Georgia's high court strikes down use of electric chair, says it's cruel, unusual punishment

Friday, October 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ Georgia's highest court struck down the state's use of the electric chair Friday, saying the ``specter of excruciating pain'' violates the state constitution's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

In a 4-3 decision, the court said that death by electrocution ``inflicts purposeless physical violence and needless mutilation that makes no measurable contribution to accepted goals of punishment.''

The ruling leaves just two states with the electric chair as the sole method of execution, Alabama and Nebraska. A few states that once relied exclusively on the chair now offer condemned inmates a choice of electrocution or lethal injection.

With the ruling, Georgia automatically switches to the use of lethal injection under a law passed last year to provide an alternate method of execution if the courts ruled electrocution illegal.

Mike Light, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the death chamber at the state prison near Jackson about 40 miles south of Atlanta has been retrofitted for injection. ``We are fully prepared to carry out the order of the courts.''

The most recent count showed that 128 men and one woman are under death sentence in Georgia.

Some 441 people have been put to death in Georgia's electric chair since it replaced hanging in 1924.

The court said electrocution, ``with its specter of excruciating pain and its certainty of cooked brains and blistered bodies, violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.''

Three justices signed a strongly written dissent that said Friday's ruling ``reflects not the evolving standards of decency of the people of Georgia, but the evolving opinions of the majority members of this court.''

The long-awaited decision was a victory for lawyers who three months ago used the graphic photograph of a recently electrocuted prisoner to support their arguments that the electric chair is inhumane.

``This decision ends the degrading spectacle of smoke, fire and burning flesh that almost every other modern society in the world has abandoned,'' said attorney Stephen Bright, who argued the case against the electric chair.

The state had argued that electrocution brought immediate unconsciousness. ``There is no way a person being electrocuted is able to feel pain,'' said Susan Boleyn, a senior assistant state attorney general.

Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker would not completely rule out an appeal, but said ``it's very difficult to appeal a ruling of the Georgia Supreme Court that is based in part on an interpretation of the Georgia Constitution.''

The Georgia court had signaled in a series of decisions it was increasingly troubled by electrocution.

A year ago, Justice Norman Fletcher, now the chief justice, noted in an opinion that some members had ``grave concerns about the humaneness of electrocution.'' He said they were willing to confront the issue if presented with ``sufficient'' evidence.

Electrocution was the sole means of execution in Georgia from 1924 until last year, when the state Legislature ordered lethal injection for all persons convicted of crimes committed after May 1, 2000.

The law left electrocution on the books for those convicted of crimes before that date but stipulated a switch to lethal injection if the courts outlawed electrocution.

The law was passed amid fears the U.S. Supreme Court would strike down electrocution. In a 5-4 vote, the high court last year turned away an appeal of an Alabama case challenging the electric chair. But it remained unclear whether the court would use some other case to review the legitimacy of electrocutions. It is examining related issues, including whether the mentally disabled can be executed.

After several grisly executions _ one inmate bled from the nose and two had flames shoot from their heads _ Florida switched to lethal injection last year to avert a Supreme Court review.

Georgia's most recent execution was June 9, 1998, when 39-year-old David Loomis Cargill was electrocuted for the armed robberies and murders of a Columbus couple in 1985.