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Execution expert accused of fraud

A self-proclaimed execution expert and manufacturer of death machinery was charged Tuesday in a Middlesex County District Court with fraudulently practicing engineering. The man, Frederick A. Leuchter Jr., holds a bachelor's degree in history and is not licensed to practice engineering in Massachusetts, state officials said.

Leuchter has identified himself as the chief engineer of his company, Fred A. Leuchter Associates Inc. of Boston, whose products include a lethal injection machine, gas chambers and electric chairs.

Standing with his head bowed in a packed courtroom here, the lifelong Malden native pleaded not guilty. The charge against him is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of three months in prison and a $500 fine.

A pre-trial hearing was set for Dec. 11. Leuchter (pronounced LOOT-cher) was released on his own recognizance.

Leuchter was involved in a controversy over the Florida electric chair earlier this year. Flames shot from the head of Jesse Joseph Tafero when he was executed in May, and defense attorneys argued that the chair had malfunctioned, torturing Tafero.

Appeals courts delayed several executions while the condition of the chair was debated.

In an affidavit filed with the appeal of another death row inmate in June, Leuchter said the state had contacted him about fixing the electric chair in 1986 but had rejected his estimate for the needed repairs as too expensive. The chair was later repaired using part of an Army boot, Leuchter said.

Leuchter called Florida's chair a makeshift device, poorly made and maintained.

An electrical engineer from Auburn University pronounced the chair in working order in July after tests were ordered by Gov. Bob Martinez. Two inmates have been executed since the chair was tested.

Opponents of the death penalty say a conviction in the fraud case would help their efforts to abolish capital punishment by discrediting Leuchter. Until recently, he was the nation's leading adviser to states on the death penalty.

Several Jewish groups, some of which have helped Massachusetts with the investigation, said their goal was to discredit a man who asserts that his scientific data show the German Nazis could not have used gas chambers to execute 6-million Jews.

_ Information from AP was used in this report.