As Execution Evolves, Electric Chair Is on Trial

Florida's high court will take up issue, as pressure builds to switch to more 'humane' executions

When the electric chair was invented in 1890 it was seen as the fastest, most humane method for executing convicted criminals.

A century later, authorities in Florida are making that same argument.

While critics maintain the electric chair is an antiquated machine that amounts to torture, corrections and other officials say the 1923-era chair fully complies with constitutional safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment. Florida's Supreme Court is set to hear the issue in September.

The case holds obvious interest for the 380 men and women living on Florida's death row. But it also highlights thorny questions about the changing technology of state-sanctioned executions.

In its heyday in the 1920s, 26 states used the electric chair. Today, only six do.

"The electric chair was the technological breakthrough in its time back at the turn of the century," says William Bowers, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "But it has been outclassed by the lethal injection."

At the heart of the debate is the issue of whether or not condemned convicts are subject to unnecessary pain in the electric chair. For an execution to pass constitutional muster it must be as quick and painless as possible.

Some crime victims and family members say anyone convicted of a heinous capital crime should be subjected to cruel treatment during their execution. But the courts have never interpreted the Constitution to recognize state-authorized retribution. Convicts must be treated in a way that avoids any hint of cruelty, experts say.

Since giving an initial green light in 1890, the US Supreme Court has never reconsidered whether the electric chair is permissible. A century ago, the most widely used form of execution was the hangman's noose, a method that often resulted in botched executions.

Opponents of the chair - which is based on 1890s know-how - say it may have been an improvement over rope, but it can't compare to lethal injection or today's other less-violent methods.

Flames spark debate

Florida's electric-chair debate arose after flames shot from beneath a convict's hood during an execution in March. A similar episode occurred in 1990.

State officials say the flames were caused by faulty procedures, and that, nonetheless, the men died quickly.

Opponents say the electric chair works differently on different people. In some cases, they say, it can take many minutes before death occurs - and is therefore state-sponsored torture.

Most states carrying out death sentences rely on lethal injection. Bills have been introduced in most of the six states with electric chairs - including Florida - to adopt lethal-injection executions instead.

Some Florida lawmakers worry any change could clog the courts with hundreds of new death-row appeals. A death sentence in Florida includes the specific order that a convict will be put to death by electrocution. That could complicate a switch to lethal injection, legislators say, because they are barred by the state constitution from enacting any law that would alter a preexisting sentence.

Other states that have switched from electric chair to lethal injection bypassed such legal pitfalls by offering convicts the choice between the chair or an injection.

Electric-chair era may be ending

Some analysts say if Florida dumps its electric chair, the other five states - Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Nebraska - would likely do the same.

"It is just a matter of time," says Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University in New York.

She says Florida politicians are reluctant to abandon the chair - which is sardonically named "Ole Sparky" - because it points up the state's get-tough attitude on crime. Indeed, after the firey March execution, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a potential candidate for governor, quipped: "People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair."

Mr. Butterworth has since recommended that Florida switch to lethal injection. But the comment tapped into a widespread feeling among fearful residents that perhaps some retribution is acceptable.

"No one wants anyone to suffer unnecessary pain," says Carolyn Snurkowski, deputy assistant attorney general. In the opinion of experts retained by the state, she says, there's no significant difference between the electric chair and lethal injection. Both are constitutional, she says.

Botched executions have occurred using both methods, experts say.

"Lethal injection is not the panacea," says Diann Rust-Tierny, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union's capital punishment project in Washington.

"There has been a search for a neater, cleaner method," she says. "The reality is that when the state ... [kills] a human being it is a very ugly business."

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