Court To Review Electrocutions
By Jackie Hallifax
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether electrocution amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, using a Florida case in its first evaluation of the controversial procedure in more than a century.
The decision, announced Tuesday, comes four months after the third botched electrocution in Florida this decade. It effectively shut down Florida's electric chair, granting open-ended reprieves to a man scheduled to die today and another who faced electrocution Tuesday.
The issue may not be resolved by the high court for months.
Attorneys for death row inmates have tried unsuccessfully in state courts to prove that death in the electric chair violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Florida is one of just four states across the country that requires condemned killers to be executed by electrocution. Most of the 38 states with capital punishment have switched to lethal injection in the last 50 years, when a peak of 26 states used electric chairs.
But the U.S. Supreme Court has not reviewed electrocution as a method of execution since 1890, when New York became the first state to approve its use.
Whether Tuesday's action will stop electrocutions in Georgia, Alabama and Nebraska as well was unclear.
"It may," said Martin McClain, a New York lawyer who has handled most of the recent legal challenges against electrocutions in Florida.
That question probably won't be answered unless one of the states schedules an execution and the court stops it, McClain said.
The last man to die in Florida's electric chair was Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis, whose execution in July for the 1982 murders of a pregnant woman and her two young daughters led to the legal challenge before the high court.
He suffered a nosebleed just before the current was applied, causing blood to drip from his face mask and onto his chest as he died. Davis may also have been partially suffocated before he was electrocuted because of the placement of a leather mouthpiece across his face.
The bloody execution followed problems in 1990 and 1997, when flames erupted from the headpiece worn by condemned Florida killers.
Pictures of Davis' bloody body and contorted face are before the nation's high court and available over the Internet after Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw attached three photographs to his blistering dissent of the state court's 4-3 ruling upholding use of the chair last month.
The decision Tuesday came less than an hour after the state Supreme Court granted Anthony Bryan a two-day stay to pursue federal appeals. Bryan was scheduled to go to the electric chair at 7 a.m. today for the 1983 murder of a watchman abducted in Mississippi.
Bryan's lawyer, Andrew Thomas, called the decision "monumental."
Gov. Jeb Bush was surprised and disappointed with the decision.
"From our perspective, it's unfortunate the family members of the victims have to wait for justice," spokesman Cory Tilley said, adding that Bush still has confidence the chair will operate properly.
Florida House Speaker John Thrasher said he found the court's decision "terribly frustrating."
Thrasher, a Republican, said he would be willing to call a special legislative session if lawmakers could figure out a way to "carry out the law of the land" without waiting for the high court to rule.
A way to do that, he suggested, might be passing a law to give death row inmates a choice between the electric chair and lethal injection.
© 1999 The Associated Press