NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee used its electric chair for the first time since 2007, executing an inmate Thursday evening for the killings of two other men who had been shot and had their throats slit during a drug deal decades ago.
Authorities said 63-year-old inmate Edmund Zagorski was pronounced dead at 7:26 p.m. Thursday at a Nashville maximum-security prison. Asked if he had any last words, he said, “Let’s rock” shortly before the execution was carried out. Reporters witnessing the scene said at a news briefing afterward that he alternated between grimacing and smiling as a sponge was put on his head, then a shroud over his head. They said his fist clenched when the voltage flowed and he did not move once the electricity stopped flowing.
In opting for the electric chair over a lethal injection as Tennessee allowed him, Zagorski had argued it would be a quicker and less painful way to die. He became only the second person to die in the electric chair in Tennessee since 1960. Nationwide, only 14 other people have been put to death in the electric chair since 2000, including a Virginia inmate in 2013.
The execution was carried out shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday evening denied the inmate’s request for a stay. Attorneys argued that it was unconstitutional to force him to choose between the electric chair and lethal injection.
The state came close to administering a chemical injection to the 63-year-old inmate three weeks ago, a plan halted by Tennessee’s governor when Zagorski exercised his right to request the electric chair.
The Supreme Court, in a statement Thursday evening, said Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the dissenting voice, noting Zagorski’s decision to opt for the electric chair.
“He did so not because he thought that it was a humane way to die, but because he thought that the three-drug cocktail that Tennessee had planned to use was even worse,” Sotomayor said in the statement. “Given what most people think of the electric chair, it’s hard to imagine a more striking testament — from a person with more at stake — to the legitimate fears raised by the lethal-injection drugs that Tennessee uses.”
Zagorski was convicted of the April 1983 slayings of two men during a drug deal. Prosecutors said Zagorski shot John Dotson and Jimmy Porter and then slit their throats after robbing the two men after they came to him to buy marijuana.
In Tennessee, condemned inmates whose crimes occurred before 1999 can choose the electric chair — one of six states that allow such a choice.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on whether use of the electric chair violates the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but it came close about 20 years ago after a series of botched electrocutions in Florida. During two executions in the 1990s smoke and flames shot from the condemned inmates’ heads. In 1999, blood spilled from under an inmate’s mask. Shortly afterward, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the electric chair. But the case was dropped when Florida made lethal injection its primary execution method.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam declined to intervene in Zagorski’s case despite receiving pleas from former jurors who convicted the inmate, correctional officers and Zagorski’s priest. A request for commutation of Zagorski’s sentence to life in prison argued that Zagorski had been an “exemplary” inmate who never had a disciplinary infraction.
At the time of Zagorski’s conviction, Tennessee juries were not given the option of considering life without parole. Every state now requires juries to weigh that option in death penalty cases.
Tennessee’s electric chair was inspected on Oct. 10 and found to meet the criteria for an execution, state documents show.
The device was originally rebuilt in the late 1980s by a self-taught execution expert who worried the device would malfunction on Thursday. It’s only been used to execute one person before: Daryl Holton, in 2007.
Before Holton, the last person to die in Tennessee’s electric chair was William Tines in 1960.
Zagorski has been on death row for 34 years, the second-longest in Tennessee.
Groups opposed to Tennessee’s execution plans organized evening vigils in cities including Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis.
Associated Press writer Travis Loller contributed to this report in Nashville.