Death Penalty Matters: Executions Gone Wrong

October 1, 2010  

Elena Harding

Ron McAndrew is a former Florida State Prison warden who facilitated eight executions in his career. The third execution he presided over was of Pedro Medina on March 25, 1997. At the execution, McAndrew said he noticed the electrician wet the sponge and thoroughly rung it out. The sponge is used to facilitate the current of electricity through the condemned inmate’s body. He said he deferred to the electrician, who had more experience with executions, when he said the sponge was wet enough.

McAndrew said he knew there was a problem when he heard a loud ‘pop’ after the executioner flicked the switch. A plume of smoke billowed out from under electric chair helmet and shortly after, Medina’s head caught on fire.

This happened approximately one foot away from McAndrew who, as warden, stood in front of Medina during the execution. He said the execution chamber immediately filled with smoke and the smell of burning flesh. McAndrew’s voice trembled, as he explained why they could not stop. He said they had to continue because they had just run 20,000 volts and 14 amps through Medina’s body and his head was on fire.

“I was sick all the way through my body,” McAndrew said. “That was the longest 11 minutes of my life.”

He said this execution, along with others, led him to transition from death penalty supporter to abolitionist.

McAndrew spoke at SMU during a Death Penalty Matters lecture Thursday night on stories from inside the death house. The Embrey Human Rights Program sponsored the talk in Dallas Hall’s McCord Auditorium, where approximately 100 people listened to McAndrew’s experience as a prison warden.

Rick Halperin, director of the EHRP at SMU and board member of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, introduced McAndrew as the speaker.

“The death penalty is all about people, many of whom who have done some difficult and terrible things, some of whom are innocent,” Halperin said.

He said the death penalty continues the cycle of victims-it starts with the pain of the family of the victims and ends with the pain of the families of the condemned inmate.

Halperin predicted that in the future, people would look back at the death penalty in horror, appalled at the barbarism.

McAndrew said he grew up believing the death penalty was right, but the closer he got to executions the more he doubted this belief.

Another reason McAndrew changed his opinion about the death penalty was John Earl Bush. McAndrew said Bush was the first person he executed and he had doubts as to whether Bush was guilty.

McAndrew said the death penalty in America is a political tool. He said that politicians use it to gain popularity during elections.

“We play it out, whether the person is innocent or guilty it doesn’t matter as long as we get our pound of flesh,” McAndrew said.

He said he is not soft on crime and then paraphrased Juan Melendez, a death row inmate who was exonerated in 2003, when he said, “it is a lot easier to exonerate from a cell than a grave.”

SMU senior Jonathan Barger said he was inspired to get involved in human rights issues after taking Halperin’s class during the summer.

SMU senior Jordan Johansen, president of SMU’s Amnesty International chapter, said the speakers of the past three weeks have all stressed education to combat the death penalty. She said learning more about issues such as the death penalty is particularly important for privileged SMU students may not have experience with tough issues. She said the last lecture in the series is important because Virginia Dupuy, professor of voice in SMU Meadows School of the Arts, is scheduled to perform selections from Meditations on Nov. 18.

”Art always makes things more accessible to people,” Johansen said. “It’s a powerful medium.”

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One Response to “Death Penalty Matters: Executions Gone Wrong”

  1. Dudley Sharp on November 20th, 2010 10:56 am

    Some very important facts left out about Medina.

    He was executed for the robbery/murder of a 52-year-old Dorothy James, an elementary school gym teacher, lived in an apartment next door. James befriended Medina.

    She had been gagged, stabbed multiple times, and left to die. Early in the morning of April 8, 1982, Medina was found asleep in James’ automobile at a rest stop on Interstate 10 near Lake City and was arrested for theft of the automobile. The next day, detectives from Orange County investigating the murder of James interviewed Medina in the Columbia County Jail about the auto theft and the murder. Medina’s explanation of how he came to be in James’ vehicle was not believed by the detectives. ?Medina was arrested and indicted for the murder of James.

    It is hard to see how McAndrew would consider Bush innocent.


    On April 27, 1982, John Earl Bush and three other men abducted Frances Slater from the convenience store where she worked. Her body was found later that day, thirteen miles away. She had been stabbed in the abdomen and shot once in the back of her head at close range. The convenience store’s cash register and floor safe had been robbed of approximately $134.00. Bush was tried for the crimes in 1982 and convicted, following a jury trial, of first degree murder, armed robbery and kidnapping.

    Four pretrial taped statements made by Bush to law enforcement authorities were introduced at trial. The Supreme Court of Florida described these statements as “the only known version of the events [which] are presented by Bush in the light most favorable to him.” Bush v. State, 461 So.2d 936, 937 (Fla.1984). In the first statement, Bush denied any involvement with the Slater abduction but said that on the night in question he had given a ride to three men whom he did not know. He also claimed he had an alibi. When officers took Bush to West Palm Beach to verify his alibi, Bush recanted his first statement and made a second statement. In this statement he said that he, Pig Parker, Alfonso Cave, and Terry Johnson had gone to Fort Pierce with the intention of committing a robbery and that the four had abducted, robbed, and murdered Miss Slater. He denied stabbing or shooting the victim, denied knowing whose idea it was to kill her, and denied seeing anyone with a knife. After Bush and the officers returned from West Palm Beach, he made a third statement. In this statement he admitted driving the getaway vehicle. He also admitted owning the gun used to shoot the victim, and he admitted disposing of it the day after the murder.

    Bush made a fourth statement, against the advice of his attorney, in which he said that he is the one who stabbed Frances Slater but that he had “faked” it in an effort to get his cohorts to leave her alone. He said that an accomplice, Parker, shot her. The medical examiner testified that the stab wound was superficial and did not involve Ms. Slater’s vital organs. The examiner’s opinion was that a gunshot wound to the head was the cause of death.

    Following a separate sentencing hearing, the jury recommended the death penalty by a vote of seven to five. The trial judge, citing three aggravating factors and no mitigating factors, sentenced Bush to death.