Tennessee plans to execute by electric chair 63-year-old Edmund Zagorski on Thursday night despite concerns from Fred Leuchter that the device, which he built in 1988 and the state last used in 2007, could fail.
"What I'm worried about now is Tennessee's got an electric chair that's going to hurt someone or cause problems. And it's got my name on it," said Leuchter. "I don't think it's going to be humane."
On Twitter Thursday, anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean—who advocates for completely abolishing capital punishment in the United States—called Tennessee's plans to use the decades-old chair to kill the inmate "all kinds of wrong."
Tennessee is planning to execute Ed Zagorski tonight in an electric chair that was built by a “self-taught electrician” over 30 years ago. That’s all kinds of wrong.— Sister Helen Prejean (@helenprejean) November 1, 2018
Zagorski, an inmate at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (RMSI) who was convicted of murdering two men in 1984, initially was set to die by lethal injection last month. However, he chose the electric chair as, in the words of one of his lawyers, "the lesser of two evils," because of concerns about the drug cocktail that Tennessee uses for injections.
Citing court documents, CNN reported that Zagorski's attorneys had argued the inmate was forced to make a "terrible choice" between the chair—which, although still "dreadful and grim," would be "relatively fast," causing him "excruciating pain for (likely) 15-30 seconds"—and an injection that could cause him to endure 10 to 18 minutes of "utter terror and agony."
However, Leuchter, a "self-taught execution expert" who also worked on gas chambers, lethal injection machines, and a gallows in at least 27 states, told the Associated Press that he is concerned the chair may fail because of changes that others have made to it. Leuchter has not been allowed to service the device himself as he "is no longer welcome in the prison system," partly because he promoted himself as an engineer despite lacking a degree or license.
Zagorski's planned execution is just the latest to draw attention to the drugs used in state-sanctioned killings. Earlier this year, he was one of 32 death row inmates who sued the state over its controversial three-drug cocktail. As the Tennessean outlined in October, when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled 4-1 that the state could continue using the formula:
The inmates' legal challenge centered around midazolam, the first of three drugs the state administers during lethal injections. Midazolam is supposed to render inmates unconscious and unable to feel pain, but several experts who testified for the inmates said it doesn't work as intended.
Experts said midazolam sedates inmates but does not stop them from feeling the effects of the other two drugs, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Those drugs make inmates feel like they are burning from the inside and being buried alive, the experts said.
The pain is excruciating enough, they argued, to violate the U.S. Constitution.
Billy Ray Irick, who had been a plaintiff in the case, was executed by lethal injection at RMSI in August. According to Nashville Scene writer Steven Hale, who observed that execution, although Irick was initially unresponsive after the midazolam was administered, he then "jolted and produced what sounded like a cough or a choking noise," and his "face changed to almost purple," before he ultimately was pronounced dead.
Midazolam has been part of multiple botched executions in other states, which has led to heightened controversy and other court battles—including an effort by the pharmaceutical company Alvogen earlier this year to block Nevada from using its drug. Despite claims that use of midazolam is unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 2015 that states could continue to use the drug to kill condemned prisoners.