I took this photo of Old Sparky at Green Haven Correctional Facility in 1989 while giving a tour of the Death House to David A. Kaplan who was a senior writer for the National Law Journal. He was also a former Wall Street attorney who would also become an editor for Newsweek as well as an award winning author. I was a Correction Sergeant at the time and the Death Penalty was a political hot potato. Every time it came up for a legislative vote, we would get an onslaught of media wanting to do stories.
New York State was the first to use the electric chair as a more humane means of killing (the quintessential oxymoron). In 1886 a three person commission was appointed one member, Dr. Alfred Southwick (dentist) recommended using electricity. With Thomas Edison and Westinghouse battling over whether to use AC or DC current. Edison won his battle with a demonstration of the killing power of AC current on farm animals. In 1888 it became the official means of execution in New York. The first electric chair was installed in Auburn Correctional Facility and on August 6, 1890, the first inmate was executed by way of electrocution. Fifty-four more inmates would be executed in Auburn’s electric chair before it was destroyed by fire in 1929. Clinton Correctional Facility also utilized an electric chair from 1892 to 1913 to execute 26 men. The most deadly chair was installed at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 1891 killing six hundred and fourteen men and women, with the last execution conducted in 1963.
The Sing Sing electric chair (pictured above) was moved to Green Haven Correctional Facility in 1971 as the state tried to shut down Sing Sing. Green Haven’s Death Row was located above the hospital building and consisted of a row of 16 cells with a rooftop recreation yard. Directly across from the cells stood the execution chamber, witness area and the executioners booth equipped with one way glass. The booth contained a marble panel with a series of switches, gauges, and meters. In the center of the panel was the prominent main switch. There was the traditional locked phone box that would give the final order and a wooden storage box filled with leather straps, face masks and copper skull plates. As old as the equipment was, it was tested and fully functional but no one would see it put to use at Green Haven.
As the political climate switched, electrocution was no longer the humane killing method and New York switched to lethal injection. Amsterdam native and serial killer Lemuel Smith was the only inmate ever to occupy Green Haven Death Row after being convicted of the capital crime of murdering Correction Officer Donna Payant in 1981. Payant was the first female C.O. to be killed in the line of duty in the United States. My career in NYS Department of Correctional Services started in 1982 at Sing Sing and then Green Haven when Smith was housed on Death Row. Lemuel Smith was never executed for his crimes as New York State removed the death penalty as the ultimate punishment. June 24, 2004 New York State’s highest court declared the death penalty unconstitutional.
I have to credit David A. Kaplan for the story The Hot Seat published in the National Law Journal April 26, 1989, information from which I used in this blog. I am glad that he mailed me a copy of the article as I am quoted in it advocating for the death penalty.
“Most of the inmates are lifers,” says Sgt Jerry Skrocki who leads tours of the Death House. “and they have nothing to fear by killing again. The chair would stand between them and us.” So then would he pull the switch? Skrocki pauses. “That,” he says, “is another question.”
I am much older and a little wiser now and have changed my views on capital punishment. I no longer condone the taking of another life as a means of punishment. It has not been proven to be a deterrent to crime. I do believe in the right to use deadly force to defend oneself or in defense of another, but not as a punishment.
It is our humanity that inherently stands between them and us.