Originally created 11/18/99

Attorney general pushes for alternate execution plans



ATLANTA -- Georgia lawmakers should enact a "fallback" method of executing condemned prisoners -- possibly lethal injection -- in case the U.S. Supreme Court declares the electric chair unconstitutional, representatives of the state attorney general's office said Wednesday.

But lawyers who oppose capital punishment warned members of the House Judiciary Committee that switching from electrocution to lethal injection would make it easier for juries to impose death sentences and open up Georgia's death penalty law to a flurry of legal challenges.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up a Florida death row inmate's challenge to the use of the electric chair as "cruel and unusual punishment" in violation of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. The case arose from highly publicized botched executions in that state, including one during which flames shot from the condemned inmate's body.

If the justices rule electrocution unconstitutional, Georgia could be left with no legal way to execute the state's 127 death row inmates, said Senior Assistant Attorney General Susan Boleyn.

Georgia is one of only four states where the electric chair is the sole method of execution. Ten states have switched to lethal injection during the past decade.

Deputy Attorney General Mary Beth Westmoreland said the lack of a death penalty law would create delays in what already is a lengthy legal process until the General Assembly enacts a new provision.

Ms. Boleyn said Florida lawmakers have solved that "gap" problem by enacting a law declaring lethal injection as the state's "fallback" method of execution if the Supreme Court rejects electrocution. Unless and until such a ruling takes place, however, the state will continue to electrocute condemned prisoners.

"It would preserve Georgia's current method of execution .°.°. while preventing any unnecessary delays if the electric chair is struck down," Ms. Westmoreland said.

But Tom West, a criminal defense lawyer in Atlanta, said jurors would be less reluctant to sentence murderers to death by lethal injection because it's widely perceived to be more humane than electrocution.

"If they think they can sentence someone to death and they'll go quietly into the void, it will be easier for juries to do that," he said. "The more heinous the punishment, the better, from my perspective of wanting that jury to avoid the death penalty."

Mr. West said the threat of lethal injection rather than the electric chair also might prompt more defendants to risk going to trial rather than pleading guilty in exchange for a life sentence, which would bog down an already overburdened court system.

Defense lawyer Mike Mears also urged the committee not to tamper with the law. He said the vast majority of prisoners now on death row were convicted after trials in which either judges or prosecutors mentioned the electric chair as the ultimate form of punishment.

"If the law is changed in midstream on these 127 people, lawyers are going to have legitimate grounds to appeal," Mr. Mears said.

Death penalty opponents who spoke during Wednesday's hearing emphasized that they don't object to the method of execution so much as the way capital punishment is applied in Georgia.

Stephen Bright, director of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, said lawmakers should focus on the problems of inadequate counsel for defendants accused of capital crimes and the racial and geographic inequities in the application of the law.

But House Majority Leader Larry Walker, D-Perry, said the use of lethal injection could become a powerful argument on behalf of the death penalty. He said he was inclined to leave Georgia's current law alone until the Florida case came up.

"If we make it quick and effective, courts are less likely to say it's cruel and unusual," Mr. Walker told Mr. Bright. "It takes a very strong argument away from you."

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.