Execution by gas in Md. to end next week Killer Hunt's death will be last by method

June 22, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

If Flint Gregory Hunt holds to his wish to be executed in the gas chamber next week, it will be one of the last uses in this country of what is seen as a dying method of capital punishment.

It will be the final time in Maryland that a correctional officer pulls the lever that drops crystals of sodium cyanide into a bowl of sulfuric acid and water to create the deadly vapors -- an execution process that has taken place only four times before in the state's history.

"It's slowly going away," Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said of the gas chamber. "It's becoming more and more unusual."

If his appeals fail, Hunt, twice sentenced to death for the 1985 killing of Baltimore police Officer Vincent J. Adolfo, will be executed the week of June 30. Maryland law prohibits prison officials from announcing the date and time of the execution until has occurred.

The other 16 men on the state's death row will die by lethal injection, which became the state's official method of execution in 1994. Because Hunt was sentenced before 1994, he was given a choice.

Hunt, 37, said recently in an interview that he had chosen gas so that his death will look like the "murder" he believes it is. He said he rejected lethal injection after hearing accounts that the 1994 execution by injection of John Frederick Thanos appeared peaceful.

As Hunt's execution approaches, prison officials say they are ready, conquering any worries about the chamber malfunctioning with now-daily drills.

If Hunt is put to death, it will be in a hexagonal chamber that looks like a diving bell, with an interior the color of a spoiling mushroom. The condemned man's last view, if he looks straight ahead, will be of the chamber's ponderous front door. Behind him will be three petri dishes where prison officials will have placed chemicals that change color when the last of the poisonous gas has been swept from the chamber.

Twelve people will witness Hunt's execution -- six citizens and six reporters from local newspapers, television and radio stations. But they will not be able to see much. The chamber is constructed so that the condemned person faces away from the room of onlookers, who will only be able to see the back of his zTC head and shoulders. The witnesses will be even farther away than they were when the chamber was last used in 1961, looking past the lethal injection table that has been erected since.

Should Hunt have a change of heart and persuade a court to allow him to die by lethal injection, Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the executioners will be ready. "We are prepared for any contingencies," he said.

Used in 1961

Maryland's gas chamber was last used to execute Nathaniel Lipscomb, a rapist and murderer put to death June 9, 1961. It has been dormant since, save for training drills and tours. A team of specially selected correctional officers has been rehearsing the execution process, using chemical calibrators to test the levels of poison gas.

According to prison records, it took two minutes after the gas rose for all visual signs of life to leave Lipscomb's body. During that time, witnesses reported, he strained against the straps that held him, breathing in five times and convulsing before he fell still. He was formally pronounced dead 11 minutes later.

When Maryland's gas chamber was hoisted to the second floor of the penitentiary on Feb. 28, 1956, prison officials said it would be a painless and almost instantaneous way to die. Manufactured by Eaton Metal Products Co. of Denver, the metal and glass chamber cost the state $18,660. Its first victim was an unsuspecting pig, sacrificed the next month to test whether the device was lethal.

In the intervening 40 years, however, gas executions have become increasingly rare, and legal challenges against them slightly more successful. Twenty-five years ago, 10 states used the gas chamber as the sole means of execution. Today, they have adopted lethal injection as either an option or the exclusive method.

Cruel and unusual

A California federal judge banned the method in 1994 after the American Civil Liberties Union offered testimony that such executions were cruel and unusual punishment, and the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld that decision. The U.S. Supreme Court nullified that ruling in October, after California passed a law to make lethal injection the method of execution unless a death-row inmate requests the gas chamber.

David Lawson, a killer who went to the North Carolina chamber in 1994 screaming at his executioners, was the last man executed by gas in the United States, according to Dieter. Like the only other four states with operational gas chambers, North Carolina also uses lethal injection.

California still offers gas as an option to the more than 400 inmates on its death row, though none has been executed in the chamber since 1993. In Mississippi, two of 61 condemned prisoners are to die by gas in the event their appeals are unsuccessful; the rest face lethal injection. Arizona's chamber is still intact as an option for those prisoners sentenced to death before 1992.

The method is so rarely used now that even the man who repairs the chambers for Eaton Metal Products Co., the Denver-based company that manufactured gas chambers in the 1940s, wishes it would fade away.

"I'm our expert, and I've seen [chambers] twice," said the worker, who did not want to be identified for fear of phone calls and protesters.

Pub Date: 6/22/97

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