A Matter of Engineering

Capital punishment as a technical problem

IF HE HAD TO choose, Leuchter says, he'd prefer electrocution to other methods of execution. "Basically, it's a matter of speed. If all goes well, it should take just 4.16 milliseconds to lose consciousness in an electric chair." Leuchter adds that in deciding on an execution method of choice, cost factors generally don't enter into consideration. For the record, however, the electricity needed for electrocution in a Leuchter electric chair costs just thirty-one cents. Some $600 to $700 worth of chemicals are needed for a lethal injection, and for the sodium cyanide pellets required in a gas-chamber execution a warden must spend about $250.

The cost of the hardware varies considerably. The Leuchter company's lethal-injection system, at $30,000, is the cheapest execution system the company sells. (Prices do not include installation.) The Leuchter electrocution system costs $35,000, and a Leuchter gallows would run about $85,000. More and more states are opting for Leuchter's $100,000 "execution trailer," which comes complete with a lethal-injection machine, a steel holding cell for the inmate, and separate areas for witnesses, chaplain, prison workers, and medical personnel. Leuchter's gas chambers cost nearly $200,000.

Despite Leuchter's personal preference, lethal injection is gaining popularity in states that allow capital punishment. Soon after he had mastered electrocution technology, a northern state, one of the first to switch to lethal injection, called Leuchter for advice. He went back to the library and brushed up on pharmacology and chemistry. From the results of tests done on pigs and rabbits he calculated the dosages of sodium pentothal, potassium chloride, and pancuronium bromide (a synthetic curare) needed for lethal injection of human beings. Then he invented a computer-controlled machine to inject inmates lethally without rupturing their veins or otherwise causing undue discomfort.

Four states have Leuchter-designed lethal-injection machines, though Leuchter has never seen one used. (Indeed, he has never witnessed an execution.) But he is certain that his system will help prison wardens avoid mishaps like the one that occurred in 1988 in Texas, when, during a manual injection procedure, a tube attached to the inmate's arm burst, causing lethal chemicals to spray across the death chamber toward the assembled witnesses.  

Given the trend toward lethal injection and his own high regard for electrocution, Leuchter finds that most of his sales efforts are directed toward the lethal-injection and electrocution systems markets. Leuchter is, however, willing to accommodate states committed to hanging and gassing. States faced with hanging usually find themselves in a jam. Hanging is a difficult business. One slip can cause strangulation or decapitation. Qualified hangmen, as the State of Washington found when it recently undertook an extended search for one, are hard to come by. Leuchter, not surprisingly one of America's few experts on hanging, designed a gallows that employs a hanging formula developed by British military executioners. The hand-built gallows drops inmates with a force of 1,600 foot-pounds, which Leuchter says is sufficient to sever an inmate's spinal cord and painlessly snap his neck. Leuchter says he probably would have gone out to Washington to set things up if the state had gone through with the scheduled execution. A state will have to be insistent before Leuchter will agree to sell it a gas chamber. He thinks gassing is dangerous. For one thing, he says, gas chambers can leak. The ventilation systems for removing the gas are often inadequate. And hydrogen cyanide gas can travel through skin, so prison guards who remove corpses after lethal gassing expose themselves to great danger and possibly death. "The unfortunate part," Leuchter says, "is that the people who deal with this sort of stuff are not really trained. I feel very concerned for the personnel who have to operate these systems, because they do not fully understand the inherent dangers they pose."

ALTHOUGH HE HAS no competitors, Leuchter works hard to solicit business. He's on a first name basis with prison wardens in every state that has a death penalty. He checks in with the wardens about their execution-equipment needs at least once a year. (He remembers that he once had "a devil of a time" getting through to a warden whose secretary kept hanging up on him, because she did not believe in capital punishment.) He attends conventions of correctional institution personnel, where he uses photographs and blueprints to advertise his wares. The market is apparently growing, and Leuchter is pleased to report that a foreign government recently called him to see if he might build it a new gallows. Leuchter, who has never sold equipment to a private individual, hands me an embossed pen. In case I should wish to obtain "Execution Equipment and Support," the pen's scripted letters provide Fred A. Leuchter Associates's phone number and business address.

As I'm leaving, Leuchter takes a moment to share an anecdote. "When I was a kid," he says, "and used to go with my father to Massachusetts prisons, there was a story about another small kid, another prison worker's son, who once sat in the state's electric chair. Eleven years later he was killed in the same chair. He'd gotten mixed up in some murder. Anyway, a legend developed that if you sat in the chair, you'd die in it. Well, I sat in that chair too. And I didn't get electrocuted in it later. I sat in the chair and now I make electric chairs."

He smiles. "I created a new legend."

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