My interview with Mr. Death
I found Fred Leuchter and asked him about his career in the death penalty industry
I published an interview with Fred A. Leuchter Jr. today over at Welcome to Hell World, Luke O’Neil’s newsletter. You can read the whole thing at this link.
I’ve been writing a lot about the death penalty lately as South Carolina gets ready to start electrocuting and/or shooting death row inmates. Luke asked me to write something for him on the topic, and I told him I wanted to try to find Leuchter, who was the most prominent “expert” on electric chairs and lethal injection machines in the U.S. until suddenly he wasn’t. He claims to have sold South Carolina its electric chair helmet in the ‘80s, and the state Department of Corrections is neither confirming nor denying it.
Leuchter wasn’t hard to find. He’s still living in the Boston suburbs, still tinkering with homemade electric chair equipment, and still unrepentant about his career selling death machines. I called him and we spoke for an hour. It’s one of the hardest and strangest interviews I have done.
I’ll publish the beginning of the story below. To read the rest, head over to Hell World.
Fred Leuchter cornered the market on executions in the ‘80s. Who will take his place?
If you were a U.S. prison warden trying to figure out how to kill people with an electric chair in the ‘80s, there was basically one guy to call. His name was Fred A. Leuchter Jr.
He ran a business out of his house in the Boston suburbs, providing consulting or execution equipment to at least 27 states between 1979 and 1990. Some of Fred Leuchter’s equipment is still in use today, which is why I wanted to talk to him.
In South Carolina, where I live, the Department of Corrections is on the verge of either killing an inmate with a firing squad or electrocuting someone for the first time since 2008. They nearly electrocuted a man named Brad Sigmon on June 18, but the state Supreme Court stopped them at the last minute because technically they hadn’t assembled a firing squad yet and they needed to give Sigmon a choice of how he died.
If South Carolina electrocutes someone again, there’s a good chance they’ll use equipment that Leuchter sold them. He went on the record with the Greenville News in 1991 saying he had sold an electrocution helmet to the state for $800 in 1983.
Leuchter — pronounced “LOO-cher,” with a silent T — has been outspoken about the risks of improper maintenance of his machines. He gave some ominous warnings about the one he built in Tennessee before they fired it up again in 2018 (“I don’t think it’s going to be humane,” he told the AP).
I wanted to hear his thoughts on South Carolina’s chair, so I called him this week at his home in Malden, Massachusetts. He wasn’t hard to find. He listened to my introduction and briefly launched into the finer technical points of electrocution before cutting himself off.
“Are you familiar with my background?” he asked.
I was. Because I oppose the death penalty on moral grounds, I had been reading about his singular influence on the legal and technological framework of the death penalty in America. I had watched Errol Morris’ 1999 documentary about him, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., and I recognized his pinched New England accent over the phone.
“Then you know I was an expert witness, and I testified in a lot of different courts here and abroad on capital punishment,” Leuchter said. “At any rate, you’re also aware of the fact that because I testified in Canada for Ernst Zündel, the Jewish organizations and the Nazi hunters and all these people came after me and they effectively put me out of business.”
I’ll note here that in the course of a 1-hour interview, Leuchter brought up “Jewish organizations” 4 times, and also claimed he had been maligned by “a Jewish attorney general” and “a Jewish representative.”
If you’re wondering why Leuchter isn’t working in the death penalty business anymore, the Zündel trial was the beginning of his unraveling. In 1988 a neo-Nazi named Ernst Zündel went on trial in Canada for distributing a Holocaust denial pamphlet called Did Six Million Really Die? The Truth at Last. Zündel’s case became a cause célèbre for anti semites, and his legal team rolled out a series of expert witnesses seeking to bolster its ahistorical claims.
Leuchter took a job as a paid expert witness for Zündel’s legal team. To prepare his testimony, he traveled to Auschwitz, scraped some samples off the bricks of a gas chamber while his wife and translator stood lookout, and sent them to a lab to be tested for traces of cyanide.
Leuchter concluded that the chambers could not have been used for homicidal gassing, contradicting the eyewitness accounts of survivors and guards as well as the blueprints and records of the Third Reich itself. His prepared findings, known as the Leuchter Report, were dismissed by the judge as “preposterous” and were immediately and repeatedly debunked by the international scientific and historical communities.
The Zündel trial made international news. Aside from his errant beliefs about the Holocaust, the trial had revealed something else about Leuchter: He had no formal training as a toxicologist, medical doctor, or electrical engineer. When questioned by the court about his credentials, Leuchter had touted a bachelor’s degree in history from Boston University. This raised questions about his day job as well.
Back in the U.S., Leuchter continued to get work in the execution business anyway. He still had a contract for a lethal injection machine in Colorado as of July 1990, and he even had a bid in to inspect Arizona’s gas chamber as late as December 1991.
In October 1990, a group from Albany, New York, called Holocaust Survivors and Friends in Pursuit of Justice filed a complaint with the state of Massachusetts alleging that Leuchter was practicing electrical engineering without a license.
The state took up the case. Rather than go to trial and face three months’ imprisonment, Leuchter reached a settlement in which he agreed to stop distributing reports claiming that he was an engineer. This was the end of his career as a death penalty expert, at least publicly.
“Wardens would turn around and say, ‘We don’t know anything about Fred Leuchter, we haven’t dealt with him,’ and then two hours later they call me up on the telephone and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got an execution scheduled and I’m having a problem with the equipment, what do I do?’” Leuchter said.
There’s no moral or practical justification for the death penalty no matter how you do it. It’s cruel and arbitrary and it doesn’t act as a deterrent. It brutalizes the people who carry it out and traumatizes the families of murder victims, and particularly in this country the pattern of its application is openly racist.
It’s not a moral gray area to me. All that being said, I think it matters if the state I live in is still using equipment that it bought from a self-taught electrician with a shaky grasp on the scientific method.
Here’s some of my previous coverage of the death penalty in South Carolina:
A makeshift killing machine (June 16, 2021)
It’s time to break some guns (June 2, 2021)
The conscience round (March 10, 2021)
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