Florida lawmakers today decided to give death-row inmates the option of lethal injection--a move that could mean an end to the nearly 80-year domination of "Old Sparky," the state's notorious electric chair.
The decision also could mean the resumption of executions in the state, which is perennially among the nation's leaders. Executions were halted in October when the Supreme Court agreed to review whether the electric chair constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
The injection option was passed by the state Senate unanimously, while the House approved it 102 to 5. Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said he would sign the bill into law, once a proposal speeding up death-row appeals receives final approval. House approval is likely on Friday.
"The governor looks forward to signing it," said Bush spokesman Justin Sayfie. While Bush had said he wanted to keep the chair, his goal was to remove delays in carrying out executions, Sayfie said. Bush embraced lethal injection--if it meant the resumption of executions--and reducing the number of years required to complete the court appeals of death-row inmates to five instead of the current average of 14.
The approval of lethal injection here may have effectively marked the end of an era in capital punishment. Only three other states--Georgia, Alabama and Nebraska, which seldom carries out an execution--still rely solely on electrocution as their means of executing condemned prisoners. Although Texas and Virginia have executed more inmates, Florida had acquired an infamous reputation for its history of bloody and fiery executions.
The most recent of these cases--which also was the last execution in Florida and the one that stirred up the most controversy--came on July 8, when Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis was put to death. Photographs showed the 350-pound inmate sitting in Florida's newly refurbished electric chair moments after his execution, his white shirt soaked in blood, his face a mottled purple, and his features frozen in an expression that death penalty opponents described as pain.
Davis's bloody death--which some Florida newspapers described as "a horror show," while the state called it a routine nosebleed--prompted the state Supreme Court to postpone the execution of the next convicted killer in line. After the state Supreme Court upheld the electric chair last fall, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review the issue.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as more than 30 other states with the death penalty moved toward lethal injection, Florida had held fast. The movement to offer an option gained momentum after the smoke-filled execution of Jesse Tafero in 1990 and with the death of Pedro Medina in 1997, when a foot-long plume of flames shot from his head.
After Medina's death, the state Supreme Court cleared the chair in 1997, and the state legislature voted to retain it. The next year, however, the legislature passed a bill making injection the state's means of execution should the courts end up abolishing the chair.
Over the years since 1923, "Old Sparky"--a classic design of oak made by prisoners--had become one of the most notorious execution devices in U.S. history. Serial killer Ted Bundy met his death there, as did 238 others, including 44 since the resumption of the death penalty in 1976. More than 370 inmates reside on Florida's death row.