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Reports that smoke may have risen from a Tennessee death row inmate during his electric chair execution have been denied by authorities.
Lawyers for Lee Hall, who was electrocuted last week, had previously raised concerns that a puff of smoke had risen from the blind death row inmate’s body as 1,750 volts of electricity jolted through him at a maximum-security prison in Nashville.
The claims surfaced after various witnesses said they saw what appeared to be a wisp of white smoke hovering above the right side of Hall’s face in his final moments. He was pronounced dead at 7:26 p.m. on Dec. 5.
In the aftermath of Hall’s electrocution, correctional officials firmly denied the man’s body had emitted smoke, instead offering up a different explanation: it was steam, they insisted.
“That was not smoke — that was steam,” Tony C. Parker, Corrections Commissioner, told Oxygen.com.
He called it a “natural phenomenon” resulting from “heat and moisture,” generated from the brined sponge, affixed to the prisoner’s head, that acts as a conductor.
“It was a small amount of white vapor,” Parker added. “There’s no indication or no evidence whatsoever of any type of fire.”
A sponge that is not properly wetted, or too strong a current, he agreed, can sometimes lead to a smoldering body in the death chamber, but Parker adamantly denied this was the case in Hall’s execution.
“Our protocols were carried out exactly like they should have been and this process was delivered without any failure or flaw whatsoever,” he stated.
Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee, who declined to stay or commute Hall’s execution following an eleventh hour attempt by his legal team to have his conviction thrown out, reiterated Parker’s assertion.
“I trust the process was done well,” Lee said on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
Hall chose electrocution over lethal injection, Tennessee’s preferred method of execution, officials said. Death row inmates in the state who committed their crimes prior to 1999, are given the option of selecting how they want to die, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that follows and analyzes trends in capital punishment.
“That particular inmate’s desire, his choice in which type of execution — he made that choice and they carried that out professionally,” Lee added.
However, the convicted killer’s lawyer claimed the smoke rising from Hall was a “brownish color,” not white.
“Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” assistant public defender Stephen Ferrell, who represented Hall, previously told Oxygen.com. “If it was smoke, there will be some indications of burns.”
Ferrell, who’s soon hoping to review medical examiner photos of Hall’s body, was concerned his client may have suffered unnecessarily in his last seconds alive.
“None of us can know because we weren’t sitting there,” he said. “But it seems to me that clearly that’s a result we don’t want –– either us, or the state –– I don’t think.”
Feng Li, the chief medical examiner for Davidson County, seemingly squashed further speculation this week, stating that he found “no evidence of any burning” of Hall’s skin during a preliminary but limited external postmortem examination of his body.
“We didn’t observe anything like fire or burning,” Li told Oxygen.com.
Hall’s attorney said his 53-year-old client had rejected a full autopsy, citing religious reasons.
Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor, who has studied electrocutions for nearly 30 years, said smoke potentially signals a botched — and inhumane — execution.
“It’s not the norm,” Denno told Oxygen.com. “Smoke indicates that there was burning of the skin or hair and that really shouldn’t be happening. This is an electrocution — we shouldn’t be burning somebody to death.”
Denno said a smoke trail may also mean that the wrong type of sponge was used, an inmate’s hair wasn’t clipped enough, that the voltage used to execute them was too powerful, or that the electric chair itself somehow malfunctioned another way.
“It also indicates the potential that the inmate was feeling these burns and pains,” she said. “We don’t know. When somebody’s electrocuted, they’re basically paralyzed, so they can’t always react.”
But Jerry Givens, a former Virginia state executioner, who put 62 people to death — including dozens by electrocution — in the '80s and '90s, said he saw his fair share of smoke in the death chamber.
“You can see smoke, you can see orange, and spots of fire,” said Givens.
Givens, 67, explained he’d push a button in the death chamber to turn on the electric chair, then operated an adjustable knob for two 45-second cycles that allowed him to fluctuate the voltage. between 2,300 and 3,000 volts.
“That’s enough electricity to kill a horse,” he said, referring to the high end of that spectrum. “Quite naturally [the prisoner] might catch on fire.”
Correctional officials said the electric chair at the Tennessee prison where Hall was executed packs a lesser punch of 1,750 volts.
Hall used a makeshift gasoline bomb to torch his ex-girlfriend Staci Crozier’s car while the 22-year-old was still inside. He was sentenced to death in 1992. At his trial, a forensic expert testified Crozier had burns covering more than 95 percent of her body, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com. Prosecutors portrayed Hall as a binge-drinking arsonist who frequently ignited blazes to process his emotions and “express his distress.” He had firebombed the woman’s car after the “volatile” couple had split up, they said.
The woman’s family, some of who attended Hall’s execution, also claimed to have seen smoke wafting above his face in his final moments.
“It looked to me like it was white smoke coming from the right side of his head,” Traci’s sister, Staci Crozier Wooten, told Oxygen.com.
But to Wooten, whether it was a small puff of smoke or steam makes no difference. She emphasized her sister was literally scorched alive. The 49-year-old woman described feeling “at peace” watching her sister’s killer die.
“If he did suffer in any amount, in any way, I could care less,” Wooten said. “And I hope that it did fry his brain.”
The Tennessee woman said she traveled from Rossville, Georgia to personally witness Hall’s execution alongside her 74-year-old father in Nashville last week.
Hall, who was diagnosed with glaucoma while incarcerated, was “functionally blind,” his lawyers said. He’s reportedly only the second blind death row inmate in U.S. history to be executed since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.
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