Electric Chair Execution Malfunction in Florida (Death Penalty) Cases

In 1997, a malfunction occurred during the execution of Pedro Medina, where flames and smoke erupted from the headpiece shortly after the electrocution began. Leo Jones, who was under a warrant of death, filed a petition to invoke the Court's all writs jurisdiction, challenging whether Florida's electric chair in its then-present condition violated the Eighth Amendment. Jones v. State, 701 So. 2d 76 (Fla. 1997). The Court stayed the pending execution and relinquished jurisdiction to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing. The trial court denied relief, finding that the electric chair was working properly and that inmates did not suffer conscious pain within a millisecond of the initial surge of electricity. Jones appealed to the Court, raising an Eighth Amendment challenge. Jones asserted that a state official's failure to prevent harm to prisoners constitutes cruel and unusual punishment if the official shows "deliberate indifference to the prisoner's well-being" and thus the trial court erred by requiring him to show electrocuted inmates experienced conscious pain. Id. at 79. Jones then argued that the state has shown "deliberate indifference" through its executions. After rejecting Jones' contention as "totally without merit," the Court held: In order for a punishment to constitute cruel or unusual punishment, it must involve "torture or a lingering death" or the infliction of "unnecessary and wanton pain." Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 96 S. Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (1976); Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459, 67 S. Ct. 374, 91 L. Ed. 422 (1947). As the Court observed in Resweber: "The cruelty against which the Constitution protects a convicted man is cruelty inherent in the method of punishment, not the necessary suffering involved in any method employed to extinguish life humanely." Id. The Court then noted that there was substantial evidence that Florida executions are conducted "without any pain whatsoever" and that the record was devoid of evidence "suggesting deliberate indifference to a prisoner's well-being." Following Jones, challenges to the electric chair continued. In 1999, Thomas Provenzano asserted that the electric chair in its then-present condition constituted cruel or unusual punishment, alleging that it malfunctioned in the four executions since the Court's decision in Jones. Provenzano v. State, 739 So. 2d 1150, 1153 (Fla. 1999). The trial court rejected all of Provenzano's claims concerning the electric chair, finding most of the claims were decided adversely to him in Jones. The trial court further rejected Provenzano's claim as to newly discovered evidence pertaining to electrical engineers that contracted with the DOC to work on the chair, holding that the fact that the DOC was actively testing and maintaining the chair established that the DOC was attempting to maintain the reliability of the electric chair. On appeal, this Court held that the trial court did not err in relying on Jones and noted that this Court had repeatedly rejected the claim that death was not instantaneous. Id. at 1153. The Court further affirmed the trial court's holding that evidence pertaining to recent work on the electric chair is insufficient to overcome the presumption that members of the executive branch will properly perform their duties in carrying out the next execution. Id. Despite the Court's holding, the Court expressed concern that the DOC had repeatedly failed to follow the protocol established for executions. However, because there was no showing that any of the last four executions caused "unnecessary and wanton pain" or that they involved "torture or a lingering death," the Court declined the stay of execution. Id. at 1154. Shortly after Provenzano, in Provenzano v. Moore, 744 So. 2d 413 (Fla. 1999), the Court stayed Provenzano's execution after problems occurred during inmate Allen Lee Davis's execution and permitted another evidentiary hearing before the trial court. In Provenzano, the Court again affirmed its statement in Jones: "In order for a punishment to constitute cruel or unusual punishment, it must involve 'torture or a lingering death' or the infliction of 'unnecessary and wanton pain.'" Id. at 415. The Court stressed that "the record in this case reveals abundant evidence that execution by electrocution renders an inmate instantaneously unconscious, thereby making it impossible to feel pain." Id. at 415. The Court also concluded that based on the record, the electric chair was functioning properly, and the electric circuitry was being maintained. While holding that the execution protocol was followed in the Davis execution, the Court also observed that "it may be appropriate for DOC to revisit the protocol, including the use of the mouth strap, to ensure that it is consistent with the functioning of the electric chair." Id. We rejected Provenzano's claim that the current use of electrocution is unconstitutional because it "violates the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." Id.