Originally created 07/10/01

Georgia high court hears arguments on use of the electric chair



ATLANTA -- An attorney showed a dead man's photograph, his forehead bearing a bright red mark from the state's electric chair, to justices of the Georgia Supreme Court Monday as they heard arguments on whether electrocution is cruel and unusual punishment.

For 90 minutes in three back-to-back cases, the seven justices heard legal arguments and intensely graphic details of how electricity kills. Lawyers arguing the cases clashed on whether those put to death in the electric chair experience pain.

The court has indicated before it is troubled by the continued use of electrocution in Georgia. State law provides an automatic switch to lethal injection if the court ever rules electrocution illegal.

It has up to six months to rule.

The photograph shown at the close of arguments was of Larry Lonchar, taken shortly after his electrocution in 1986 for killing three people to avoid paying a gambling debt.

Attorney Thomas West displayed the picture to buttress his argument that electrocution disfigures the body. Electrocution opponents claim the procedure violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment because it causes a lingering, disfiguring death.

"We do not need burning flesh, disfigurement, cooking of the brain, the smell of burning flesh at 145 degrees Centigrade," attorney Stephen Bright said. "That might have been acceptable a few years ago ... but today the state has available lethal injection."

Asked by Justice Leah J. Sears, an opponent of electrocution, if the condemned person remains conscious during an electrocution, Bright gave a detailed description of how the electric chair kills, and said defense experts believe they are conscious for some period of time and experience "excruciating pain."

Susan Boleyn, a senior assistant state attorney general, insisted the electricity produces "instantaneous unconsciousness" and said, "unequivocally there is no way a person being electrocuted is able to feel pain."

Georgia legislators have already decided that anyone sentenced to death for crimes committed after May 1, 2000, will be killed by lethal injection. But those convicted for crimes committed earlier are to die by electrocution.

One woman and 129 men are on Georgia's death row. Fifty-six people await trial for crimes committed before May 1, 2000, that could result in death sentences.

Alabama and Nebraska are the only states that use the electric chair as the only means of execution.

In a ruling last October, the Georgia high court dismissed an attack on electrocution as cruel and unusual punishment but signaled it was troubled by use of the electric chair.

Justice Norman Fletcher, now the chief justice, wrote that some justices had "grave concerns about the humaneness of electrocution" and would confront the issue if presented with "sufficient" evidence.

In March, four of the justices voted to block the execution of convicted killer Ronald Spivey while it considered whether electrocution is legal. His case remains on hold and was not before the court Monday.

In two of Monday's cases, lower court judges have held that electrocution is unconstitutional. Those cases involve:

-Eric Lynn Ferrell, convicted in DeKalb County and sentenced to die for killing his grandmother and cousin in 1987. In February, Superior Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore ruled that the electric chair is illegal.

-Timothy Carl Dawson, charged but not yet tried for a triple murder and armed robbery at the Atlanta Hilton Hotel in 1998 and a fourth murder three days earlier. During pretrial arguments, Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob found electrocution involves "physical violence indicative of inhumanity."

In the third case, that of Carzell Moore, Judge Arthur Fudger held that electrocution is not cruel and unusual punishment. "The court does not know of a humane way to execute someone," he wrote. Moore faces a new sentencing hearing for his role in the 1976 murder of a Cochran woman. His original death sentence was overturned in 1988.