A Matter of Engineering

Capital punishment as a technical problem

FRED LEUCHTER invites me to have a seat. No thanks, I say, declining to sit in the tall oak chair in which nearly 180 people have lost their lives.

The electric chair, sitting beside a pinball machine in Leuchter's basement, belongs to a southern state that has more than sixty inmates on Death Row. It is here because the 350-pound man who is to be electrocuted next can't sit comfortably in it. Also, the chair, which prison inmates built nearly ninety years ago, needs new wiring, a more comfortable backrest, a plastic drip pan, and other modern conveniences. Fred Leuchter is busy revamping the chair so that it can be put back into use in the months ahead.

Fred A. Leuchter, the president of Fred A. Leuchter Associates, Inc., in Boston, is the obvious person to call for electric-chair repair. Leuchter designs and builds state-of-the-art electrocution systems, and he runs the only training program in the country for execution technicians. Leuchter's company repairs, adapts, and installs electric chairs. As the nation's only commercial supplier of execution equipment, Fred A. Leuchter probably knows more about electric-chair technology than anyone else.

Leuchter's expertise is not limited to electrocution. A trained and accomplished engineer, he is versed in all types of execution equipment. He makes lethal-injection machines, gas chambers, and gallows, as well as electrocution systems. In its literature the company promises to meet "any requirement, you might have relative to execution equipment, training or protocol."

Leaning on the chair, Leuchter explains that electrocution is a fairly simple procedure. There are, he says, just a few technical considerations. Good results depend on careful calibrations of voltage, current, and connections, and the duration and number of electrical jolts supplied.

A good electrocution system, Leuchter says, uses three electrodes. Electricity is introduced through an electrode on the inmate's head. Leuchter places a metal beanie on his own head and explains that this is the head electrode that came with the southern chair. Electricity travels through the body toward two electrodes tightly secured to the ankles, Leuchter says as he removes the electrode from his head. He stresses the importance of maintaining "good circuit continuity at the electrode contacts." Tight electrical contacts, he points out, "help reduce flesh burning."

After he finishes rewiring it, the chair will supply its occupant with 2,640 volts AC and five amperes of electrical current. "Current cooks," Leuchter says, "so it's important to limit the current. If you overload an individual's body with current – more than six amps – you'll cook the meat on his body. It's like meat on an overcooked chicken. If you grab the arm, the flesh will fall right off in your hands." Leuchter is reassuring. "That doesn't mean he felt anything. It simply means that it's cosmetically not the thing to do. Presumably the state will return the remains to the person's family for burial. Returning someone who had been cooked would be in poor taste."

Although 2,000 volts is usually sufficient to seize the heart, Leuchter figures that an additional 400 volts might be needed to dispatch hefty inmates. And he factors in an additional 240 volts to compensate for the 10 percent voltage drop likely to occur during the electrocution; the extra volts will eliminate the need to re-electrocute the inmate. Satisfied that this voltage will not cause "unnecessary trauma to the subject prior to death," Leuchter says 2,640 is the ideal number of volts to supply during electrocution.

Once it has been remodeled, the chair in Leuchter's basement will supply two one-minute jolts of electricity. The first 2,640-volt jolt will incite an adrenalin riot inside the inmate's body. The adrenal activity will probably keep the inmate's heart in action after the initial jolt. Not even the strongest human heart, however, can survive a second 2,640-volt jolt. That's why Leuchter's chair is electronically programmed to deliver the second jolt after a ten-second delay that allows the adrenalin to dissipate.

IF SOMEONE HAD asked him about it ten or twelve years ago, Fred Leuchter wouldn't have believed he'd end up in the execution-equipment business. He says he "just kind of slid into it." During the twenty-year period following his graduation from Boston University, Leuchter busied himself with a variety of electrical engineering pursuits. He designed navigational equipment for the navy and holds the patent for the first electronic sextant. He also holds patents for several other optical-coding and surveying devices, including a photographic instrument that works from helicopters and was used to map terrain in Vietnam. Ten years ago, when a New England prison warden called to see if he might be able to repair an electric chair damaged in a riot, Leuchter was working as a private engineering consultant. He had never worked on execution equipment before.

Leuchter, who with a partner eventually set up a company called American Engineering, began to investigate execution technology. He consulted medical journals at the Boston University library. He spoke with engineers and prison personnel around the country. He examined available electric-chair blueprints and photographs. When he'd completed his studies, Leuchter returned the New England prison warden's call and announced himself competent to answer electric-chair-related questions. Soon after, another warden called. This one needed something to hold a head electrode in place during execution. Leuchter dispatched a $1,400 handmade helmet. Word travels fast in the community of correctional personnel. Soon wardens all over the country were calling to see if Fred Leuchter and American Engineering could help them with various electric-chair problems. Shortly thereafter American Engineering was dissolved. Leuchter and his newly formed company, Fred A. Leuchter Associates, Inc., were left alone to field the calls.

The United States has been executing increasing numbers of people since the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of capital punishment, in 1976. As executions have become more common, so has the incidence of misadventure in the death house. On December 12, 1984, for instance, witnesses watched Alpha Otis Stephens thrash and struggle for breath for eight minutes after an initial two-minute jolt failed to kill him. Seventeen minutes elapsed before Indiana successfully executed William Vandiver in a malfunctioning electric chair on October 16, 1985. Slow, painful death by lethal injection and lethal gas were also reported at the time, in Mississippi and Texas.

Responding to calls for help that came from wardens around the country, Leuchter began visiting prisons to inspect execution machinery. He was distressed by what he saw. He was sorry to find that most states didn't adequately protect prison personnel from dangers associated with execution, particularly the dangers presented by lethal gas. He was even more troubled to see that many of the systems in use, almost all of which are nearly a hundred years old, were in questionable condition or downright defective. "To be frank," Leuchter says, "I do not feel that all of the systems existent today are painless, and no execution system should cause pain."

Leuchter says that he sleeps well because of what he does. Not only does his company provide prison personnel with safe machinery so that they need not risk getting hurt during executions, but, "more important," Leuchter says, "as someone who believes in capital punishment but does not believe in torture, I sleep well knowing that as a result of what I do, fewer people are tortured."

Leuchter also likes what he does. He says that he especially enjoys traveling to prisons around the country. As the son of a man who spent forty years working for the transportation department of the Massachusetts prison system, Leuchter feels at home in the world of inmates and prison personnel. While his father worked, young Fred spent free time playing with inmates, who passed on lore about picking locks and cracking safes. Leuchter notes that "inmates have skills you could never acquire anywhere else"—skills, he adds, that he often uses as an engineer.

Leuchter's chair-remodeling plans reflect his engineering skills and his concern for condemned inmates and prison personnel. He plans, for instance, to outfit the chair from the southern state with a special electronic mechanism designed to conceal which of two executioners, each with his own control, actually administers the fatal jolt. In order to spare prison personnel unnecessary trouble should they one day need replacement parts for his chairs, Leuchter builds his electrocution systems with simple components that can be bought at local hardware and electrical-supply stores.

"Another thing," Leuchter says, sitting in the electric chair and securing himself in place with leather harnesses; "we're going to replace these straps with better restraints." The nylon airplane-style seat belts he's going to install will have quick-release mechanisms, too. Lifting himself out of the chair, Leuchter explains that people who have been electrocuted smell bad, have burnt flesh, and are usually covered with urine and feces. Someone has to move the inmate's body out of the chair in this condition, and quick-release belts will help shore the time needed to complete the task.

Several of Leuchter's remodeling plans are designed to maximize the inmate's comfort. He will replace the chair's present arms with an adjustable pair, so that the chair can better accommodate different sizes of people. He'll install a taller backrest, so that the inmate's head won't "bob around during execution." Leuchter will equip the helmet that comes with the chair with small internal snaps and a little denim mask that can be snapped across the inmate's face during execution. "This," Leuchter says, "allows the executee to enjoy some degree of privacy during execution."

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In