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."

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."