Originally created 10/06/01

Court pulls plug on electric chair



ATLANTA - Electrocutions no longer will be performed as capital punishment in Georgia after the state's Supreme Court ruled by a slim majority Friday that lethal injections are more humane.

It is the first high court in any state or federal system to reach that conclusion. Yet it does not mean the 128 men and one woman on death row will escape their doom.

Four of the seven justices reviewing a pair of murder cases concluded electrocutions are needlessly inhumane because there is another method that doesn't disfigure and because public opinions toward the electric chair have changed. The three justices who disagreed said that judges' opinions are the only ones that have changed and legislators should set policy rather than courts.

The same court has ruled on more than one occasion that electrocution is constitutional.

The decision ends a debate that has raged almost since 1924, when electrocutions were substituted for hanging as the most humane way to execute prisoners.

Proponents argue that the sudden jolt renders the brain incapable of feeling pain, and prosecutors got testimony from survivors of accidental electrocution who said they felt nothing at the time.

Death-penalty foes referred to quarter-size scars where electrodes burned the skin and medical testimony that prisoners' brains reached 145 degrees. Witnesses also observed movement in some cases, suggesting that the prisoners were not instantly struck unconscious with the initial shock.

Georgia lawmakers also gave electrocution opponents ammunition last year when they changed the law to substitute lethal injection for capital-punishment cases concluded after May 1, 2000.

"This action by our state legislature in totally abolishing electrocution as a future method of execution in this state constitutes the clearest and most objective evidence of a prevailing condemnation by the people of Georgia of that particular punishment," Justice Carol Hunstein wrote for the majority.

But Justice Hugh Thompson wrote for the three dissenters that the opposite is true.

"If the General Assembly sought to abolish electrocution as a method of execution, it could have done so," he wrote. "It could have established lethal injection as the sole means of execution of all condemned inmates in this state, but it did not."

The author of the legislation, Rep. E.C. Tillman, is a Brunswick minister who said he was indeed trying to shift away from the electric chair without ending capital punishment totally. The Democrat recalled how he promised himself in 1962 to one day end the practice, little expecting to wind up in the Legislature.

But Mr. Tillman said it was a complicated debate, with many of his colleagues voting for the change only because they feared federal courts were about to rule electrocution unconstitutional.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rene Kemp confirms that.

"The thinking that I got from lawyers (was) that it may be declared unconstitutional," the Hinesville Democrat said. "We wanted to make sure that the death penalty would be able to be carried out in Georgia if electrocution was declared unconstitutional."

Without Mr. Tillman's legislation, the state could have been left without any form of capital punishment.

Ironically, the federal courts never outlawed electrocution, and the legislation was vital to the state court's decision. On the other hand, the court Friday made clear that capital punishment in general - and lethal injection in particular - are constitutional.

"The effect of the majority's decision is to substitute their personal opinions for the will of the people of Georgia as expressed through their elected representatives," Attorney General Thurbert Baker said. "The court has emphatically ruled that lethal injection may be used to carry out the sentences of execution against current death row inmates, and the State of Georgia will proceed accordingly."

Friday's ruling signals a turning point for many people involved in the question of the death penalty.

For inmates awaiting their punishment, it removes a demon that has hovered before them since their sentencing.

"The electric chair, with all of the myth around it, is a frightening thing," said Michael Mears, the director of the state's Office of the Multicounty Public Defender. "That's part of the cruel and unusual aspect of this."

Guards, attorneys and other prisoners spread horrific stories that inflame the imaginations of the condemned, who usually suffer already from mental illness, said Mr. Mears, who said he's on a first-name basis with everyone on death row after participating in 160 capital-punishment cases.

The decision could actually lead to more executions. There has been none in Georgia since 1998, but there are dozens of appeals pending over the constitutionality of electrocution. On Friday, those cases were settled.

For the families of victims, the decision might be a sense that the state is rising above the types of violence that claimed their loved one, said Augusta attorney Michael Garrett, a past president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"As a society, we can't sink to the same level as people who commit crimes," he said.

For future defendants, the decision could increase their chances of getting a death sentence from a jury.

"It eliminated the objections of those who say it's a brutal procedure," said Donald. E. Wilkes Jr., a professor of law at the University of Georgia's law school since 1971.

Death-penalty opponents who have persuaded juries not to impose a death sentence say they're not sure Mr. Wilkes is right. Time alone will tell, they said.For death-penalty foes, Friday's ruling is just one battle won in a long war. Those contacted say they will shift their strategy to issues such as the quality of legal representation of capital defendants, the different numbers of blacks and whites sentences to death, and the varying practices of prosecutors in different regions to calling for the death penalty.

TIMELINE

A timeline of executions and execution law in Georgia:

Jan. 19, 1735: Georgia's first execution, the hanging of indentured servant Alice Ryley, takes place in Savannah.

Dec. 15, 1859: The General Assembly moves away from public executions, giving courts the right to hold them in private.

Jan. 1, 1863: The death penalty is no longer mandatory in all murder cases.

Oct. 29, 1890: The public hanging of Tom Woolfolk, who murdered nine family members with an ax, draws a crowd of about 10,000 to Perry.

1893: Georgia's last public execution occurs when five men are hanged, on an unspecified date, in Mount Vernon.

Dec. 18, 1893: The General Assembly requires all executions to be private.

Aug. 16, 1924: The General Assembly changes the state's method of execution from hanging to electrocution.

Sept. 13, 1924: The first execution by electrocution occurs in Georgia.

June 13, 1931: The last execution by hanging occurs in Georgia.

Dec. 9, 1938: Six convicts, all black males, are executed - the most ever in one day. A seventh convict scheduled to die, a white male, is granted a last-minute reprieve by the governor.

March 5, 1945: Georgia's only execution of a woman by electric chair takes place.

Aug. 11, 1961: The last execution for a crime other than murder occurs in Georgia. The sentence was imposed for a rape conviction.

June 29, 1972: The U.S. Supreme Court invalidates the death penalty laws of Georgia and other states, temporarily banning the practice.

March 28, 1973: Georgia enacts a new death penalty law, which would be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.

April 7, 1988: The General Assembly prohibits the execution of the mentally retarded.

March 2000: The General Assembly changes the state's method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection for capital crimes committed after May 1, 2000. The electric chair would still be used in cases involving crimes committed before that date.

Oct. 5, 2001: The Georgia Supreme Court rules that lethal injection, not electrocution, should be used to carry out the death penalty in all cases.

Sources: University of Georgia professor Donald E. Wilkes Jr., staff reports

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.