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Emeritus engineering professor pulls plug on electric chair’s reliability

October 9, 2001

Once, executions were more art than science. Designed for show, they aimed to send off the condemned with a sense of poetic justice. Today, in general, America prefers its justice to appear dispassionate and utilitarian, its killing to be clean.

Thus, lethal injection is only the latest favorite in a long line of scientific attempts to tinker with execution — a line that includes that most popular and uniquely American form of killing: the electric chair.

In the last 111 years, more Americans have died by legal electrocution — 4,324 — than through any other method of execution. But now the long era of the electric chair is drawing to a close, and Theodore Bernstein, emeritus professor of electrical and computer engineering, is one of the hands that is pulling the plug.

Bernstein is, perhaps, the world’s only scientific expert on the electric chair. He’s visited the execution chambers of Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and Alabama, and he has given testimony 10 times, either in court or in hearings, trying to help defendants avoid the hot seat.

“As far as I know,” he says. “I’m the only person with a technical background to really study [legal electrocution].” And that, as he sees it, is the biggest problem with the chair. In spite of its long history and wide use, electrocution has always been the province of amateurs. Bernstein has spent the last three decades stripping away the chair’s scientific veneer in an attempt to expose the ignorance that underlies its operation.

Bernstein didn’t set out to study the chair — or execution in any form — when he launched his academic career. The courses he taught at UW–Madison focused on magnetics and solid-state devices. But in the mid-1960s, his department head left an article about preventing accidental electrocution on his desk. Bernstein was hooked. For the next 30 years, he would study the effects of electricity on the body — electricity applied both by mistake and on purpose.

“From a purely historical point of view,” he says, “it’s a fascinating subject. As long as you don’t think too much about the people being killed.”

The first person to die in an electric chair was convicted murderer William Kemmler. On Aug. 6, 1890, he also became the first victim of a botched electrocution. It took two applications of current to kill Kemmler, and by the end of the second, he was giving off vapor and smoke. Physician E.C. Spitzka said electrocution “can in no way be regarded as a step in civilization.”

And according to Bernstein, those who employ electrocution today know little more about the way it causes death than did the electric chair’s creators.

Electrocution backers believed that victims died immediately and painlessly, but in practice, according to Bernstein, death by electricity is hardly so clean or quick.

“You hear people talk about electrocution frying the brain,” he says. “That’s a lot of nonsense. The skull has a very high resistance, and current tends to flow around it.” Instead, the effects of electrical current usually have a greater effect on the heart — and so electrocution generally kills through cardiac arrest.

In technical terms, the electric chair is a simple circuit, with current flowing from generator to ground and passing, on the way, through a single resistor — a human body hooked in by the head and one leg. The chair’s generator builds up a certain voltage, the executioner throws a switch, and current passes through the body of the condemned: voltage divided by resistance equals current, measured in amperes.

It’s that number of amps that is the key in determining how (or whether) the electricity will kill its victim. Alabama’s chair, known because of its color as the Yellow Mama, is fairly typical. First it shocks its victim for 22 seconds at between 1,800 and 1,900 volts, then drops for 12 seconds to between 700 and 800 volts, and finishes with a five-second burst back at 1,800 volts. If the condemned has an average-size body, he or she would sustain a current of about six amps, then a lower current of about two amps and a final jolt at six.

Executioners “start with a high current,” says Bernstein, “because they think they’ll zap ’em good. This will send a person’s heart into asystole, but the trouble with asystole is that the heart will often spontaneously restart as soon as the current is removed.”

The low-current shock that follows may cause the victim’s heart to fibrillate. A heart won’t spontaneously recover from fibrillation. Most electrical deaths, whether legal or accidental, result from this condition. Nothing will restore the heart’s natural beat except the application of a high-current electrical shock, as from a defibrillator — or from the Yellow Mama’s final, high-current jolt. “They think they’re giving the coup de grâce,” says Bernstein, “but instead they may be reviving the victim.”

But if the chair is so unreliable, how does Bernstein explain its perfect record, not just in Alabama but all over the United States: 4,324 condemned criminals, 4,324 dead bodies? The answer is that executioners will continue to reapply current until the condemned person is dead. “You give enough shocks,” says Bernstein, “you can kill anybody.”

Because Bernstein has spent 30 years studying the effects of electricity on the human body, and because he’s published articles about accidental and legal electrocutions, he’s become one of the major figures in the late chapters of the electric chair’s story. Recruited by defense attorneys, he acts as an expert witness to describe electrocution’s failings.

“The substance of my testimony is pretty much always the same,” he says. “I tell the court that most of the work on the electric chair was done with a seat-of-the-pants approach. The electrical design is poor. Every state has a different sequence of shocks.”

In spite of the scientific evidence at Bernstein’s command, he has never convinced a judge to overturn an electrocution. “I have,” he says ironically, “a perfect record.”

That record may remain intact. At 74, Bernstein is thinking of retiring from the expert-witness circuit.

But if he has failed to spare prisoners in individual cases, his views in general (and executioners’ botches) are making electrocution less palatable. But is lethal injection really any better? Says Bernstein, “At least it looks more sanitary.”

Tags: research