BILL MINOR: Mississippi’s death penalty remains a painful scene

BILL MINOR

BILL MINOR

Hanging, electric chair, gas chamber, and lethal injections all have been part of Mississippi’s spotty history of administering death penalties for various crimes.

In my long career as a Mississippi journalist, though I never witnessed a hanging or execution by lethal injection, I have watched one man (who was black) die by the wood-framed electric chair (nicknamed Ole Sparky) and one man (a white) agonizingly die in the gas chamber.

Possibly, I hold some unsavory record for watching the last electric chair execution carried out in the state’s portable electric chair in 1951, and the first one (in 1955) in the ominous glass-enclosed gas chamber at Parchman Penitentiary (the supposedly more humane successor to Ole Sparky). Neither method convinced me that capital punishment has any place in a civilized society.

Willie McGee was a 31-year-old Laurel handyman convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Several times federal courts sent back the conviction because no blacks served on the grand or trial jury. Meantime, a question of consensual sex was raised and McGee became a national civil rights story. Even the New York Times sent a reporter as innocence petitions signed by such prominent figures as scientist Albert Einstein bombarded unyielding Mississippi officials.

Here, in some detail, is the macabre history of the electric chair where dozens of accused felons died. The chair was stored in the basement of the state Capitol, three floors below legislative chambers. When a county had an execution case the chair was trucked, with two accompanying generators, the state executioner, and an electrician, to the county courthouse where the accused was convicted.

The ugly black contraption was set up smack dab in the courtroom (directly opposite the judge’s bench). One could not escape the odor of burned human flesh.

The circus atmosphere at the McGee execution boosted advocates’ chances to push a bill in 1954 to scrap the movable electric chair and replace it with a lethal gas chamber at Parchman. One Deltan entered a last-minute reconsideration motion at the regular session, technically killing it until considered in a special session. Gov. Hugh White within weeks called lawmakers back, and the measure was cleared for his signature.

The metal and glass capsule was first put to use in late 1955 when a murderer, ex-Californian Gerald Gallego, sent up for brutally killing an Ocean Springs town marshal, was put to death in what turned out to be a bungled execution.

Only a handful of us (I was Mississippi correspondent for The Times-Picayune) had been tipped off. I peered through a thick glass portal not more than seven feet from Gallego. What followed would forever cast a cloud over the newly installed death chamber and the unsavory job of state executioner.

In a piece I wrote for The Associated Press in 1983, I said the first use of the chamber was bungled and explained how it happened. We had been told beforehand when a lever was pulled, some two dozen cyanide pellets would be released into a pot of sulfuric acid under the condemned man. A few wisps of fumes would numb the man’s senses, we were told. His head would drop to his chest and within two minutes he would be dead, they said.

However, when the executioner pulled the lever, only a few cyanide pellets fell only a small slip of gas arose. When the first fumes reached Gallego’s nostrils, his chin dropped, but within seconds his head pulled back violently and continued to jerk back and forth. This went on for nearly 20 minutes until the panicked executioner wrestled with the lever and finally released the remaining pellets. A larger puff of gas came up and soon Gallego went quickly still.

Recently, columnist Sid Salter quoted a book by the late Don Cabana, once a warden at Parchman, in which he related Gallego coughed and choked “for some 45 minutes” before dying. To correct the record, Cabana was not there and I was. Twenty minutes was horrible enough, but 45 minutes is even worse. I don’t recall Cabana interviewing me about the first gas chamber execution, and now I’m the only surviving witness.

Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.