America’s Changing Death Penalty Debate

A lethal injection gurney is shown before being dismantled in March 2019 at California's San Quentin State Prison. (Photo by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Getty Images)

Ron McAndrew’s third execution was the last he would ever oversee.

On March 25, 1997, McAndrew, then the warden of the Florida State Prison in Raiford, watched as guards escorted Pedro Medina into the death chamber at the prison and strapped him into “Old Sparky,” the electric chair that had been in use since 1923. Medina had been convicted of the gruesome 1982 murder of Dorothy James, a 51-year-old elementary school teacher. “I am still innocent,” Medina said when asked for his last words. Guards strapped his limbs into the chair, placed a saline-soaked sponge atop Medina’s head, then latched an electrode on top of the sponge, followed by a copper helmet, and finally a mask over his face.

At a secret signal from McAndrew, the executioner flipped on the electrical current and Medina’s body jerked back as the fatal charge entered his body. Then it all went wrong.

The sponge—which had been wrung too dry of the saline solution that should have conducted the electrical current into Medina’s head—caught fire. Blue and orange flames shot out from Medina’s masked head. Smoke filled the execution chamber. So did the smell of burning flesh.

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