McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State news

May 30, 2014

‘Back-up method’

Electric chair sparks dispute between city and DOC

McALESTER — By JAMES BEATY

SENIOR EDITOR

The News-Capital has obtained a copy of a letter in which an Oklahoma Department of Corrections attorney says the DOC will not return Oklahoma State Penitentiary’s electric chair to the city of McAlester — because it may be needed for future executions.

Currently, the city of McAlester and the DOC are locked in a dispute over ownership of the electric chair, known as Old Sparky.

The letter, dated Oct. 5, 2010, is from then-DOC General Counsel Michael Oakley to then-McAlester Mayor Kevin Priddle.

In the letter, Oakley presented his reasons for the DOC’s refusal to return the electric chair, which had previously been on display at a local museum.

“In the event our lethal injection protocol is ruled unconstitutional, the electric chair must be used by the state as the back-up method of execution,” Oakley said in the letter.

The city and the DOC remain at an impasse over the issue today.

Oakley has since retired from the DOC, but DOC spokesman Jerry Massie said Thursday the DOC still stands by the letter. Electrocution is still an option for execution in Oklahoma if lethal injection is declared unconstitutional, he said.

So does that mean the electric chair known as Old Sparky might indeed be used again, if lethal injection is declared unconstitutional?

“Obviously, it’s not wired up anymore,” Massie said. Asked if he meant the DOC might seriously consider rewiring Old Sparky for future use, Massie said “That would be possible.”

Massie also said it’s his understanding that the electric chair has been removed from McAlester and has currently been placed in storage by the DOC, although he said he did not have the precise location readily available at the time.

Old Sparky was first used at OSP in McAlester in 1915 and last used in 1966 to execute condemned killer James French. It was used in 82 executions over 51 years at OSP.

At the time  Oakley’s letter was written, it may have appeared unlikely that the state of Oklahoma would ever seriously consider execution by electrocution as a back-up form of execution to lethal injection.

However, the state has been under fire since the bungled execution by lethal injection of Clayton Lockett at OSP on April 29. DOC officials said Lockett died of a heart attack after the drugs administered to execute him failed to act as quickly expected.

Oklahoma has since reviewed its execution protocols and moved the execution date of Charles Warner —who was to have been executed the same day as Lockett —to Nov. 13.

Oklahoma is among eight states that still allow execution.

Last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill into law allowing for the execution of condemned inmates in the electric chair if drugs for lethal injection can’t be obtained or if execution by lethal injection is declared unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, as far as McAlester City Attorney Joe Ervin is concerned, the issue over ownership of the electric chair is still active.

McAlester Mayor Steve Harrison agrees.

“If the state does not intend to display it, I think it would be important to return it to the city of McAlester so we can,” Harrison said Thursday.

Ward 5 City Councilor Buddy Garvin has been a driving force behind the city’s efforts to retain the electric chair and said it has an historic link to the city.

“It was history. It was in McAlester, It should have stayed in McAlester,” Garvin said Thursday.

He thinks the city should do more to get the electric chair returned.

The city of McAlester obtained Old Sparky in 1980, after it was declared surplus by the state, according to contemporaneous news accounts. At the time, the city had planned to set up a museum related to Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

When those plans never materialized, the city loaned the chair to the Tannehill Museum, a privately-owned museum that ordinarily does not charge admission.

When the prison historical association began plans to open a museum at the prison, the DOC asked for the chair to be returned.

Four times the city council refused the request, finally agreeing to loan the chair back to the DOC in 1989 when the DOC made the request for the fifth time.

When the prison museum later closed, the city asked for the DOC to honor an agreement with the prison historical association to have the electric chair returned because of its historical connection to the city —but the has DOC refused.

Oakley’s 2010 letter was sent in response to a letter from Priddle asking the DOC to honor the agreement.

“The Department of Corrections respectfully requests that the city of McAlester produce documentation that the electric chair was lawfully transferred to the city of McAlester,” Oakley said in the 2010 letter.

“Despite acknowledgment by the Historical Association that the city owned the chair, there is  no evidence that the chair was properly transferred to the city pursuant to law,” Oakley said in the letter.

He then went on to cite the possible need for the electric chair to be used as a back-up form of execution if lethal injection should ever be declared unconstitutional.

The city has considered legal action, but is currently hoping to work with the city’s state legislative representatives in an effort to get the matter resolved, Ervin said.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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