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Burn may be key in 2nd Davis autopsy

A judge clears the way for the tests on the killer's body. Lawyers say the location of mark suggests a slow, painful death.

By SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 15, 1999


When a mortician looked at the face of Allen Lee Davis shortly after his execution last week, he noticed a burn ring just above Davis' eyebrows.

Normally, electrocution leaves a burn mark, like a halo, on the crown of the condemned's head, said Doyle Archer, director of the funeral home where Davis' body was taken after the July 8 execution.

"It was a little further down on the forehead than the ones in the past," said Archer, whose Archer Funeral Home has long prepared the bodies of executed inmates for the Department of Corrections.

Defense attorneys say the burn mark -- like the blood that appeared on his shirt, startling some witnesses -- suggests that his death was neither quick nor painless.

And as attorneys for the next man to be executed prepare for a hearing into whether Florida's electric chair is "cruel and unusual," the burn marks could be a key piece of evidence to be examined at an independent autopsy of Davis' body.

On Wednesday, a circuit judge temporarily blocked the state's attempt to have Davis' body cremated, paving the way for the independent examination Saturday.

It is believed to be the first time since Florida reinstated the death penalty in the late 1970s that an executed inmate will receive a second autopsy.

The first autopsy, performed by Dr. William Hamilton of Alachua, concluded that Davis died instantly. A diagram in the autopsy report noted that there was a burn mark on Davis' forehead, but it did not suggest that this was unusual.

The autopsy report also said the blood that stunned witnesses came from a nosebleed. State officials have said the nosebleed occurred after Davis was dead.

The bloody manner of Davis' death prompted the Florida Supreme Court to delay the execution of convicted killer Thomas Provenzano, which was originally scheduled for 24 hours after Davis'. The execution is now scheduled for Sept. 14.

Davis, 52, was put to death for the 1982 murders of Nancy Weiler, who was three months pregnant, and her two young daughters in Jacksonville.

State officials say they are not opposed to an independent autopsy, but they maintain the electric chair works fine.

"The department stands by its earlier statements ... that the electric chair functioned properly at all times and that all execution procedures and protocols were carefully followed," said Department of Corrections spokesman C.J. Drake.

But attorneys for Provenzano, who is awaiting execution for a 1984 shooting rampage in an Orlando courtroom that killed one bailiff and left two others paralyzed, disagree.

They say the burn on Davis' head, which was not only lower than normal but also larger, suggests that the metallic headpiece containing the electrode did not fit properly or was not properly installed.

The headpiece, which has a saline-soaked sponge and copper mesh, is supposed to be strapped tightly beneath the chin.

If the headpiece was incorrectly placed, it could have reduced the flow of current to his brain, leaving him alive even after the electricity was cut off, said Martin McClain, an attorney for Provenzano and Davis.

"It could perhaps account for the breathing that (some) witnesses observed afterward," McClain said.

Some witnesses saw Davis heave deeply and repeatedly. Hamilton's office said he was on vacation and could not be reached. The Corrections Department has maintained that the chest movements were involuntary spasms.

Drake, its spokesman, declined to comment on the headpiece because of the hearing scheduled for July 28 before Senior Circuit Judge Clarence T. Johnson Jr. in Orlando.

The department confirmed that Florida State Prison in Starke, where the death chamber is housed, has three headpieces, and that one was purchased just days before Davis' execution as a "backup." "There are no documents that reflect which headpiece was used in the Davis execution," Drake said.

Department documents show that six days before Davis' execution, prison officials bought $300 of leather accessories at a store called the Skin Shop in nearby Waldo and $35 of extra buckles at a farm store in Starke to construct a new headpiece.

"Rush: this order represents an urgent requirement," Corrections Department documents say.

"We know from records a backup headpiece was purchased and built days before Allen Davis' execution," McClain said. "And it's also clear from the measurement of Davis' halo burn mark that it seems to be a bit bigger than the ones in the past.

"This raises the question of which headpiece was used -- the new one or one of the two old ones -- and if the new one was used, had it been properly tested?"

McClain said the mystery about the headpiece, coupled with other possible irregularities, could have resulted in a slow death for Davis.

"We don't yet know what the explanation is for the blood," McClain said.

On Wednesday, Davis' brother agreed to claim the body from the prison system and to turn it over to Provenzano's attorneys for the second autopsy.

The Department of Corrections had wanted to cremate Davis at a Gainesville crematorium Wednesday afternoon.

According to court documents, lawyers from the Tampa office representing death row inmates had asked to have an independent medical examiner attend the autopsy. But when they showed up at the medical examiner's office, they said, they were told the autopsy was "already in progress and was almost completed."

Assistant Attorneys General Carol M. Dittmar and Katherine V. Blanco denied that the Department of Corrections was trying to rush the cremation.

"At no time has DOC impaired or interfered with any attempts to obtain an independent medical examination," they said in a court motion.

Judge Johnson ordered that the state also be allowed to have two representatives present at the second autopsy.

After Saturday's autopsy, Davis' body will be cremated. He directed that his belongings and funds, in the amount of $135.02, be sent to his sister.


-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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