Electric Chair Debate Nags State's High Court

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TALLAHASSEE -- For the Florida Supreme Court, it is the issue that won't go away.

Less than two years after narrowly upholding the state's use of the electric chair, justices this week will again grapple with this debate: Is electrocution a painless tool to quickly kill the worst of Florida's criminals? Or is it a brutal spectacle that can cause unnecessary suffering for condemned inmates?

The battle over the electric chair gained new momentum last month when Allen Lee Davis bled from the nose during his execution for the 1982 slayings of a Jacksonville woman and her two daughters.

Lawyers for Death Row inmate Thomas Provenzano, who is scheduled to die Sept. 14, will ask the Supreme Court on Tuesday to overturn a lowercourt decision that would clear the way for the chair's continued use. That decision, issued by an Orange County judge after Davis' bloody execution, said the chair did not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Two legal experts said last week Provenzano's lawyers could have a tough time convincing justices to shut down the electric chair, which the state has used as its method of execution since the 1920s.

"I think the court is kind of caught," said Fletcher Baldwin, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Florida. "My guess is it is not going to say it [the chair] is cruel and unusual. Because if it does say that, it is beginning to suggest that capital punishment itself is cruel and unusual."

Scott Sundby, a visiting law professor at Florida State University, said similar appeals about death-penalty methods have usually failed in other states.

"These types of claims have not made great headway in the courts, either on the state or the federal level," Sundby said.

Florida's method of execution became a major issue in 1997 when a foot-long flame shot from the head of Pedro Medina during his execution. Later that year, the Supreme Court voted 4-3 to uphold the use of electrocution, though a dissenter, Justice Leander Shaw, likened the chair to a "dinosaur more befitting the laboratory of Baron Frankenstein than the death chamber of Florida State Prison."

Despite ruling in favor of the chair, the court also suggested to lawmakers that they switch the state's method of execution to lethal injection. But lawmakers rejected the idea, in part, because they say the public overwhelmingly supports the continued use of the electric chair.

As a contingency, however, lawmakers passed a measure in 1998 that would automatically switch the state's method to lethal injection if the chair is ruled unconstitutional.

While justices do not comment publicly about pending issues, a key to deciding the future of the electric chair could come from three justices who were named to the seven-member court after the 1997 case. …