For four seconds, 1,800 volts will penetrate the skull through an electrode placed at the center of the forehead.
"The people in favor of capital punishment say after the first shock the person feels nothing. Other people say that's not necessarily true. It's really hard to tell," says Theodore Bernstein, a retired professor of electrical engineering who studies deaths by electrocution. "You've got the guys bound and gagged and tied down. There's no way of knowing what he's going to feel."
The second 900-volt cycle, which lasts seven seconds, stuns the heart, lungs and kidneys.
"What you'll see is some atrophy of the fingers, some muscle spasms. You may see some movement in a shoulder. You don't see violent convulsions or that sort of thing," says Tony Turpin, northern region director for the Georgia Department of Corrections and former warden of the prison that houses Georgia's death row inmates. "Georgia has been relatively event-free in our executions."
The third 300-volt cycle quivers the heart's thread-like fibers for 109 seconds, forcing the muscle to shut down. It's supposed to take a total two minutes to die in Georgia's electric chair. But it has taken longer.
"After the first two-minute power surge, there was a six minute pause so his body could cool before physicians could examine him (and declare that another jolt was needed)," death penalty expert Michael Radelet wrote about the 1984 botched execution of Georgia inmate Alpha Otis Stephens. "During that six-minute interval, Stephens took 23 breaths."
The Georgia General Assembly voted last winter to replace electrocution with lethal injection. Alabama and Nebraska now are the only states that use the electric chair as the sole method of execution.
But, unlike the eight other states that have replaced electrocution with lethal injection, Georgia does not offer inmates a choice between the electric chair and the needle. The Georgia law, which went into effect this year, applies only to crimes committed after May 1, 2000.
At least for some, Georgia still mandates electrocution.
About 50 miles south of Atlanta, at the state penitentiary in Jackson, the 127 men on death row live in four cell blocks isolated from the rest of the prison population. (The one woman under a death sentence is incarcerated at an Atlanta prison.) From any death-row cell, you look through bars at a chain-link grate about 12 feet in front of you. Behind the grate are a few fans and televisions. Well-behaved inmates, some of whom have lived on death row for more than 20 years, earn the cells closest to the fans and the televisions.
Photographs are not allowed.
Each cell is small and florescent-lit. Most are bare, but some are hung with crocheted decorations the inmates knitted themselves. There are three white angels hanging in one cell, a Winnie the Pooh in another. The most prodigious crocheted craft, a four-and-a-half-month affair, is a three-dimensional motorcycle. The inmate knitted each miniature part, even a flip-down pedal, and sewed it together.
When visitors come, which is rare, the men on death row stand close to the front of their cells, their chests puffed out, many of them wearing smiles. The place smells like sanitizer.
"What's up?" asks Turpin, death row's former warden.
"Same old thing," one of the men answers.
"You're losing your hair," Turpin says to another.
"Thank you for noticing," the man says.
A day or two before a scheduled execution, the condemned man is placed on death watch. A prison staff member monitors his behavior. He moves to a single cell away from death row. He gets special visits from family and clergy, as well as his own television. He can smoke in there, too.
On the day of the execution, a van picks him up. He rides to H-5, the building that houses the electric chair. The inmate spends up to five hours sitting in a 6-by-9-foot holding cell adjacent to the death chamber. There are no windows. The aluminum cot and the toilet are cold. He eats his last meal there.
After dinner, his head is shaved, as is his right leg below the knee. He showers, in a single stall next to the cell. He puts on a new uniform. He may wait an hour or two more.
About 15 minutes before the execution, up to 30 witnesses are escorted into the viewing room. They sit on one of three wooden pews in front of a double-paned glass window. The electric chair is behind the glass, a microphone dangling from a cord above it.
The inmate gives his final statement, which is tape recorded, in the holding cell, just before he leaves for the death chamber. He walks out of the cell and looks up. There, set about 4 feet into the ceiling, is a tiny window. It is his last look at the sky. He takes maybe eight steps to the chair. He steps onto the platform where it sits, all shiny pine and brown leather. A group of men quickly tighten and buckle straps across his waist, wrists, thighs and ankles. They crank a metal knob behind him to push him forward and tighten the slack.
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