Return of ‘The Chair’ and the death of compassion

6 mins read

By Scott Graber

In April 1978, John Plath and John Arnold — and two woman — wandered into Beaufort County. In those days Beaufort County was an isolated, mostly bypassed farming and fishing community. The tragedy that happened on April 12, 1978, began when this foursome spotted a young black woman on Warsaw Island. Sworn testimony would later establish that these kids took the woman to a remote part of St. Helena Island where she was made to undress, engage in sex, and was thereafter strangled and stabbed. Eventually she died.

Ralph Baldwin and I were appointed to represent John Arnold and had spent a long day reviewing allegations that our client had choked and repeatedly stabbed the Warsaw Island women. We had statements that described a level of brutality that would make a guilty verdict a certainty. We were both thinking that the second trial — where choosing electrocution or life imprisonment was the only task given the jury — was where we might have a chance to save Arnold’s life.

“Let’s subpoena the electric chair,” Ralph said. “Let’s bring the chair into court and show it to the jury. Let’s make the jury see how they’re going to kill our client.”

“My God Ralph,” I said.

“I’ll write up the subpoena,” he said. “What have we got to lose?”

“Our law licenses,” I replied.

Several days later my wife and I were enjoying a bright, brisk, unseasonably warm Saturday on our porch. Neither of us paid attention to the white pickup truck when it stopped in front of our wrought iron gate. We did focus on the truck when two men climbed into the truck bed and wrestled a large canvas covered object out of the pickup and carried the unwieldy object to the foot of the stairs leading into our house.

“Where do you want it?” one of the men asked my wife, Susan.

“Where do I want what?” she replied.

“Where do you want the electric chair?” he said.

My wife, who grew up in a New York City suburb, had never contemplated a situation were she might take possession of South Carolina’s electric chair and was uncharacteristically speechless. 

The man turned to me saying, “You’ve got to sign this receipt.”

I signed the small chit and he said, “Now where do you want it?

“Put it in the living room,” I said pointing in that general direction.

“No, its not going in the living room,” my wife said quietly.

The two corrections men put down the chair and looked at Susan.

“We’re not putting the electric chair in our living room,” she said again.

“We’ll put it in the corner and keep it covered up. It’s only for a week or two,” I said

The men again lifted the chair and began to move to the front door.

“I won’t have that thing, that chair, in my house,” she said.

The men groaned, put the chair back down, and one said, “At some point we would like to get back to Columbia.”

At that point ours had been an interesting, sometimes contentious marriage but we had always managed to talk things through — and until that afternoon we had never had a disagreement about living room decor. The two men from the Department of Corrections put the electric chair down and sat themselves in the white-painted wicker chairs on the porch, amused at our discussion of the death penalty. 

This long-gone memory came back into focus last week — triggered by news that the South Carolina Senate had voted to bring back the electric chair for South Carolina’s executions. This bill also gives death row inmates the option of a firing squad.  

John Arnold was one of the last people electrocuted in South Carolina — after that almost everyone on death row chose to die by lethal injection. This was not a difficult choice given the fact that electrocutions are sometimes botched and almost everyone who has actually witnessed this manner of execution agrees there is dramatic, painful trauma involved. And so it came to pass that “lethal injection” became the “choice” of every person on death row. The “choice” until the pharmaceutical folks decided that it was bad karma to sell the state of South Carolina the drugs that are used in executions. 

So they have refused to supply the drugs, the Department of Corrections has run dry, and this small bit of relief from pain and suffering will be denied death row inmates. This last bit of compassion will be withheld because our pharmaceutical friends, the same people who make billions of dollars every year, don’t want to be associated with death.. 

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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