My copy of Old Sparky—The Electric Chair and the History of the Death Penalty arrived the day after a federal jury ended 14 hours of deliberation during which they concluded that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserved death for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon attack.
This was no accident. I requested the copy as a means of examining my feelings about the sentence, and my views on capital punishment more generally. Wrong or right? If right, then how to proceed? Is there any way to ensure that intentionally bringing about the death of another human being—wrong or right; “deserved” or not—isn’t, at core, cruel and unusual?
Anthony Galvin writes with dignified detachment. He brings his reader into the modern death chamber—many death chambers—and provides a visceral experience free of judgment for or against state-sanctioned death. He lets the sentence speak for itself: the aged oak throne; the metal helmet screwed snug against skull; the wet sponge against shaved scalp; the tightened leather strap thick about the neck; the hood; the final, darkened silence.
At the touch of a button the executioner, an “electrician”, sends 1,800 volts through the convict for 30 seconds, his body convulsing against restraint, smoke wafting from the top of his head. For a minute more 250 volts course through the body. Possibly—possibly—this stops the heart. So the cycle is repeated, perhaps as many as five times, before the curtain closes on observers come to witness the final breath.