Texplainer: Could Texas Fire Up Old Sparky?

Old Sparky, the electric chair Texas used to executive inmates from 1924 to 1964.
Old Sparky, the electric chair Texas used to executive inmates from 1924 to 1964.

Hey, Texplainer: Does Texas still have "Old Sparky," and could it be used if the state runs out of the drugs it uses for lethal injections? 

The short answer is yes — and no.

Yes, the electric chair that Texas used from 1924 until 1964 still exists — it's housed in the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. The chair was used to execute 361 men when it was hooked up at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, says Jim Willett, the museum's director, who worked for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for three decades and was warden at Walls during the last years the chair was there.

The chair actually remained set up and ready for use even after a de facto national moratorium on the death penalty went into effect in 1967, and it remained in the "death house" until 1982, when, Willett says, it was boxed up and sent to storage. While Old Sparky was there, Willett would take a group of inmates to clean the place spic and span every couple of weeks.

Old Sparky was retrieved from storage in 1989 and put on display when the prison museum opened. It's set up just like it was in the "death house". And yes, it's still in working order, Willett says. "We have all the equipment that goes with it," he says. "If it were hooked up, it should work just like it used to."

State law, however, prescribes lethal injection as the method for execution in Texas capital cases. So even though it's still in working order, TDCJ can't just rev up Old Sparky to implement the death penalty if it can't find another supplier of the drugs it uses now to put inmates to death. That would require action by the state Legislature.

Bottom line: Old Sparky still works, but it's only for show. At least for now.

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