Death just part of day’s work

(U-WIRE) GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The biggest surprise of the day was the first surprise of the day.
It came at 3:45 early Tuesday morning when my alarm clock rudely sounded. Struggling to recall why it had been set so early, I calculated how many hours of sleep I had managed to catch — a little more than two.
As the cloud of confusion lifted, the reason for my unusually early start came back to me. In less than three and a half hours, I would be one of 12 media witnesses to watch 47-year-old Leo Alexander Jones die in Florida’s electric chair.
By 4:30 a.m., I was on the road to the Florida State Prison where, in a small, brightly lit room, Jones was scheduled to die at 7:01 a.m.
Roll call for the media witnesses was scheduled for 5:30 a.m. on the field just north of the prison, on the other side of the state highway I’d driven to get there.
It was a cold morning as my partner, photographer Justin Best, and I drove along the highways. We shared the road only with logging trucks and the occasional car.
It was one of those mornings when the cold air seems to make the darkness whole, and the solitude of Florida’s sleepy country roads puts your thoughts in perspective.
Jones’ own road to a macabre date with the electric chair began on an early morning in 1981.
It was May 23 at about 1 a.m. when Duval County Sheriff’s Deputy Thomas J. Szafranski was killed by a sniper’s bullet at Sixth and Davis streets in Jacksonville.
The bullet pierced his patrol car’s windshield and struck Szafranski, 28, in the head. Police arrested Jones later that morning. Twelve hours after his arrest, Jones confessed to the murder.
During his trial, Jones claimed the confession had been coerced through physical violence by his interrogating officers — but the jury did not believe him.
Jones was convicted, and Duval County District Court Judge A.C. Soud sentenced him to “have electric currents applied, administered and passed through your body in such amounts until you are rendered dead.
“May God have mercy on your soul,” Soud said.

Denying the inevitable
From a distance on a dark and misty morning, the lights of the Florida State Prison appear eerily like those of any residential neighborhood anywhere in the country would.
Only when we drove closer did the tall, razor-topped fences and the prison blocks, which are painted a strange shade of light green, make it obvious what kind of people this neighborhood housed.
We got to the small grass parking lot at 5:40 a.m., just a few minutes behind schedule.
The other reporters, some of them execution-witnessing veterans, had already gathered on the wet grass waiting for prison officials to arrive and get things moving.
Some light from two large television trucks fought the morning darkness in vain as the sun showed only the slightest signs of appearing on the horizon.
At 5:45 a.m., two long white vans drove into the area where the dozen reporters who would witness Jones’ death stood around making small talk.
With the headlights of one of the vans providing the light, Gene Morris, a Department of Corrections spokesman, called the roll.
The other reporters and I had to present picture identification and sign the roll sheet. We were told not to bring in any unnecessary items, not even a pad or pen.
After all had signed in, the reporters — 10 men and two women — were driven across the street and through the prison gates.
On the ride over, some of the reporters continued their small talk. Two of them noted they had yet to see the brief dimming of the prison’s lights that signals it has switched to its own power source in preparation for the electrocution.
We were dropped off outside a building where our identification was again checked and our signatures again required. Almost inside, but not quite.
Several somber prison guards and a metal detector more sensitive than one would find in any airport awaited us next.
Keys, wallets, watches, glasses, necklaces, earrings, belts and in some cases even shoes had to be removed before the guards would let us pass.
Morris said the metal detector is so sensitive the steel underwire in some women’s bras sometimes set it off. Once I had passed through the metal detector — and put my belt, watch and glasses back on — I was given a manila envelope. Inside was a letter-sized writing pad and two freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils capped with green erasers.
I noticed the pad and the two pencils were made out of recycled materials. I’m not sure why that seemed so noteworthy at the time. I think I was trying to focus on something, anything, other than what I was about to see.
We were assembled for a briefing in a kind of cafeteria or lounge with less than an hour to go before Jones was to die.
It was obvious Morris had conducted briefings like this before. He told us everything from the history of the chair itself to the names — complete with exact spellings — of the 27 family members, friends and lawyers who visited Jones on Monday night and early Tuesday morning.
He told us we might notice a brief dimming of the lights, like the reporters had discussed earlier, when the prison switched to its own power.
“Don’t worry if you see this. We haven’t started without you,” Morris assured us.
Morris went on to explain that Jones had not slept at all Monday night or Tuesday morning. Instead, he met with his religious adviser, El Hajj Rabbani Muhammad, from 1 to 4:30 a.m.
At 4:30, Jones was offered a breakfast of steak, fried eggs and potatoes, toast and orange juice. Morris said “he just didn’t think he could eat today.”
As Morris continued his briefing, I found my attention beginning to wane. I continued writing down what he said, but I did so almost subconsciously.
I was grateful he continued talking, however. It gave me something to do, a way to avoid thinking about the fact that I was about to watch a man die.
Regardless of the fact he had been convicted of murdering a police officer, I was unsure how I would react to watching a man electrocuted no more than 15 feet away from where I would sit.
Behind Morris were two large windows. Outside, I could see the sun had broken the horizon and was burning the mist away. Before I noticed much else, the briefing was over, and it was time for us to move to the witness chamber.
As we left the briefing room and started down a long hallway, the low sun cast long shadows on the tiled floor. The light streamed through the barred doors we had entered earlier.
My cold, dark and misty Tuesday morning was turning into a beautiful day. A perfect day to be alone in a wide open space — at the beach maybe.
Where we went next, however, was about as far from a wide open space as we could get.

Three legs, 75 years — one man
Florida’s electric chair was built by prison inmates in 1923.
Some of them would eventually add their names to the list of more than 220 men who have died in the three-legged oak chair, a list that started with Frank Johnson on Oct. 7, 1924.
Quite simply, it’s an ugly instrument, looking just a little too large for a normal person to sit in. But I suppose comfort really wasn’t a consideration.
It was moved to its current location in 1963, but remained unused from May 1964 to May 1979. Since 1979, when the death penalty was reinstituted, 26 white men and 16 black men — including Jones — have died in it.
After leaving the building where our briefing took place, it was another short van ride to the room where we would watch Jones die.
When we entered the small viewing room, the 12 official witnesses were seated already in the front two rows of six chairs each. All told, there were more than 30 witnesses, prison guards and officials.
Szafranski’s brother, Robert, sat at one end of the front row and State Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg, sat at the other end.
Sitting behind Szafranski’s brother with a hand on his shoulder the whole time was Angela Cory of the State Attorney General’s Office.
Muhammad, the religious adviser, also sat in the front row, separated from the death chamber and the electric chair by a few feet and a glass window.
Inside the death chamber just behind the electric chair was a large, gray metal box with a long lever on the side. I wondered if it would be that simple — just a pull of the switch.
Jones was led into the chamber a minute or two after 7 a.m., his shaved head covered in an electroconductive gel that would reduce the amount of burning when the electricity was turned on.
He wore black pants and a long-sleeved white button-down shirt.
He looked calm and reserved as he was guided into the chair that would soon take his life. He offered no resistance and kept his eyes focused straight ahead.
As his chest, abdomen, arms and legs were strapped tightly into the chair, Jones’ eyes found Muhammad’s face. The two repeatedly mouthed a phrase from the Koran in Arabic.
“I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger” was the closest English translation Morris could later offer.
Jones repeated the phrase in Arabic one last time, this time aloud, as his final statement.
The last restraint, a mouth and chin strap to bind his head to the chair, was secured, and a skull cap through which electricity would flow was put in place. A black mask covered his face.
His right pant leg was rolled up to expose his calf, where the other electrode was attached.
At 7:05 a.m., the long lever on the gray box behind the chair was pulled. This switched the power on, but did not start the electrocution cycle. That job was left to the executioner, who remained out of view.
The electrocution cycle consists of three phases. During the first 8 seconds, 2,300 volts are applied.
For the next 22 seconds, 1,000 volts are applied. And for the last 8 seconds of the cycle — although the electricity is usually switched off manually with 4 seconds remaining — 2,300 volts are again applied.
Once the electricity began, Jones’ body tensed abruptly and his fingers twitched erratically.
And just like in the movies, once the electricity was switched off 34 seconds later, his body simply slumped in the chair as if he had fallen asleep on the sofa while watching television.
At 7:08 a.m., his chest heaved noticeably once as an examiner used a stethoscope to listen for a heartbeat. Three minutes later, Jones was pronounced dead.

Back to the beginning
The official witnesses left the viewing chamber, and we again boarded the white vans and exited the prison.
We were taken back to the grassy lot where we had been picked up earlier that morning. Several hundred feet away, just north of the prison exit, was the viewing area. This was just as surreal as the rest of the experience had been for me. In three large areas of equal size, and divided by yellow rope, three groups had gathered: one to protest the death penalty, one to support it and a third to photograph and interview members of the other two.
Prison officials, obviously having experience dealing with execution-day crowds, had even gone so far as to label each of the three areas and provide two portable toilets.
“Supporters” on one side and “Opponents” on the other, with “Media” in between. The reporters who had witnessed the execution with me, and the others who waited outside, quickly descended on this area as some of the civilian witnesses joined one of the two groups waiting outside.
Questions were posed and pondered. People were photographed and the press — well, the press pressed.
Special interest was shown in the 60 or so Jacksonville police officers who had assembled to observe the execution of a man convicted of killing one of their own.
At one point, several of the officers lit up cigars. Perhaps their own form of celebration. I can’t say for sure. Maybe they were just cigar smokers.
I guess it doesn’t really matter.
By that time I was finished interviewing, listening and reporting. I had just watched a man die and I was still more than a month and a half away from my 20th birthday. It was still early, and I was tired.

— William M. Hartnett’s column first appeared in Friday’s edition of the University of Florida Independent Florida Alligator.