained at the electrode contacts. Further, a minimum of 2000 volts ac must be maintained, after voltage drop, to guarantee permanent disruption of the functioning of the autonomic nervous system. Voltages lower than 2000 volts ac, at saturation, cannot guarantee heart death and are, thus, not adequate for electrocution, in that they may cause unnecessary trauma to the subject prior to death. Failure to adhere to these basic requirements could result in pain to the subject and failure to achieve heart death, leaving a brain dead subject in the chair.

Medical Description

During electrocution there are two (2) factors that must be considered: the conscious and the autonomic nervous systems. Voltages in excess of 1500 volts ac are generally sufficient to destroy the conscious nervous system, that which controls pain and understanding. Generally, unconsciousness occurs in 4.16 milliseconds, which is 1/240 part of a second. This is twenty-four (24) times as fast as the subjects conscious nervous system can record pain. The autonomic nervous system is a little more difficult, however, and generally requires in excess of 2000 volts ac to seize the pacemaker in the subjects heart. Generally, we compute the voltage at 2000 volts ac plus 20%. After the voltage is applied and the subjects body saturates, the voltage has dropped about 10% (depending upon the resistance of the electrode contacts and that of the subject body) and this should be taken into consideration, as well. Current should be kept under six (6) amperes to minimize body damage (cooking).

Ideally, the voltage is calculated thus:

The average man weighing 70 kilos (154 lbs.) requires 2000 volts ac to seize the heart.

Increase the voltage by 20% to accommodate subjects with greater resistance.

2000 volts ac plus 20% equals 2400 volts ac. Increase voltage by 10% for drop at saturation.

2400 volts ac plus 10% equals 2640 volts ac.

Thus, the voltage should be 2640 volts ac.

This 2640 volts ac should be applied in two (2) jolts of one (1) minute each, spaced at a ten (10) second interval. On occasion, the subjects heart will spasm, instead of seizing, during the first application of current and the application of the second jolt will generally eliminate this problem. This spasm is due to excessive chemical buildup (acetylcholine and sympathin) at the nerve junctions and the ten (10) second wait generally allows for dissipation of the chemicals.

System Description

Fred A. Leuchter Associates, Inc. manufactures a low-cost, state-of-the-art modular system for electrocution. The system utilizes solid state circuitry for control and timing, current regulation to five (50) milliamperes (1%) and single and two (2) station control for operation. It is designed with plug-in components for ease in repair and maintenance, and because of its modular design can be installed in very little time by untrained personnel.

The control system is designed for a timing sequence which will deliver two (2) one (1) minute jolts at minimum of 2400 volts ac spaced ten (10) seconds apart. To guarantee fail-safe operation, a redundant system's timer activates and shuts down the system if any of the sequential timers fail. Additionally, there are two (2) modes of operation: single station and two (2) station. In single station, one (1) push button switch controls the operation. In two (2) station, two (2) switches are utilized and logic (computer) circuitry determines which switch causes operation. The two (2) station mode precludes the use of an executioner, since no one knows which of the two (2) switches activated the system. The system does not retain the operating switch in memory. Further, since the controls are operated electronically, the operator handles only low voltage equipment, being completely isolated from the high voltage, guaranteeing operator safety.

The high voltage circuitry is designed to deliver 2640 volts ac upon activation and, as the load saturates and the current increases, the voltage stabilizes at (or above) 2400 volts ac. The current is limited to five (5) amperes, maximum, by a current regulator. The voltage, in accordance with the standard formula for admittance, will drop approximately 10% or 240 volts, but the current will never exceed five (5) amperes with 1% (five [50] milliampere) regulation. A current limiting breaker protects the load in the event of a regulator failure and will open the circuit at six (6) amperes. The equipment is protected by a ninety (90) ampere overcurrent breaker.

The Power Supply

The power supply consists of a 208 volt ac primary, 2640 volt ac secondary transformer coupled to a saturable reactor with current monitoring circuitry, two (2) overcurrent limits and a high voltage contactor.

It is designed to deliver five (5) amperes at 1% (fifty [50] milliampere) regulation at 2400 volts ac, plus 10% (240 volts ac). This means that when the circuit is closed, 2640 volts ac is fed into the load. As the load saturates, the current increases and the voltage drops. At approximately ten (10) seconds into operation, the load is fully saturated and will appear to be approaching a direct short circuit. The current regulator, however, limits the current to five (5) amperes at the saturation voltage point of 2400 (minimum) volts ac. If the current regulator fails, an overcurrent breaker is set to trip at six (6) amperes.

The system operates by monitoring output current, processing it in a direct current amplifier, and applying it to a direct current coil which controls the flux density in the core of the reactor. It is, essentially, a highly accurate magnetic amplifier.

Additionally, the power supply contains overcurrent protection for both the equipment and the load and an output contactor for closing the high voltage circuit to the Electric Chair. All connections to the power supply, except those for the 208 volts ac in, which are terminal block, are via two (2) military-type circular connectors.

The Control Console

The control console is a sloped metal panel cabinet containing the timing circuitry, computer controlled switching circuitry and controls for the system operation. It contains two (2) key switches for circuit control and a key-controlled fail-safe switch for high voltage output.

The timing sequence is accomplished with two (2) solid-state one (1) minute timers and one (1) ten (10) second timer cascaded from a system's timer of 130 seconds, guaranteeing system shutdown after 130 seconds even in the event of a sequential timer failure. Timer activation is all by precision relay.

One (1) and two (2) station control is standard and is facilitated by solid-state circuitry. In single station control, one (1) switch operates an electronic relay and activates the system. In two (2) station control, two (2) switches are utilized and the logic (computer) circuitry chooses the switch which will activate the relay. This insures that no one will know which operator controlled the circuit, as with a firing squad. The system does not retain the operating switch in memory.

The Electric Chair

The electric chair consists of an oaken chair with an adjustable backrest, inherent leg electrodes, a leather and sponge helmet with electrode, a drip pan, a plexiglass seat and a non-incremental restraint system. It is covered with a high gloss epoxy paint similar to that which is used in the space program. It is connected to the power supply via one military type connector. This chair was fabricated in part with wood from Tennessee's original electric chair.

The ankle electrodes, which are fabricated onto the leg stock, are turned of solid brass. They accommodate a #6 conductor and are paralleled to ground.

The helmet consists of an outer helmet of leather and an inner helmet of copper mesh and sponge. It will disassemble for repair and the electrode will accommodate a #6 conductor.

The chair design includes a removable drip pan. The straps are of nylon aircraft construction and consist of two (2) ankle straps, two (2) wrist straps and one (1) cross-the-chest harness, all with quick release fasteners. All fasteners comprising the restraints are non-incremental, enabling a tighter fit.

The entire system, because of its modular design, may be installed by non-technical people in several hours and is fully field repairable.


Power Supply

Voltage: 208 volts ac in, 2400 volts ac plus 10% or 2640 volts ac out.

Current: five (5) amperes at 1% (fifty [50] milliampere) regulation.

Overcurrent protection: six (6) amperes; ninety (90) amperes; load and equipment respectively.

Input: 208 volts ac, 75 Amp, 60 Hz, 15.5 VA.

Disconnect rated 208 volts ac, 100 Amp.

Main Transformer: Primary-195 volts ac, 68 amps, 13.2 KVA. Secondary-2640 volts ac, 5 amp.

Saturable reactor: 75 amp, 15 KVA.

Control Transformer: Primary-208 volts ac.Secondary-110 volts ac, 50-60 Hz, 750 KVA.Meters: 1 volt, 1 amp.

Terminations: two (2) MS (military-type) circular connectors, console and high voltage output. Terminal block, 208 volts ac input.

Enclosure: NEMA 12.

Control Console

Voltage: 110 volts ac.

Overcurrent protection: one (1) ampere; three (3) ampere.

Timing: sequential—one (1) minute; ten (10) seconds; one (1) minute. All solid-state with a 130 second system's timer.

Switches: three (3) lock type—two (2) for circuit control operation, one (1) for system fail-safe; two (2) operator switches.

Terminations: one (1) MS (military-type) circular connector.

Electric Chair

Material: oak.

Electrodes: all turned of solid brass, two (2) leg, one (1) helmet.

Helmet: leather, copper mesh and sponge.

Straps: nylon, aircraft-type; quick release.


Fred A. Leuchter Associates, Inc. assumes no liability for the intended or actual use of this device.


  1. Determine that the main disconnect is off. If not, turn off.
  2. Determine that the Power Supply input circuit breaker is off. If not, turn off.
  3. Determine that all switches on the Control Console are off: POWER ON switch and COMPUTER ON switch in left off position. Note specifically that ELECTRIC CHAIR FAILSAFE switch is in center off position.
  4. Connect control cable between the Power Supply and the Control Console by inserting the polarized connectors and tightening the connector nuts. Connect the Control Console end first. The power is now supplied to the Control Console.
  5. Verify power at the Control Console by turning Power On switch to right and verify SYSTEM ON light. Turn COMPUTER ON switch to right and verify COMPUTER ON light.
  6. Verify ELECTRIC CHAIR FAILSAFE SWITCH by turning switch to left (OPERATION POSITION). Note that the ELECTRIC CHAIR ENERGIZED light is not on. If light is on, there is a system malfunction or someone activated the timing sequence. VERIFY. Turn the ELECTRIC CHAIR FAILSAFE SWITCH off (center) and then to the left (TEST POSITION). Verify ELECTRIC CHAIR ENERGIZED light on. Output contactor on Power Supply is closed. Turn all switches off in reverse sequence. Turn off the power supply input circuit breaker and the main disconnect, in that order.
    Note Well: do not proceed unless the ELECTRIC CHAIR ENERGIZED light is OFF.
  7. Complete test of Control Console as per instructions.
  8. Complete test of Power Supply as per instructions.
  9. Complete test of Electric Chair as per instructions.
  10. Connect power cable between the Power Supply and the Electric Chair by inserting polarized connectors and tightening the connector nuts. Connect Electric Chair end first.
  11. Turn on main disconnect.
  12. Turn on Power Supply input circuit breaker. The Electrocution System is now ENERGIZED and ready for use.
    NOTE WELL: Turn off both main disconnect and input circuit breaker when not using chair.
    DANGER THE SYSTEM IS LIVE. Follow to Operational Procedure.


  1. Steps 1. through 12. of SET UP should have been completed earlier.
  2. Determine that the main disconnect is off and that the input circuit breaker to the Power Supply is off. Remove all keys to the Control Console and determine that all switches are off. If not, turn off. Determine that the Electric Chair Energized light is off. If not, shut electric chair failsafe switch to off (center position). DO NOT PRO-CEED UNLESS ELECTRIC CHAIR ENERGIZED LIGHT IS OFF. Only one key is to be used for operation.
  3. Prepare subject for electrocution: Shave approximately a three Inch (3″) diameter spot on the top of executee's head. Cut pants off to knees, slit pants to knees or supply subject with short pants.
  4. Mix a saturated saline (salt water) solution (add salt until it will no longer mix to lukewarm water).
  5. Wet sponge in helmet (saturate).
  6. Wet ankle sponges if a determination is made that they are to be utilized. Use of sponges is recommended in most cases.
  7. Loosen all adjustments in restraint system and move backrest all the way back.
  8. Refer to special Protocol for logistic procedure.
  9. Sedate subject either orally or with injection if permissible. A 5cc Injection of Versed (Midazolam HCL) 1 mg/ml has been used in the past for sedating executees. Orally, two (2) 50mg capsules of Nembutal Sodium (Pentobarbital sodium USP) Abbott Pharmaceuticals NDC 0074-3150-11. Another alternative would be 1.5 oz. of an 80 proof whiskey. This should be done one half (1/2) hour prior to the execution.
  10. Curtain on witness window should be opened.
  11. Subject must walk into execution chamber and speak to show he is alive.
  12. Curtain on witness window should be closed.
  13. Executee should be strapped into chair in the following manner:
    1. Connect and tighten waist harness.
    2. Tighten shoulder adjustments.
      NOTE WELL: All connectors should be kept centered by adjusting both sides of adjustors.
    3. Connect and tighten arm restraints, centering connectors.
    4. Insert subject's legs into electrodes on leg stock and connect and adjust the restraints keeping the connectors in the center. The saturated saline sponges are recommended and may be placed behind the subject's leg between the leg and the electrode.
      NOTE WELL: All adjustment should be as tight as possible at this time.
    5. Install saline saturated helmet on the executee's head and tighten chin strap as tight as possible. The face curtain is optional and may be installed at this time.
    6. Insert helmet conductor into electrode on helmet and tighten handscrew. Tighten further with allen wrench.
    7. Loosen backrest adjuster, pull backrest as far forward as possible (tightening the subject) and tighten backrest adjuster locking the backrest in place.
      NOTE WELL: Subject is now ready for execution.
  14. Open the witness window curtain.
  15. The Doctor should now examine the subject and certify that he is alive.
  16. Turn on main disconnect.
  17. Turn on input circuit breaker to the Power Supply.
  18. On order from the Warden, the key will be inserted and the Power On switch will be turned on. The System On Light will be verified. The key will be removed.
  19. On order from the Warden, the key will be inserted and the Computer On switch will be turned on only if a two operator procedure is to be utilized. The Computer On (Double) light will be verified. The key will be removed.
  20. When the Warden determines that the execution will proceed, he will order that the key will be inserted and the Electric Chair Failsafe switch will be turned from center position to the Operation position to the left.
  21. On order from the Warden, the execution will commence. One (1) or two (2) executioners will push either the SINGLE or DOUBLE buttons, simultaneously, if two. Verify the Electric Chair Energized light.
    NOTE: The system will now deliver Two (2) Jolts of current, each for one (1) minute with a ten (10) second off time separating the two (2) Jolts. If a failure occurs on Double operation, simply activate the Single button and the timing sequence will proceed. If a further failure occurs, operate the system in manual by turning the Electric Chair Failsafe switch to TEST position (right) and time with a watch or clock: Sixty (60) seconds on; Ten (10) seconds off; Sixty (60) seconds on. Upon completion, turn Electric Chair Failsafe switch to off (center) position. Proceed with step twenty-two (22).
  22. Upon completion of the timing sequence the subject should be dead. Turn off the Electric Chair Failsafe switch (center position) and VERIFY that the Electric Chair Ener-gized light is off. Do NOT proceed unless the Electric Chair Energized light is off.
  23. Use key to shut off Computer On switch and Power On switch, both to the left in this order.
  24. Shut off input circuit breaker to the Power Supply and the main disconnect, in this order.
    NOTE: If Electric Chair Energized light is not off, turn off main disconnect.
  25. The Doctor should now verify heart death of the executee.
    NOTE: If death has not occurred, Proceed with steps sixteen (16) through Twenty-five (25) again.
  26. The execution is now over.
  27. Close witness window curtain and remove witnesses.
  28. Verify that all switches are off and the key removed. Verify that the input circuit breaker to the Power Supply is off. Verify that the main disconnect is off. Do NOT proceed until this step is complete and the Electric Chair Energized light is off.
  29. The Executee should be removed from the chair in the following manner:
    1. Disconnect helmet in reverse procedure of thirteen (13) F. Loosen and remove Helmet.
    2. Pull release on ankle fasteners and pull legs forward.
    3. Pull release on arm fasteners and free arms.
    4. Pull release on chest harness fastener and subject's body will slump forward and hang in harness.
    5. Remove subjects body to storage or pick-up location.
  30. Clean chair seat with lysol or similar disinfectant and mild soap. Clean electrodes and with mild soap and water. Thoroughly dry chair. Wash and dry leg sponges.
  31. Remove and dump drip pan; wash, dry and replace.
  32. Clean helmet with clear water and dry. Store on styrofoam head.
  33. Re-connect restraint system fasteners and partially tighten.
  34. Verify all switches and power off.
  35. Disconnect both the control cable and the power cable and coil for storage.
  36. Remove all Keys.


Witnessing an electrocution must be difficult for all concerned. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan described how the prisoner's eyeballs may pop out and he may vomit blood, urinate, and defecate as the electric shock passes through his body. The flesh, meanwhile, turns bright red as its temperature rises and he may even catch fire. Witnesses hear a sound like bacon frying and the unmistakable odor of burning flesh permeates the chamber. At post-mortem, the body is hot enough to blister the doctor's skin and so examination has to wait until the internal organs cool down. Mostly the brain has a "cooked" appearance.

Judge Brennan argued that electrocution was as cruel and inhumane as more ancient methods of execution such as disemboweling when alive, public dissection, burning alive at the stake, crucifixion, and breaking at the wheel. The prisoner is boiled alive from the inside; for the body contains a large proportion of water in its tissues. Indeed, the temperature in the brain itself is thought to reach the boiling point of water during an electrocution.

Concern over the ethics of using electrocution as a method of execution has led to developments in several states in recent years. In 2003, Judge Joseph Bataillon, speaking of a death row inmate in Nebraska, ruled "In light of evidence and evolving standards of decency, the court would find that a death penalty sentence imposed on a defendant in a state that provides electrocution as its only method of execution is an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain." The sentence was changed to life imprisonment.

In 2001, Georgia's highest court ruled that the electric chair was a cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the state's constitution. The courts said that electrocution "inflicts purposeless physical violence and needless mutilation that makes no measurable contribution to accepted goals of punishment. In Kentucky, condemned inmates have the unenviable choice between electrocution and the electric chair, with those sentenced after 1998 to be executed by injection.

Electrocution is traumatic enough for the prisoner even if all goes to plan. However, there have been reports of several botched executions where even more suffering must have been inflicted. For example, the execution of John Evans in Alabama in 1983 took fourteen minutes—a third jolt of electricity was applied, despite the pleas of the prisoner's lawyers, leaving his body charred and smoldering. During the process, sparks and smoke came out of the hood covering Evans' head. The electrocution of William Vandiver in Indiana in 1985 took seventeen minutes and five jolts of electricity.

In 1997, a crown of foot-high flames leapt from the headpiece when Pedro Medina was executed in Florida, and smoke filled the chamber, gagging the witnesses. The technician threw the switch to cut off the power and Medina's chest was seen to heave until the flames stopped and he eventually died. The sponge, designed to conduct electricity, had been improperly applied to the prisoner's head, concluded a later investigation. While lethal injection is felt to be more humane, there are several reports of botched executions using this process as well.



Brandon, Craig. The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1999.

Web sites

Death Penalty Information Center. "Methods of Execution." 〈http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=8〉 (accessed February 27, 2006).

The Vincentian Center for Church and Society. "Legal Arguments Against the Death Penalty." 〈http://www.vincenter.org/95/gregory.html〉 (accessed February 27, 2006).