by Dr. Christina Johns
The controversy over Florida's electric chair was fueled in 1997 by the
execution of Pedro Medina, during which flames burst from Medina's
head. It was the second time such an incident had happened.
Then, the controversy escalated after the execution of Tiny Davis in 1999, when blood poured from the man's nose and down his shirt. There were allegations that Davis was strapped in so tightly that he was suffocating even before he was even electrocuted.
In response to the gruesome electrocution, another Florida inmate scheduled to be electrocuted filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that electrocution violated the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The High Court accepted the appeal.
The Supreme Court decision put Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Nebraska on the run since only these states used electrocution as the sole means of execution.
The governor in Florida was so disturbed about the possibility of being left with no legal form of execution, he called a special session of the legislature. Legislators, incidently, complained bitterly that this Special Session was going to interfere with their football game vacations. In response, one government official remarked to the legislators that they had to be back in Tallahassee, they didn't have to be back sober.
When legislators returned (sober or not) they added lethal injection as an option to death in the electric chair.
The U.S. Supreme Court promptly dismissed the appeal case.
But, the Supreme Court's dismissal of the Florida case left open the possibility that inmates in Georgia, Alabama and Nebraska could file similar appeals. So, legislation to add lethal injection has now been proposed in Georgia and Nebraska. Alabama is in the process of writing such legislation.
Even though proponents of the death penalty argue that the objections to the electric chair do not signal a move away from the use of the death penalty, there are signs to the contrary.
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, stated that she had yet to find any evidence that the death penalty acted as a deterrent to crime.
The governor of Illinois was so disturbed about the unfairness of the administration of the death penalty in his state he imposed a halt in executions.
And, questions have been raised about whether the Federal government should suspend executions as well.
Reno ordered a review to determine whether racial minorities unfairly get more federal death sentences than white offenders.
Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced federal legislation that would allow death row inmates to appeal based on new DNA evidence. Leahy was quoted by the Associated Press as saying at a press conference that, according to his estimates, the system "may sentence one innocent person to death for every seven it executes," and that the death penalty "has no place in a civilized society."
Leahy was accompanied at the news conference by Kirk Bloodsworth, who after nine years in prison was the first capital-murder defendant freed as a result of DNA testing. Leahy was also flanked by Clyde Charles who spent 18 years in prison before DNA testing led to proof of his innocence.
The electric chair has been used to electrocute over 4,300 murderers, rapists and traitors over the past century, but there are now doubts about not only the chair itself, but about the death penalty in any form. These reservations have to do not with the method of execution, but with the method of deciding who will get the death penalty and who will not.