Florida court reviews use of electric chair

State's Supreme Court debates - again - whether electrocutions are a

Stonings, crucifixions, firing squads, hangings, gas chambers.

From biblical days to the late 20th century, accepted methods of execution have changed with the times and with technology. While early methods of capital punishment may make today's citizenry shudder, death-penalty opponents in Florida are arguing the state's use of the electric chair is just as brutal.

On Aug. 24, in a case in Florida's Supreme Court, the seven justices heard arguments about whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to strap convicts to a wooden platform and electrocute them.

Death-penalty supporters say death is instant and painless. Opponents say Florida's electric chair is a 75-year-old torture machine.

Any decision by the court will certainly affect the 376 prisoners awaiting execution on Florida's death row. But it is also being watched by the few states that retain use of the electric chair.

One of those states, Nebraska, has imposed a moratorium on executions pending a review. The other two states are Georgia and Alabama. Most death-penalty states rely on lethal injections.

The issue is arising in a last-minute appeal by death-row inmate Thomas Provenzano, convicted of a 1984 courthouse shooting spree in Orlando that left a bailiff dead and two others permanently injured.

Lawyers for Mr. Provenzano are also arguing - for the first time in years of appeals - that their client is insane and thus can't be executed under Florida law. According to Provenzano's lawyers, their client fears that he is slated to die because prison officials believe he is Jesus Christ.

Three mental-health experts appointed by the governor say Provenzano is sane enough to be executed. An expert hired by Provenzano says he is not.

If the Supreme Court overturns his Sept. 14 execution order, it will mark the first time a Florida death-row inmate has successfully used insanity to avoid the electric chair. But most experts say Provenzano's case is significant because of arguments about the electric chair itself, and whether its use is constitutional.

It is the second time in two years the state's highest court is considering that issue.

In 1997, the court decided 4-to-3 that the state's electric chair, dubbed Old Sparky, complies with constitutional protections against torture during executions. The majority determined that the massive jolt of electricity causes nearly instant death and any suffering by the prisoner is minimal.

The review was prompted by an execution in which the inmate's head burst into flames.

The current case follows an execution last month in which blood appeared on the inmate's shirt during his execution. Defense lawyers argue that the blood is evidence that the convict did not die immediately and that he suffered during the ordeal.

"Many in the public would say, 'Isn't it supposed to be painful?' " says John Moser, who directs the state office that handles appeals for death-row inmates. "But our law prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and that means no suffering, that means that the death must be instantaneous."

Attorneys for the state maintain that the execution in early July was immediate and without pain, regardless of any blood.

Each of the seven Supreme Court justices has expressed concerns about the electric chair, but it remains unclear whether they are prepared to prohibit its use. Since the last case, three new justices have risen to the high court, replacing two of the four-member majority that upheld use of the electric chair in 1997.

Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington says court battles like these ignore the larger issue of whether the death penalty itself is efficient and effective.

"Holding on to the death penalty ... serves political purposes. It rallies people," he says.

"But I don't think it deals with the problems of society. It is more a distraction."

For example, Mr. Dieter says, Florida leads the nation in the number of death-row inmates who have recently been exonerated by DNA and other evidence obtained long after their convictions. He says 18 innocent men were sentenced to death in Florida and later freed.

Such statistics suggest - regardless of the method of execution - that the quality of justice in Florida is too uncertain to support use of the death penalty.

Much of the failure of the system is due to a refusal by state lawmakers to fund adequate legal representation for criminal defendants who cannot afford competent lawyers, experts say.

With more than 70 percent of the nation supporting the death penalty, few elected officials are willing to challenge the system.

"There is a lot of history and political investment in the death penalty in [places like Texas and Florida]," Dieter says, "and it is hard for a politician to stand up and say 'I oppose the death penalty.' "

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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