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Electric Chair Maker Wary of Tennessee Execution

Calling it “an accident waiting to happen,” the man who built Tennessee’s electric chair told Courthouse News that modifications made to the machine may not do an effective job in Thursday night’s planned execution of a double murderer.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) – Calling it “an accident waiting to happen,” the man who built Tennessee’s electric chair told Courthouse News that modifications made to the machine may not do an effective job in Thursday night’s planned execution of a double murderer.

Fred Leuchter, who helped states build and use execution machines in the late 1970s and 80s, said the current voltage to Tennessee’s chair is too low and goes for too short a time to be guaranteed effective. He added an inmate’s heart may restart minutes after an attempted execution because of it.

“I don't want people tortured,” Leuchter said in an interview. “That's why I started in the first place and it upsets me a great deal to know that something I made has been turned into a torture device."

If Edmund Zagorski dies Thursday night, it will be the first time Tennessee has executed an inmate with its electric chair in 11 years.

By making a case in federal court, Zagorski’s lawyers have successfully stopped Tennessee from executing him via the state’s controversial three-drug lethal injection protocol, which the Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled is okay to use because inmates did not successfully present a viable alternative.

Zagorski says both methods are unconstitutional but that death by electrocution will be quicker.

His attorneys have filed a last-minute petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the execution.

When they filed an unsuccessful appeal to the Sixth Circuit, they argued the chair is unconstitutional because other states such as Georgia and Nebraska have found it so. Zagorski’s attorneys added that Leuchter is a Holocaust denier and the effect of Leuchter’s chair will “internally cook his organs, burn and blister his skin, and set every nerve in his body ablaze.”

Zagorski is set to die at 7 p.m. at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville for killing two men by shooting them and slicing their throats in 1983 after they attempted to buy 100 pounds of marijuana from him.

The inmate has been moved to death watch. In an unusual choice, he selected pickled pig knuckles and pig tails for his last meal.

His execution was already delayed by Governor Bill Haslam, who granted a 10-day reprieve so the death penalty via electrocution could be carried out in an “orderly and careful manner.”

Leuchter is now questioning the effectiveness of his machine due to subsequent modifications.

But Neysa Taylor, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Corrections, brushed aside those concerns.

“Execution by electrocution was used in 2007 without issue,” Taylor said when reached for comment. “The chair was inspected on October 10, 2018 and tested on October 12, 2018. The department will carry out the execution in accordance with the state’s protocol.”

Zagorski will be only the second inmate to be executed via electric chair in Tennessee since 1960, after Daryl Holton also chose the chair in 2007. The last person to be put to death by electrocution in the U.S. was Robert Gleason in 2013 in Virginia.

While Leuchter made components of electric chairs for states, the Tennessee chair is the only complete execution machine he ever made.

“I didn't invent the electric chair, I just made it better,” he said.

But now he does not want to be blamed if the chair does not work effectively.

“My concern is based on the fact that it was modified,” Leuchter said. “It's not the chair I sold the state, but my name appears on the chair and on the power supply and on the control module. … And they did use it once and it worked. But the equipment, the electrical system, is marginal. What saved their bacon the last time was the fact that they had improved the electrodes."

Sometime after Leuchter delivered the chair, he says the voltage was lowered and the amount of time that the current flowed was reduced too.

While Leuchter planned to have his chair deliver 2,640 volts in two, one-minute jolts, the modified electrocution system delivers 1,750 volts. Accounting for the drop in voltage due to the resistance of the human body, Leuchter said the new configuration does not account for the variations in human bodies that can botch an execution.

Leuchter’s career in the death machine industry was curtailed when he issued a report, dubbed the Leuchter Report, in 1988 about the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, denying the existence of a gas chamber.

“I became a pariah because anybody that wanted to deal with me had to deal with the Jewish groups and they were being threatened,” Leuchter said. “Prison officials are very politically conscious.”

In her appeal to the Supreme Court, Zagorski’s public defender Kelley Henry wrote that Leuchter was a charlatan who later entered into a consent decree with Massachusetts not to represent himself as an electrical engineer.

As for Leuchter, he said he developed his machines after looking at early executions by electrocution, studying medical and autopsy reports.

"The technology that I used, and the voltages that I've taken,” he said, “were developed by doctors and engineers that did the first executions in the first 20 years in the United States primarily in New York. You know, the doctors today don't want to get involved with anything but in those days, the doctors did get involved."

Leuchter said he used a high voltage because it stuns the inmate and a long jolt drives chemicals like adrenaline which can restart the heart out of the tissue into the bloodstream.

Leuchter’s father, who worked in the Massachusetts prison system, opposed the death penalty. Leuchter said his father helped him recognize the humanity of inmates and when he was 4, Leutcher started going into prisons, learning from inmates such skills as how to pick a lock.

About 15 or 20 years ago, Leutcher’s opinion on the death penalty changed. Based on following executions, Leutcher said he saw even when everything goes perfectly, executions go smoothly only 80 percent of the time.

He attributes this to unknown factors in human physiology.

“Now if society as a whole is willing to say, 'well, it's only 20 percent of the time, we'll do it,' that's fine,” Leutcher said. “They have the right to make the laws and they should be making their own laws. But all I'm saying is that I made a determination that we can't do it right every time. And I think every citizen should know that.”

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