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In Stephen King's novel The Green Mile and it's film adaptation one of the characters (Eduard Delacroix) is getting electrocuted. Before the execution one of the correction officers instead of wetting the sponge placed under electric chair's cap left it dry, turning Delacroix's execution into a torturous burning instead of usually "quick" and "effective" death.

Here is the explanation of this in IMDB FAQ:

What is the purpose of the wet sponge placed under the electrocution cap?
Water, particularly salt water, is a good conductor of electricity. Having the brine-soaked sponge causes the electricity to move in a more efficient line, thus killing the prisoner faster (comparable to a fast blow to the head with a large hammer). Without the sponge, the electricity would simply disperse over the body, meeting with a lot of resistance, causing the body to cook, and death would be much more agonizing, as seen during Del (Michael Jeter)'s execution (comparable to getting hit all over the body with a lot of small hammers).

Although the whole concept of electrocution is awkward and immensely cruel to me, it seems to me a strange thing that level of sponge wetting could change the whole process of electrocution.

So, my question is: Are there any researches about wet sponge contribution to the death of electrocuted inmate?

I would also appreciate:

  1. Examples of execution malfunctions proved to be caused by sponge wetting. Or burning of electrocuted person caused by other factors.
  2. Instructions for correction officers considering sponge wetting.

P.S. Google search bring me to the case of Pedro Medina. Some witnesses claim that they saw flames on Medina's head. But I couldn't find any evidence that flames were caused by Medina's body burning because of insufficiently wet sponge.

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The whole issue with electrodes in medicine is that there needs to be a good electrical contact between the skin and the item transferring the current, otherwise burns may occur. This is why conducting gel is used in a clinical setting with clinical electrodes. This seems a logical reason for the "wetting of the sponge", a high resistance between the current supplier and the skin will generate lots of heat. so you wish to minimise this. –  NotJarvis Jun 7 '12 at 11:19
    
@NotJarvis, good point. I'm pretty comfortable with idea that wet sponge is placed there to avoid massive skin burns. But, what I'm interested in is how much longer will be an execution with dry, insufficiently wet or moistened with unsalted water sponge, taking into consideration the amount of current. –  default locale Jun 7 '12 at 11:57
    
This is the point of dispute in the Tafero case. The judge concluded that Tafero died immediately with the "first jolt" on the evidence of the doctors involved, despite the dodgy sponge. campaigners disagree, but it's difficult to be sure either way as a constant measure is not done on vital signs. –  NotJarvis Jun 8 '12 at 9:53
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3 Answers 3

up vote 21 down vote accepted

The whole issue with electrodes in medicine (and Medical physics which I did my degree in) is that there needs to be a good electrical contact between the skin and the item transferring the current, otherwise burns may occur. The aim is to have a low resistance at the point of contact.

If you think about it this is entirely logical electrical physics - if there is a high resistance when you are transferring current, heat is generated.

This is why conducting gel is used in a clinical setting with clinical electrodes.

Thus it seems a logical reason for the "wetting of the sponge", a high resistance between the current supplier and the skin will generate lots of heat. so you wish to minimise this by using a good conductor of electricity.

In answer to point 1 I would suggest the following

  • Here's a case of a condemned man suffering burns when he was electrocuted (pretty recently) Allan Lee Davis
  • A case which sounds very similar to Stephen Kings, and seems to be very similar is that of Jesse Tafero. Wikipedia states blandly that

A member of the execution team had used a synthetic sponge rather than a sea sponge,

But provides no citations, although a later court case supports this view, saying that

it was determined that for the first time a synthetic, rather than a natural, sponge had -2- been used in the headpiece. The Department concluded that the burning of the sponge caused the flames and smoke which were seen during Tafero's execution.

Heres an interesting article on the whole process, and insight onto the legal thought around the two cases I referred too above, and the Medina case you refer to.

Here's what the judge concluded around the Medina Case

  1. The fire and smoke during the Medina execution was the result of the dry sponge laced onto the brass electrode in the head piece catching fire and burning almost completely due to a lack of saline solution in that sponge. The lack of saline solution in the dry sponge caused the dry sponge to act as a resistor. The resistance produced heat which ignited and consumed the dry sponge.

  2. Any future executions should be performed using only one wet sponge in the head piece. . . . The sponge should be thoroughly soaked in a saturated saline solution, and not a 9% saline solution . . . $(to$) further reduce any possibility of a reoccurrence of a burning sponge. . . .

That article also contains (in point 3 - a bit too big to post in here) the process for soaking the sponge etc. which appear to answer your question 2.

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It matters greatly as it becomes the main electrode of what is tantamount to death by electrical cooking.

Smoke frequently emanates from the inmate's leg and head whilst the current is flowing. Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh may permeate the chamber.

The electric chair

The brine increases conductivity

Salt water is an excellent conductor of electricity.

A metal or leather helmet is placed on the inmate’s head which contains one or two copper electrodes in direct contact with a brine soaked sponge to improve the contact with the prisoners skull. Natural sea sponge is used and soaking it in brine improves electrical conductivity.

The electric chair

The sponge has full contact with the skull

This sponge fills the gap between the electrodes and the inmate’s head when the chin strap holding the head piece in place is tightened. Heads are not a regular shape and the sponge takes up the “lumps and bumps” well. The leg electrode which typically forms part of the chair may be coated with gel

The electric chair

The water prevents the sponge from becoming too hot and burning up

There's clearly a lot of heat generated in the process and the sponges have been known to catch fire.

Due to the electrical resistance of the body, its temperature rises to about 138ºF (59ºC) and is initially too hot to touch. This heating destroys the body's proteins and "bakes" the organs. According to Robert H. Kirschner, the deputy chief medical examiner of Cook County, Illinois, "The brain appears cooked in most cases." Physical reactions to electrocution may include burning of the scalp and calf, heaving chest, gurgles, foaming at the mouth, bloody sweat, burning of the skin, shattering of the eye lens and release of urine and/or feces. After electrocution, the body typically turns a bright red color.

The electric chair

Botched executions

There's plenty of literature documenting botched execution with fire and burning due to poor sponges:

Tafero, his left hand clenched into a fist except for his little finger, was seemingly burnt to death, rather than electrocuted quickly and painlessly.

—Robert J. Sech, Hang 'Em High: A Proposal for Thoroughly Evaluating the Constitutionality of Execution Methods, 30 Val. U. L. Rev. 381 (1995).

There are plenty more (not all due to bad sponges, but all documenting the burning) on the following peer reviewed article, which I don't include because it's very lengthy and pretty gruesome, with eyewitness accounts. Go to page 664 (the 115th in the linked pdf) to find the relevant bits.

Deborah W. Denno, Is Electrocution an Unconstitutional Method of Execution? The Engineering of Death over the Century, 35 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 551 (1994)

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This video should be useful, it compares Del's death in The Green Mile with a real-life test of what happens if the sponge is not properly prepared:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPPqCinAG6I

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

    
Welcome to Skeptics! Whilst this may theoretically answer the question, it would be preferable to include the essential parts of the answer here, and provide the link for reference. –  Oddthinking Mar 16 '13 at 12:49
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