ACLU Welcomes Supreme Court Review of Florida's Gruesome Electric Chair Executions

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
October 27, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to review the use of the electric chair in executions and said that it will likely file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

At issue is whether Florida’s use of the electric chair violates the constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” an argument rejected by the State Supreme Court despite evidence of numerous botched executions, including an incident last July in which blood poured from the mouth and oozed from the chest of inmate Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis.

“Whatever one thinks about capital punishment, the electric chair should go the way of the guillotine and other barbaric methods of execution,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “Ultimately, however, the real issue is not how the state executes inmates but whether they should be doing so at all.”

In agreeing to review the case, the Justices granted a stay of execution for inmate Anthony Bryan, who was scheduled to be executed in the electric chair this morning.

“The fact that the Supreme Court has granted a stay of execution is an encouraging sign, and suggests that even this court may see some limits on the state’s power to resort to capital punishment through torture and mutilation,” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the National ACLU and supervisor of its Supreme Court docket.

Currently, of the 38 states that have capital punishment, only Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Nebraska use the electric chair as the only method of execution.

The U.S. Supreme Court last reviewed electrocution as a method of execution in 1890, when New York became the first state to approve use of an electric chair.

In 1996, citing technical grounds, the High Court declined to review California’s use of the gas chamber as a method of execution and sent the case back down to the appeals court. However, the issue became moot after the legislature voted to allow the option of lethal injection. Lawmakers in Florida have said that they are considering a similar strategy.

In the last decade, Florida’s Supreme Court has upheld use of the electric chair three times. Its most recent 4-3 decision in the Bryan case brought a strongly worded dissent by Justice Leander J. Shaw, Jr. “Execution by electrocution — with its attendant smoke and flames and blood and screams — is a spectacle whose time has passed,” he wrote.

Following Davis’ gruesome execution last July, the ACLU of Florida called for a state moratorium on capital punishment, seeking to open public debate not only about the method of execution, but also, in light of the arbitrariness of the imposition of death sentences, whether the people of Florida are well served and made any safer by the death penalty.

“Criminals no doubt deserve to be punished, and the severity of the punishment should be appropriate to their culpability,” said Simon of the ACLU of Florida. “But Florida’s record of executions, and the legislature’s bizarre love affair with ‘Old Sparky’ as the method of execution, is simply barbaric.”

Florida currently accounts for approximately ten percent — around 380 — of the approximately 3,800 people currently on death row in America. In 1998, Florida sent Judy Buenoano to the electric chair, making her the first woman to be executed by the state since 1848.

The ACLU said the arbitrary and often discriminatory nature of who is given the death penalty is one of the strongest arguments against executions.

“Too often, the death penalty is meted out not to people who commit the worst crimes, but to those who have the worst lawyers,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, Director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “And as lawmakers and death penalty advocates are well aware, race, poverty, and geographical location continue to tilt the scales of justice whenever death penalty verdicts are sought and handed down.”

The case is Bryan v. Moore, (no. 99-6723).

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