Happy Anniversary, Sparky

It's been 30 years since Florida's death penalty was re-instated. Oh, how not far we've come

Three decades have passed since Florida resumed executions when John Spenkelink was strapped into Old Sparky -- a three-legged oaken chair built by inmates -- and electrocuted, the nation's first involuntary execution after a Supreme Court ban was lifted.

Since then, the state has executed another 64 men and two women, including serial killer Ted Bundy and black-widow killer Judy Buenoano. Florida has changed its execution method from the electric chair to lethal injection and the conflict over the death penalty remains as heated - no pun intended -- as it was 30 years ago.

"I don't know how you put someone to death and it not be somewhat controversial," said Richard Dugger, who was assistant warden at Florida State Prison when Spenkelink was executed and later head of the Department of Corrections.

Spenkelink was executed in 1979 for the slaying of traveling companion Joseph Syzmankiewicz in a Tallahassee motel - Dugger became somewhat notorious for giving him a couple shots of Jack Daniels whiskey just before his death.

Florida has had its share of problems while performing executions. Twice there were fires in the electric chair headpieces, and on another occasion, Dugger recalls seeing blue electricity dance across the floor during an execution. A prisoner mopping up the floor had left a pool of water under a rubber mat in the execution chamber.

The switch to lethal injection did not solve the problems. In December 2006, it took Miami killer Angel Diaz about 36 minutes to die. An autopsy showed the needles used to send lethal drugs racing through his veins had poked through into his muscles.

Now, midway through the execution, the warden shakes the inmate to ensure that he is unconscious after the first chemical is administered.

Though some states have ended their use of capital punishment to save money, in Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum remain committed to the death penalty.

Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the state should consider the cost of the death penalty.

"Florida spends over $50 million every year on the death penalty. That's an awful lot of money spent to kill a couple of prisoners destined to die in prison anyway. Since Spenkelink, Florida has spent over $1 billion on the death penalty and amassed over 10,000 unsolved homicides," Elliott said.

Ron McAndrew, a former warden at Florida State Prison and now a prison consultant and anti-death penalty crusader, supervised three executions.

He points to 132 exonerated cases nationwide, including Juan Melendez of Florida, freed in 2002 for a 1983 slaying that he did not commit, as a reason to end the death penalty.

"I could have actually walked this innocent man into the death chamber, strapped him into the electric chair and literally cooked him to death."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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