Sun, May 12, 2002 - Page 1 News List

Woman may have become last electric-chair victim

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

To the usual wave of public indifference, Lynda Block, who killed a policeman nine years ago, was herself killed in an Alabama jail on Friday, the 25th person to be executed in the US this year. However, she is likely to earn a special footnote in history as the last person ever to suffer that most American of deaths: the electric chair.

Alabama is replacing electrocution as its favored means of capital punishment, leaving Nebraska, where executions are rare, as the only state that prescribes it. Nebraska is expected to follow suit shortly. After 102 years, one of the most grisly traditions of US law enforcement is about to die.

Block, 54, was strapped into Alabama's brightly-painted chair, known as "Yellow Mama," and, just after midnight, subjected to a 2,050-volt charge for 20 seconds, then a further 250 volts for 100 seconds. Witnesses saw her body tense, and steam rise from the sponge on her head and the electrode on her left leg.

She refused a last meal and said nothing. "She never displayed any emotion," the Alabama police commissioner, Mike Haley, said. "Her stare was a very blank stare, an emotionless stare." It was Alabama's first execution of a woman since 1957, and the US' first this year.

Block was no ordinary killer. She was a wife and mother who loved the opera and did volunteer work in her local library in Florida before joining a libertarian group that claimed to have seceded from the country.

She claimed to have shot the policeman who was questioning her companion in self-defense, because he had his hand on his holster.

However, she refused to appeal, saying that she was willing to "die for the Constitution."

It is the Constitution that has put paid to Yellow Mama. Though the US Supreme Court has upheld the legality of executions, it has hinted that the electric chair could be covered by the eighth amendment, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment." There have been several botched electrocutions, including one in Florida in 1990 where Jesse Tafero had flames, sparks and smoke coming out of his hood. In Alabama, Horace Dunkins reportedly burned to death because the cables were wrongly connected.

Almost all US executions now take place using lethal injection. A diminishing handful of states offer the chair, the gas chamber, hanging or, in Utah, the firing squad as alternatives, but these are now only likely to be used if the inmate insists.

"There is a remote possibility that someone might choose to be electrocuted, perhaps to embarrass the [system]," said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center. "But I feel confident in saying this is the last person who will not have the choice."

The first person killed by this method was William Kemmler, in New York in 1890.

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