NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee inmate grimaced and waved goodbye before saying “let’s rock,” moments before he became the first man executed in the electric chair in that state since 2007, put to death Thursday for shooting two men and slitting their throats during a drug deal decades ago.
Edmund Zagorski, 63, was pronounced dead at 7:26 p.m. Thursday at a Nashville maximum-security prison, officials said.
Asked by the prison warden if he had any last words in the death chamber, Zagorski said, “Let’s rock,” shortly before the execution was carried out.
A reporter who witnessed the scene said at a post-execution news briefing that Zagorski could be seen smiling while strapped down.
A large sea sponge that had been doused in saltwater was soon placed on his head.
While guards wiped his face clear of water dripping down his face, Zagorski quietly said there was still water under his nose and asked for it to be removed before his face was shrouded with a large black cloth.
The witnesses said the inmate’s fists then clenched when the electricity was applied and his body tensed and appeared to rise during the two times the current went through him. He did not move afterward.
Five media witnesses watched Zagorski’s execution along with Zagorski’s attorney, the prison’s chaplain and a representative from the attorney general’s office.
Another reporter said Zagorski’s attorney Kelly Henry was nodding, smiling and tapping her heart just before the execution got underway.
When asked about her actions, Henry said afterward: “I told him when I put my hand over my heart, that was me holding him in my heart.”
She said Zagorski told her the last thing he wanted to see was her smiling face, and so she made an effort to smile at him before the shroud was put over his face. After it was done, Henry quietly wiped away tears.
Later, Henry said it appeared Zagorski’s pinkies had become dislocated. She said that can be common when the body undergoes such extreme blunt force trauma.
A phone hung on the wall in the witness room, allowing Henry to have access to a telephone should anything have gone wrong. A federal judge had earlier this week ordered the state to have a phone accessible.
In opting for the electric chair over a lethal injection as Tennessee allowed him, Zagorski had argued it would be a quicker and less painful way to die.
He became only the second person to die in the electric chair in Tennessee since 1960. Nationwide, only 14 other people have been put to death in the electric chair since 2000, including a Virginia inmate in 2013.
The execution was carried out minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday evening denied the inmate’s request for a stay.
Zagorski’s attorneys had argued it was unconstitutional to force him to choose between the electric chair and lethal injection.
The state came close to administering an injection to Zagorski three weeks ago, a plan halted by Tennessee’s governor when Zagorski exercised his right to request the electric chair.
The Supreme Court’s statement said Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the dissenting voice on Thursday, noting Zagorski’s difficult decision to opt for the electric chair.
In Tennessee, condemned inmates whose crimes occurred before 1999 can choose the electric chair — one of a handful of states that allow such a choice.
“He did so not because he thought that it was a humane way to die, but because he thought that the three-drug cocktail that Tennessee had planned to use was even worse,” Sotomayor said in the statement.
“Given what most people think of the electric chair, it’s hard to imagine a more striking testament — from a person with more at stake — to the legitimate fears raised by the lethal-injection drugs that Tennessee uses.”
Zagorski was convicted of an April 1983 double slaying. Prosecutors said Zagorski shot John Dotson and Jimmy Porter and then slit their throats after robbing the two men after they came to him to buy marijuana.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on whether use of the electric chair violates the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but it came close about 20 years ago after a series of botched electrocutions in Florida.
During two executions in the 1990s, smoke and flames shot from the condemned inmates’ heads. In 1999, blood spilled from under an inmate’s mask.
Shortly afterward, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the electric chair. But the case was dropped when Florida made lethal injection its primary execution method.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam declined to intervene in Zagorski’s case despite receiving pleas from correctional officers, Zagorski’s priest and former jurors who convicted the inmate.
At the time of Zagorski’s conviction, Tennessee juries were not given the option of considering life without parole.
Protesters held vigils Thursday in Knoxville and Memphis, and outside the prison where Zagorski was executed. There some raised a banner with the words: “A Free Tennessee is Execution-Free.”