Court To Try Electric Chair

Two hundred and thirty-eight people have died in Florida's electric chair. But there won't be another one until the U.S. Supreme Court decides if electrocution is too cruel to be allowed to continue, reports CBS News Correspondent Jeffrey Kofman.

What made the court take notice was the execution of Allen "Tiny" Davis in July. The court saw a picture of Davis just after he died and other even more grisly pictures. What they seem to show is that something went wrong with what was supposed to be a painless execution.

"What do you see when you see those pictures?" asks criminal defense attorney Martin McClain. "I see pain, I see grotesque murder, torture. It's all there. It looks medieval."

Since 1990, two other men met fiery deaths in the chair, making this the third time Florida has been accused of botching an electrocution.

There are now 372 inmates on Florida's death row. Their executions have come to a screeching halt.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is angered by what the court has done. "I am very disappointed there will be further delays in Florida's death penalty cases," he says.

Law, order and tough justice are a big part of Bush's agenda and he is angered by what the court has done. "I believe that Florida's electric chair is constitutional and it is an appropriate means of punishment for the heinous crimes where the death penalty is imposed," says Bush.

The justices' decision to consider the case may have been prompted in part by the action of a Florida judge who posted the electrocution photos on the state court's Web site.

A spokesperson for Florida's high court said Justice Leander Shaw - who put the pictures on the Internet - could not talk about the case since that would violate state laws.

Howard Simon, the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said he agreed with Shaw's decision to put the photographs on the web.

"The case was the constitutionality of the use of the electric chair," Simon said. "I don't know how else the court could have decided that. I don't know how else the public could have decided that [without seeing] the evidence of what electrocution does to people."


CBS
Howard Simon

Simon insisted the public has a right to see the pictures.

"It's disgusting, but this is what America does," Simon said. "I think people have a right to see what government is doing."

The court's ruling will have an impact beyond Florida. Of the 38 states with capital punishment, there are four that use the electric chair s their sole method of execution.

McClain represents many of the people on Florida's death row.

"There's this recognition that the guillotine would not be acceptable," he says. "Drawing and quartering wouldn't be acceptable, and so now I think the time has come to say the electric chair is no longer acceptable."

It will probably take the Supreme Court until next spring to decide if the electric chair amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Until then, Florida could opt to use lethal injection, which is what most states do. But Gov. Bush says he'd rather wait for the court's decision.