Georgia's highest court yesterday banned the state's use of the electric chair in the execution of condemned criminals, leaving Alabama and Nebraska as the only states still allowing death by electrocution.
The 4-3 decision by the Georgia Supreme Court denounced the chair for "its specter of excruciating pain and its certainty of cooked brains and blistered bodies." The ruling said that death by such means inflicts "purposeless physical violence and needless mutilation that makes no measurable contribution to accepted goals of punishment."
The state will automatically move to the use of lethal injection under a law passed by the Georgia legislature last year, corrections officials said. The court decision also means that the 128 men and one woman on Georgia's death row who were originally sentenced to death by electric chair will now face death by injection.
Death penalty opponents praised the ruling as part of the nation's ongoing reevaluation of many issues regarding capital punishment -- including the execution of the mentally disabled and juveniles, quality of legal representation, and the availability of DNA testing.
"This is the end of the electric chair in Georgia, which during most of the 1900s had been one of the leading death penalty states, but it is also part of a broader review of the death penalty that is taking place in courtrooms, governors' offices and state legislatures across the country," said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center.
The electric chair was first used in New York state in 1890 and reigned as the most popular form of execution in America for much of the 20th century, Dieter said.
Between 1900 and 1972, 4,223 inmates in the United States died in the electric chair, he said. The U.S. Supreme Court halted executions from 1972 to 1976. Since then, an additional 149 inmates have been put to death by electrocution. But most states have switched to injection since it was introduced in Texas in 1982, he said, with 568 inmates executed so far by that method.
Several recent grisly cases, including one in Florida in which a plume of fire erupted from the condemned man's head, escalated the fight to eliminate the chair. Last year, Florida switched to injection, and the Georgia legislature also enacted a law that adopted injection should the court rule against the chair.
Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights, who argued the case before the state supreme court, hailed yesterday's ruling as a sign of progress but cautioned that Georgia "should address more important and fundamental problems with the death penalty" before resuming executions.
"Georgia's electric chair, since the beginning of its use in 1924, has put to death about 350 African Americans and less than 100 white people," Bright said. "It has been a symbol of the harshness and the violence and the discrimination that has been very much a part of the criminal justice system."
Georgia's most recent execution was on June 9, 1998, Georgia Department of Corrections spokesman Mike Light said. Three inmates, including convicted murderer Ronald Spivey, who has been on death row since 1977, are nearing the end of their appeals and could become among the first to die in Georgia by injection.