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Botched execution prompts more electric-chair scrutiny


March 26, 1997
Web posted at: 9:15 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Susan Candiotti

MIAMI (CNN) -- Tuesday's fiery execution of Pedro Medina has implications that go far beyond the death of the convicted murderer.

The execution was so gruesome that the Vatican condemned it as "barbaric," and the electric chair itself is now under renewed scrutiny.

"It was a burning alive, literally," said death penalty opponent Michael Minerva. "Flames erupted all across the top of his head."

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Witnesses said a 5-inch to 6-inch flame shot from the right side of Medina's black leather face mask shortly after the state's executioner pulled the switch that sent 2,000 volts of electricity surging through his body.

The problem probably came from a synthetic sponge in the helmet, officials said. The room filled with acrid smoke that witnesses said smelled of burned flesh, and a prison official had to open a window.

Legal implications

Law enforcement officials are concerned that death row inmates will use Medina's experience to tie up the courts with endless appeals.

On Wednesday, with fallout spreading from the death row malfunction, Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth asked state legislative leaders to consider replacing the electric chair with lethal injection.

"Condemned murderers are certain to once again raise electrocution as an appellate issue as they seek to avoid their lawfully imposed sentences," Butterworth said. "Enacting the option of lethal injection would help ensure that justice is carried out."


Gov. Lawton Chiles said he, too, is mulling a change in Florida's method of execution. "The question is really, 'Is this something that is tortuous and painful?'" Chiles said.

But legislators opposed giving up the electric chair, saying switching to another method such as injection would just delay executions and not be fit punishment.

A victim's father is unfazed

Florida is one of only seven states that continue to use only an electric chair. Thirty-eight states use lethal injection alone as an option.

"They are concerned about his hair catching fire and that there's smoke," said George Paules, whose daughter was stabbed to death seven years ago at the University of Florida. "They ought to put marshmallows on his head."

Medina, 39, one of nearly 125,000 Cubans who came to the United States during the Mariel boatlift, was convicted of the 1982 murder of Dorothy James, 52, a teacher who befriended him after his arrival in 1980.

Medina's last words as he was strapped to the three-legged oak chair built in 1923 were: "I'm still innocent."

Pope's plea for mercy unheeded


Pope John Paul II pleaded for mercy in the case, and the Vatican Wednesday condemned the execution.

"That this incredible, tragic event might cause justice officials to reflect and abolish capital punishment is the least one can hope for in this Holy Week in which the Christian world commemorates another condemnation to death: that of Christ," wrote Rev. Gino Concetti, the Vatican newspaper's commentator on moral issues,.

But in Florida, the electric chair draws visceral support, particularly among victims' rights advocates such as Paules.

"Let's take old Sparky and put it out in the middle of Joe Robbie Stadium and take minor offenders and let them be the audience. It may sound far-fetched, but they've got to get the message somewhere."

The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the death penalty, but would prefer lethal injection instead of the electric chair.

"Killing someone cannot be done humanely, but it can be done with as little pain as possible, as little torment," Robyn Blumner of the ACLU said.

So far, the attorney general's suggestion for lethal injection seems to be falling on deaf ears. Top state lawmakers say there are no plans to write a new law to permanently power down Florida's electric chair.


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