By Christopher Zoukis
When a Tennessee jury convicted Edmund Zagorski, then 28, of two murders and sentenced him to death in 1984, he declared himself satisfied with the verdict. Zagorski had persuaded two other young men to accompany him into some woods, where he had falsely promised he would sell them enough marijuana to become dealers. Instead, he shot each of them in the back of the head, slashed their throats, and stole the money with which they’d planned to purchase their drug inventory.
But over more than three decades in Tennessee prisons, he became an opponent of capital punishment and brought 22 different legal attempts to escape that sentence. He was among over two dozen inmates who bought a class-action lawsuit unsuccessfully trying to persuade the Tennessee Supreme Court the state’s preferred method of execution – a three-drug lethal injection first using the sedative midazolam, followed by drugs to paralyze and prevent breathing – was unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment contrary to the bar in the Eighth Amendment. The state high court, following U.S. Supreme Court precedent, found the inmates had not shown a less painful alternative execution method was available.
Zagorski also went to court to force the state to carry out his death sentence by electrocution, rather than by lethal injection, the state’s preferred method. His legal team told the state their client regarded the electric chair as the “lesser of two evils.” After a few weeks delay for the state to prepare and test an electric chair, Zagorski was executed by that method on November 1 in the Riverbend high-security state prison in Nashville.
The execution marked a comeback of sorts for the electric chair, which was most previously used in a Virginia prison in January 2013. As recently as three years ago, only a handful of states (besides Tennessee, only Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Virginia), allowed its use. Arkansas and Oklahoma have passed laws making the electric chair a legal back-up if lethal injection should be ruled to be unlawful or the state is unable to obtain chemicals needed for its lethal injection protocol.
Electrocution and lethal injection have long been dueling alternatives. Lethal injection is now the preferred method in all states permitting capital punishment (Nebraska was the last state to provide electrocution as a state’s sole execution method, over a decade ago). The electric chair’s place in history includes Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of President William McKinley in 1901, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of treason for stealing national atomic secrets in 1953. Gradually lethal injection is being seen as a more humane execution method.
Ironically, the challenges to lethal injections may wind up bringing the electric chair back into prominence. While Edmund Zagorski was the first Death Row inmate in recent times to be presented with the choice of chair or needle, he may be a trendsetter. After his execution, another Tennessee inmate, David Earl Miller, the state’s longest-serving Death Row inmate, received the same choice. Miller, who has been incarcerated since age 22 for having raped and murdered a 23-year-old Knoxville woman with mental disabilities in 1981, is scheduled to be electrocuted on December 6.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.