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Alive & Smoking

The flaming truth about a burning desire

By Bob Harris

REMEMBER a few months back when Pedro Molina was executed in Florida, and the chair caused his head to burst into flames a foot high? That was the second time Florida's chair did that to somebody, which is why the locals proudly call their chair "Old Sparky."

While I don't agree with what they're doing, at least they have a dark sense of humor.

A judge in Jacksonville--a circuit judge, as it happens, whose friends call him by the initials A.C.--has now ruled that strapping somebody into "Old Sparky" and smoking their head is not cruel and unusual punishment.

Hello? Since when is a flaming head not unusual? That's the whole reason it was in the news. I don't know anyone whose head has burst into flame recently, and I think I'd remember it if I did. "Old Sparky" has its own special nickname because it is unusual, and for no other reason. Burning hasn't been an accepted form of execution since medieval times.

A.C., the circuit judge, also says the electricity wasn't cruel, because Molina died quickly and didn't suffer conscious pain. But doctors disagree about that, so how can the judge claim to know that for sure? We'd really have to ask Pedro, but he's not saying much.

Thing is, most folks in Florida were glad to hear that Pedro flamed up real good. State officials even bragged about it. In fact, proposals to change the manner of execution aren't gaining a lot of ground, because, darn it, lethal injections just don't make the sprinklers kick on the same way. The flaming head satisfied a lot of angry people.

Which means that, for a lot of folks, cruelty was the whole point.

Cruel and unusual? Absolutely.

But we're getting revenge for the victims, right? Go ask the relatives of Pedro's supposed victim if they enjoyed the barbecue. You might be surprised. Some of them think he was innocent.

But hey, the family's supposed to enjoy the execution the most. Molina might have been innocent? We don't want to hear that. That's also cruel. Too bad it's not unusual.

SOMETIMES THE BEST intentions in the world don't mean something's a good idea.

Kids growing up in some parts of Venice, Calif., have it tough. They've had gang problems, and there were a bunch of drive-bys a while back. You know the story: too many kids with not enough hope and too many guns.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Venice have been working hard to keep kids on the right side of the street, and they're trying to build a new facility. So you'd think there wouldn't be any objections to somebody who decides to hold a raffle and raise $15,000 to help out.

Except for one thing: The raffle prizes were brand-new revolvers, with a grand prize of a new semiautomatic rifle.

That's right--a well-intentioned fellow named Yank Price thought that the way to reduce the numbers of drive-bys was to go to a show sponsored in part by Guns & Ammo magazine and Corbon, an ammunition maker whose slogan is "Street Proven Performance," and raffle off a bunch of handguns.

To their credit, the Boys and Girls Clubs turned down the money.

Thank goodness they did. Otherwise, next they'd also have to accept aggression counseling from Albert Belle, racial sensitivity training by Fuzzy Zoeller, and an anti-arson program sponsored by Zippo lighters.

At least this Price guy was aiming to do the right thing; he just missed. Let's hope his aim is better on the range.

WE ALL KNOW that public school teachers have to put up with a growing amount of crap. Now, unfortunately, that's finally true in a literal sense.

In Compton--it's California's week, apparently--Dominguez High School teacher Shannan Barron says that while she was leaving her classroom recently, four students poured a wastebasket of liquefied feces on her.

The good news: She's physically OK, although she's getting vaccinations for tetanus, and whatever other cooties might be in play. The bad news: The police haven't arrested anyone in the assault, and no witnesses have so far been willing to come forward to help identify the perps. Not surprisingly, Ms. Barron doesn't intend to go back to work. Can you blame her?

According to the California Department of Education, the percentage of teachers who quit because of discipline problems has more than doubled in the last decade. Teachers across the country have also been attacked recently with handguns, poison, and sledgehammers. Great--all we need now is a noose and a candlestick and you've got a game of Clue.

The worst part of Ms. Barron's story isn't even the attack itself. Get this: School district officials are insinuating that she made the story up, even though a vice principal saw the stains on her clothing and escorted her to the shower, and the school board president and another teacher have put up 10 grand from their own pockets as a bounty on the chip tossers.

The district officials want to prevent the Compton schools from getting a bad name. Which is precisely what they're giving it. Bad enough the teacher gets dumped on by the students. She shouldn't have to get it from her bosses, too. Shannan Barron deserves better. Hell, she ought to become some sort of poster girl for the teachers' unions. What happened to her is a perfect metaphor for what teachers everywhere are dealing with.

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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