Supreme Court rejects Fla. electric chair case

Justices abandon plan to rule on constitutionality of execution method

January 25, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court abandoned yesterday its plan to decide the constitutionality of using the electric chair to execute murderers.

The court had gotten involved in that issue after three botched executions in Florida's electric chair, dubbed "Old Sparky."

Not since 1890 had the court confronted that constitutional issue, and its new review had given foes of the death penalty hopes that a ruling against the electric chair would bolster the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment.

The justices had scheduled a hearing for next month on the constitutional dispute, raised by Florida death row inmate Anthony Braden Bryan.

The court dismissed his challenge yesterday, relying on a promise by the state that Florida inmates no longer will be put to death by electrocution unless they choose that instead of lethal injection.

Florida's Legislature, in a special session early this month, sought to head off the Supreme Court case by passing a law to establish lethal injection as the ordinary method of execution unless an inmate chooses the electric chair.

Formerly, electrocution was the only method available.

Although Bryan's attorneys told the court that the law would not be applied retroactively to him and other inmates already under death sentences, the court ignored that argument and accepted the state's assurances that the law would apply to "all death row inmates."

With the end of Florida's mandatory use of the electric chair, Alabama, Georgia and Nebraska are the only states retaining that as their sole method of execution.

Florida's electric chair malfunctioned in three out of the most recent 23 attempts at execution, leading to the constitutional challenge.

The Florida Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision in September, upheld electrocution, relying on a lower-court judge's review that found that the electric chair brings about an "instantaneous and painless death once the current is applied."

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