A condemned murderer repeatedly bashed his head on a metal bar until he knocked himself unconscious as his execution went horrifically wrong.
Jimmy Lee Gray was convicted for the murder of three-year-old Deressa Jean Scales in 1976 – after kidnapping and sodomizing her while out on parole for the murder of his 16-year-old girlfriend, Elda L. Prince.
As a result, he became the first person to be executed in Mississippi since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated and was sent to the gas chamber on September 2, 1983.
Gray was to die by inhaling lethal toxic gas.
He was seated in the ‘death chair’ and a lever was pulled which combined cyanide capsules with a container of acid – but this simple execution did not go according to plan.
According to Dan Lohwasser, a reporter for United Press International, who witnessed the execution, the required head constraint was not used and Gray began violently bashing his head off an iron bar as he desperately gasped for air.
A total of fifteen witnesses watched as Gray gasped 11 times and began to moan and vigorously fight against the restraints until he eventually lost consciousness.
Gray was still alive and suffering eight minutes into the execution.
Officials became concerned and made the decision to remove witnesses from the room while the inmate was still alive.
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This choice faced much criticism, as doing so eliminates important monitoring by attending journalists, members of the public, and relatives – notably so by Dennis Balske, Gray's attorney.
His defence counsel later spoke of the scene, stating “Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber” which resulted in “a painful death”.
Conversely, Derissa’s father also provided his opinion on the execution, stating: “Even in prison he had been able to talk, to breathe and to laugh and he had taken all these things from my little girl… He didn’t have the right to continue living.’‘
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Prison staff attempted to claim that Gray suffered a heart attack and died 3 minutes after the gas was released, but numerous witnesses refuted this and argued that Gray was still convulsing before they were removed from the room.
Eventually, it was documented that all movement ceased 9 minutes into the torturous ordeal, at which point Gray was pronounced dead.
After further investigation, it emerged that the executioner, Thomas Berry Bruce, had been drunk throughout the process of the execution.
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Following the botched job, Mississippi passed legislation making lethal injection the only method of execution for inmates sentenced after July 1, 1984.
However, three more inmates by the names of Edward Earl Johnson, Connie Evans and Leo Edwards were sentenced before this date were still executed by lethal gas.
Mississippi's gas chamber was decommissioned in 1998.
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