In 1989, convicted murderer Michael Godwin escaped state execution when his attorney had his original sentence reduced to life in prison. Shortly after, Godwin died of electrocution when he turned his own toilet into a “homemade electric chair.”
The story appeared in a 1989 edition of the Orlando Sentinel. Francis Archibald, the State Corrections spokesman, reported that the 28-year-old inmate was attempting to repair a pair of earphones so he could watch TV. That’s when Godwin bit into the wire, electrocuting himself on his own toilet.
During a routine check, officers found him dead in his cell, his mouth and teeth severely burned. Frank Barron, the County Coroner, declared Godwin’s death an accident. Still, it’s impossible not to see the irony of Godwin escaping death by the electric chair, only to die on an electric toilet.
“It was a strange accident,” said State Corrections spokesman Francis Archibald. “He was sitting naked on a metal commode.”
According to the prison authorities and the local press, Godwin was a “model prisoner” at the Central Correctional Institute in South Carolina. He had earned two college degrees during his sentence and was hoping to someday be released on parole so he could work with young people.
However, Godwin was not serving his first term in prison. Several years earlier, he had gone to prison for robbing a woman at knifepoint. While he was still on work release, he beat up 24-year-old Mary Elizabeth Royem to death with an electric iron in her West Columbia Apartment.
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Godwin was originally convicted of murder and sexual assault and sentenced to die in South Carolina’s electric chair. A few years later, his attorney managed to clear him of the sexual assault charges and Godwin’s death sentence was downgraded to life in prison.
Some might see Godwin’s death as poetic justice. Especially considering that his weapon of choice against Mary Royem had been an electric iron. But, how did Godwin manage to turn his toilet into an electric chair? There’s more to the story than the toilet being made of metal.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the human body is naturally resistant to the flow of electricity. However, nearly 100% of this resistance is only effective at the skin level. For example, dry and calloused skin is much more resistant than the wet, and salty tissues beneath.
This is why a lightning strike might only leave skin-deep burns, while a small current of electricity can enter the body, surge through the heart and cause fatal electric shock. The seriousness of the shock has less to do with the power of the surge, and more to do with how the electric current enters the body.
This might explain why Godwin was safe as long as he was handling the wire. But, by putting the wire in his mouth, he might have given the electricity an open invitation to use his body as a “middle-man” between the wire and the metal toilet.
When electricity enters the body this way, it can cause serious damage to the tissues and the nervous system. It can also cause interference in the body’s natural electric signals, resulting in brain damage. Other times, it can trigger ventricular fibrillation, which can be fatal.
It’s unlikely that a man who had spent the majority of his adult life in prison would have known any of this. And since Godwin had no tools, he decided to use his teeth instead, and that’s how he ended up manning his own execution.