STARKE, Fla. -- A faulty electric chair component shot out flames around convicted killer Jesse Tafero's head as he was executed early Friday for the 1976 slayings of two police officers at a highway rest stop.
Three surges of electricity were sent through Tafero's body, the first at 7:07 a.m. and the last at about 7:10 a.m. Each time, flame erupted from a headpiece and a cloud of smoke rose to the ceiling.
Ashes fell to the prisoner's shirt as he was pronounced dead at 7:13 a.m.
A replacement sponge in the headpiece caused the flames, said Florida State Prison spokesman Bob Macmaster, who added he had never before seen flames during an electrocution.
'It appears unusual. That amount of smoke is unusual,' Macmaster said.
Florida's electric chair is nicknamed Ol' Sparky.
Gov. Bob Martinez ordered the Department of Corrections to provide him with a full report of the incident, saying he wants to ensure that similar problems do not occur in the future.
After the first two jolts, Tafero's chest moved, and he appeared to continue breathing. But Macmaster said that prison physician Dr. Frank Kilgo believed Tafero was dead within seconds of the first jolt and said there was no indication he felt pain.
'It was not (human) tissue that was burning. It was the headpiece,' Macmaster said. 'There was some arcing in the headpiece itself. We believe he was dead after the first few seconds. I believe he was unconscious from the moment (electricity) hit him.'
Attorney Mark Olive of Atlanta, who unsuccessfully fought to save Tafero from the chair, asked Martinez to suspend further death sentences.
'Death warrants in this state tend to come out of the governor's office like junk mail,' Olive said. 'If they cannot execute correctly, they can't execute at all.'
Olive called for an inquiry by an outside panel to determine if defects in the chair inflicted pain on Tefero. Until such an inquiry is concluded, Olive said, Martinez should suspend all executions.
In Florida executions, electricity passes from a wire into a sponge filled with saline solution that is placed directly on the head, Macmaster said. The old sponge had been used in 21 executions before it was replaced for the Tafero execution.
'It was the sponge. They had put the first new sponge in there since 1979. It was not an appropriate sponge,' he said. 'It was the sponge causing the fire.'
Tafero, 43, with his head shaven and his eyes covered by a black mask, smiled briefly as he was strapped into the electric chair at Florida State Prison and had electrodes attached to his head and lower right leg.
Tafero, whose final request for a stay late Thursday was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court, devoted his last words to criticizing the system that led to his death.
'Well, I'd like to say that the death penalty as applied in the state is very arbitrary and capricious,' Tafero said. 'For instance, this morning I filed two motions in court. It seems the federal court judge and circuit court judge have just ignored my petitions. They were not heard by any court in the state of Florida.
'I think it's very unfair. I think it's time that everyone woke up to see that the same laws that can go against crime can go against you tomorrow.'
Tafero was the 22nd person executed in Florida and the nation's 124th since the Supreme Court lifted its ban on capital punishment in 1976. His execution came exactly one year after Florida's last execution, when Aubrey Adams was put to death.
Some 39 witnesses, including nine journalists and several law enforcement officers, were present when Tafero died. No relatives were present.
About a dozen anti-death penalty protesters held a candle-light vigil at the prison gates. A handful of capital punishment supporters also were at the prison.
Tafero ate about half of his last meal of scrambled eggs, fried pepperoni, toasted Italian bread, two tomatoes, steamed broccoli, asparagus tips, fresh strawberry shortcake with real whipped cream, whole milk and hot tea, Macmaster said.
At about 3 a.m. Friday, he spoke by telephone to his girlfriend, Sonia Jacobs, one of his co-defendants, who is serving a life term at a women's prison in Broward County for the same crime. He also spoke by telephone to his and Jacobs' daughter, Christina Tafero, 15, who lives with guardians in New York.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta and U.S. District Judge Lenore Nesbitt refused earlier Thursday to grant Tafero a stay, rejecting claims that mitigating circumstances were not considered by the trial jury that recommended the death penalty.
Tafero was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, robbery and kidnapping in the Feb. 20, 1976, shooting deaths of Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Philip Black and Canadian Constable Donald Irwin, who were killed at an Interstate 95 rest stop in south Florida.
Irwin, a friend of Black's, was riding with the Florida officer to observe American law enforcement procedures.
Tafero, Jacobs, her two children and a man named Walter Rhodes were asleep in a car at the rest stop when Black and Irwin approached to investigate.
Black spotted a semi-automatic handgun, confiscated it and prepared to arrest Rhodes for a weapons violation, but a fight broke out, and Black and Irwin were killed.
Department of Corrections records indicate both Jacobs and Tafero fired at the officers. Jacobs was convicted of first-degree murder and Rhodes is serving a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder.