A makeshift killing machine
Meet the man who sold South Carolina its electric chair helmet
UPDATE: On June 16, the South Carolina Supreme Court blocked the planned executions of Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens until the state can assemble a firing squad in accordance with South Carolina’s new death penalty law.
“The department is moving ahead with creating policies and procedures for a firing squad,” Chrysti Shain, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Corrections, told the Associated Press.
To sign petitions and get involved in the fight against the death penalty, visit deathpenaltyaction.org/sc.
On Friday the state of South Carolina will shave Brad Keith Sigmon’s head. The state of South Carolina will shave Mr. Sigmon’s right leg from the knee to the ankle.
The state of South Carolina will guide Mr. Sigmon to an old wooden chair. The state of South Carolina will apply a gel to Mr. Sigmon’s scalp and right calf. The state of South Carolina will put a copper anklet on his right leg and a helmet on his head.
The helmet is a specialized device made of leather and copper mesh, with an inner layer of sponge that the state of South Carolina will soak in a solution of ammonium chloride.
The best I can tell based on newspaper records and court filings, the helmet that the state of South Carolina uses to kill people was designed by an amateur electrician from Massachusetts with a bachelor’s degree in history. His name is Fred Arthur Leuchter Jr.
Leuchter had no relevant training or expertise when he sold the device to the state of South Carolina in October 1983. The state needed a new helmet to retrofit its original 1912 wooden electric chair, and Leuchter was one of the only people willing to sell it. Leuchter later told the Greenville News that he sold the helmet for $800.
Leuchter, who is still alive today, is the son of a corrections officer. In interviews, he has said he got into the field after watching executions, reading about botched electrocutions, and wanting to help states kill people without torturing them. Starting in Tennessee, then moving to other states, he inspected one state’s killing apparatus after another and found each wanting.
Here’s how he described his early career in an interview with Errol Morris for the 1999 documentary Mr. Death:
[O]ne by one I determined that this state's equipment was not functional, this state's equipment was not functional. Then suddenly, one day I said, none of the equipment is functional. Many of the electric chairs were built by inmates and electricians who had no idea of what they were building. They took a picture of another state's electric chair and they made something that looked like it.
By the late ‘80s, Leuchter was widely regarded as an expert on death penalty methods and equipment despite not having a license to practice medicine or electrical engineering. He advised states on the use of electric chairs, lethal injection, gas chambers, and gallows, and he sold many of them equipment that remains in use today. He gave a number of news interviews justifying himself on humanitarian grounds.
Under the aegis of his company Fred A. Leuchter Associates, Inc., Leuchter printed off certificates proclaiming that anyone who took his training course was an “Electrocution Technician.”
“We offer an Execution Support Program whereby we set up and conduct the entire execution supplying everything but the executioners,” Leuchter wrote in a letter to the Tennessee State Penitentiary warden in October 1987.
Today, news outlets don’t call Leuchter for interviews as often as they used to. His execution consultant gigs have dried up. There are a few reasons for this.
In 1990, an Alabama assistant attorney general wrote a memo to colleagues accusing Leuchter of running a “death-row shakedown scheme” in which he would testify that states’ execution equipment was faulty if he didn’t win contracts to provide execution services.
The same year, he faced a court trial and possible prison time on fraud charges for practicing engineering without a license in the state of Massachusetts. He settled with authorities out of court, in part by promising not to publish documents identifying himself as an engineer any longer.
There is another reason people don’t seek out Leuchter’s testimony anymore. In 1988, Leuchter served as an expert witness defending the neo-Nazi Ernst Zündel in a Canadian court case for distributing Holocaust denial material.
The crux of Leuchter’s testimony rested on his own travel to former concentration camps at Auschwitz and other locations, where he chiseled off pieces of brick from reconstructed gas chambers and had them tested in a lab for traces of cyanide.
In the space of a decade, Leuchter went from designing gas chambers for the state of Missouri to collaborating with fascists to dispute historic evidence of extermination camps. The leap cost him his livelihood, but perhaps his clients should have seen it coming.
As recently as September 2016, the local press found Leuchter working in the garden department at a Home Depot in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Leuchter still has his fans among antisemitic members of the American and European far right. He has spoken at Holocaust denialist conferences and blamed his fall from grace on “the organized world Jewish community.”
But it is Leuchter’s original passion project that has proven his most enduring. His homemade killing equipment is still used by multiple U.S. states.
People who argue for electrocution will tell you that it delivers a painless death. Leuchter claimed in the ‘80s that an initial jolt of 2,000 volts at five amps would render an inmate unconscious in 1/240th of a second, too fast for the body to register pain. He cited no evidence for his claim (there is none), but the local news quoted him on it anyway.
The state of South Carolina is opaque about its methodology of killing. Chrysti Shain, a spokesperson for the S.C. Department of Corrections, told the Greenville News this week that the electric chair was “recently tested” and regularly maintained.
“Methods of maintenance and testing are restricted information and not available to the public,” the paper paraphrased her as saying.
In the absence of public accountability, the condemned man Sigmon’s lawyers have dug up what old protocols they could find as they built their case. They scoured eyewitness accounts of South Carolina electrocutions and found a preponderance of evidence against Leuchter’s (and the state’s) claims of a quick and painless death.
“Once the switch is thrown,” they wrote in a June 3 court document seeking an injunction, “the prisoner’s muscles will all be stimulated to full contraction, his organs can boil, his head may catch fire, his eyes may pop out, his body will likely blister, and the smell of his burnt flesh will permeate the room.”
On June 11, a federal judge declined to halt the execution. On June 15, attorneys filed an emergency appeal on behalf of Sigmon as well as Freddie Owens, who is scheduled to be executed on June 25.
If the appeal fails, then on Friday, June 18, the state of South Carolina will seat Mr. Sigmon in an old wooden chair inside the death chamber at Broad River Correctional Institution. Once the helmet is attached, the state of South Carolina will place a leather hood over Mr. Sigmon’s head. The state of South Carolina will bind Mr. Sigmon with straps on his upper arms, forearms, and ankles.
We say that “the state of South Carolina” will kill Brad Sigmon. But the state needs human hands to carry out its will, and the responsibility will fall on employees of the South Carolina Department of Corrections. We don’t know their names.
Ron McAndrew, who served as warden of the Florida State Penitentiary from 1996 to 1998, wrote an opinion piece for The State newspaper on June 6 arguing that the death penalty traumatizes those who carry it out, no matter what method is used.
McAndrew speaks from experience: He oversaw the final three electric-chair executions in Florida and shadowed five lethal injections in Florida and Texas.
The reality is that even when things go smoothly on the surface, the process of killing another human being is traumatic for those involved. If things go awry, the harm is far worse. I still have nightmares and flashbacks from my participation in executions. I also saw the damage executions caused to my staff — not only those who worked directly on execution teams, but many others throughout the prison system. As the warden, I became well aware of the impacts: substance abuse, domestic troubles, depression, even suicide ...
Over time, I realized executions serve no purpose in our justice system other than as tools for politicians’ use. The prisoners I helped kill were no danger to anyone in prison, and their executions were an excuse for elected officials to pound their chests. Yet that political gain exacted a heavy price from state workers.
What is there to say about a state that employs its people to tie a man down and kill him? We are all complicit until we stop killing.
South Carolinians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty will organize protest vigils in Columbia, S.C., on June 18 and 25 if the state goes forward with the executions of Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens. To sign up for updates on the protest actions and sign petitions against the executions, visit deathpenaltyaction.org/sc
I previously wrote about Death Penalty Action and the anti-death penalty mission of the Rev. Sharon Risher, who lost three family members and a friend in the Emanuel AME Church massacre. For more on that subject, see the June 2 issue, It’s time to break some guns.
For a history of the death penalty and the rise of firing squads in South Carolina, see the March 10 issue, The conscience round.
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