Cruel And Unusual Justice
Bored Web surfers flock to see online execution photos
Published October 26, 1999 in Whoa!

It's early afternoon at the office. A fast-food lunch is lumped greasily in your gut and 5 o'clock feels light years away. All across this great nation of liberty and freedom and money, you and thousands of other bored office drones are cruising the Web for something that might fill the awful void for a few minutes. You're so bored, you might even look at Slate for a moment. And then the email arrives, the forwarded mail, giddy with sick joy: There are actual execution photos on the Web!!

See also...
... by Ken Layne
... in the Whoa! section
... from October 26, 1999

And not just some cheesy video captures from Faces of Death, which you've heard was fake anyway. No, this is the real thing, actual disgusting photographs of an astonishingly fat man strapped into Florida's notorious electric chair, his swollen purple hemorrhaged face smashed against the leather strap around his mouth, thick blood streaming from his nose to his pale flabby breasts, his shirt soaked with the sticky fluid, his corpulent bare legs tightly bound to the Sunshine State's newest version of "Old Sparky," which was specifically rebuilt to accommodate the girth of 54-year-old Allen Lee Davis.

Davis, a 344-pound convicted murderer known by the nickname "Tiny," was killed by the state of Florida on July 8 by massive electrical shock. The force of the lengthy jolt caused severe hemorrhaging in his head -- later dismissed by a Florida trial judge as a "nosebleed." Lawyers for Davis had argued that a man of his size would need some 2,300 volts to quickly kill him, something they said the state's electric chair couldn't provide. In the 44 Florida executions since capital punishment resumed in 1979, this was the first time the condemned man burst like a blood bag. But with two more executions scheduled for this week in Florida, it may not be the last.

The new Sparky -- which was supposed to end the controversy around using an antiquated, faulty 76-year-old electrical torture device to "humanely" execute prisoners -- still relies on the old chair's electrical system. The same system caused flames to shoot from the skull of a prisoner executed in 1997. Davis' lawyer told the St. Petersburg Times that the new chair's electrical breakers failed four times during tests in the last year. It is evil enough to murder under cover of law; it is even worse to do so using shoddy, ancient devices instead of something relatively humane such as lethal injection.

When Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw posted the gruesome photos on the court's Web site along with his impassioned attack on the death penalty in his dissenting opinion, it was his hope that the brutal graphics would make people think twice about killing those we have convicted of breaking the basic law of civilized humanity -- namely, that we aren't supposed to kill people.

But in the vapid, boring digital existence of fin de si├Ęcle America, murder is just another cheap thrill to watch on the Internet, like a teenage girl getting double-fucked, and the court received more than 300 excited emails from murder-crazed yahoos who took particular delight in seeing how the government had tortured a man to death. According to an October 6 Associated Press report, execution-crazed Web users repeatedly crashed the court's server, and even the site's counter collapsed under the pressure.

The links to the photos clogged email systems for days. The same yahoos who -- rightly so -- decry the government's brutal attack on the religious nuts of Waco are just as happy to praise their government's sanctioned murder of convicted criminals. And what is the difference between the Branch Davidians being slaughtered by a shadowy national army and one of the Bush brothers approving the murder of a convicted killer? A little paperwork, a few more lawyers.

Eighty-five years ago, cocaine was legal. Today, you do coke and you could go to prison forever -- unless you're George W. Bush (who took particular delight in mocking Texas death-row inmate Karla Faye Tucker's plea for a stay of execution), in which case you go to the White House. Seventy years ago, booze was illegal. Today, the alcohol lobbyists happily squash anti-liquor legislation while smiling congressmen pocket their campaign checks and the Mothers Against Drunk Driving weep on the Capitol steps. Obviously, crime and punishment are subjective.

Tiny Davis was a big fat evil piece of trash. He brutally killed a pregnant woman and her two children. As an individual, I would have gladly killed the son of a bitch if I had caught him harming my family or friends. But as a citizen of a state with the power to kill me -- based on the outcome of a trial decided by 12 people too stupid to get out of jury duty -- I cannot allow that state to decide who among us lives or dies.

Exile and imprisonment are acceptable uses of a democratic state's power to punish those who pose a danger to others. But execution cannot be appealed after the fact, and an executed citizen has no recourse against a false trail. No matter how heinous a crime, it is a greater offense for the state to have the legal ability to kill its citizens.

The only moral solution would have been to lock Davis in the darkest hole for the rest of his miserable life... a life that would have certainly ended before his date with the electric chair, had Florida not spent hundreds of thousands of dollars keeping his sickly, flabby body alive.

Davis was so obese, prison officials had to provide a bigger prison cot for him, install handlebars on the shower walls, medicate him for hypertension and a variety of chronic health problems including degenerative joint disorder, provide him a wheelchair, and treat him for a degenerative condition that made it impossible for him to even hold a cup of water in his thick hands.

Florida has 69 convicts over 50 years old among its 376 execution-bound inmates. Like many of our nation's aging and sickly death-row inmates, Davis would have died had he been left alone -- exiled, removed from society, just as Jean-Jacques Rousseau prescribed for those who violated the covenants of our society.

Kept from ever harming another person, crammed onto his cot, smoking and eating himself to death, he would face that cold, lonely final moment when his heart began to fail and he faced the dark hole of nothingness without a single voice calling for his salvation -- no newspaper articles, no Web sites, no death-row fanatics to be aware of his pathetic and meaningless end.

That is how it should have been. He would have died in the night, hated by a few but anonymous to the world at large. A nothing. A fat evil nothing who dies in the night and nobody cries and nobody protests because he was trash.

John Weiler, who lost his wife and children to this monster, deserved better than having Davis become a celebrity on the Internet. Weiler's family, the family he so savagely lost, deserved better than to be a footnote to gruesome execution photos circulating the Internet, giggled at by soft cubicle drones who know nothing of life and nothing of death unless it's presented on a TV or computer screen.

Ken Layne was formerly editor of and new-media critic at Online Journalism Review. His stuff appears in newspapers and online magazines around the country; he is currently foreign editor at United Press International in Washington.