In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court of Georgia said that death by electrocution inflicted needless physical violence and mutilation on inmates, violating protections against cruel and unusual punishment in the U.S. and Georgia constitutions.
"We hold that death by electrocution, with its specter of excruciating pain and its certainty of cooked brains and blistered bodies, violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment..." Justice Carol Hunstein wrote in the ruling.
The decision was a victory for lawyers who earlier this year had argued before lower courts in Georgia that the electric chair was barbaric and should be abolished.
But in a strongly worded dissent, Justice Hugh Thompson said that the ruling did not represent any change in the standards of decency of the Georgia public, but instead reflected the evolving opinions of a majority of the members of the court.
"However tempted, however much they may dislike a law, courts should not use judicial power to transform their preferences into constitutional mandates," Thompson said in his dissent.
The court, however, acknowledged that its decision did not have any impact on the constitutionality of capital punishment in Georgia, where support for the death penalty is strong among both Republicans and Democrats.
Georgia, which has not carried out an execution since 1998, recently abolished the use of the electric chair for capital crimes committed after May 1, 2000, substituting lethal injections.
The ruling leaves just two states with the electric chair as the sole method of execution, Alabama and Nebraska. A few states that once relied exclusively on the chair now offer condemned inmates a choice of electrocution or lethal injection.
The most recent count showed that 128 men and one woman are under death sentence in Georgia.
The long-awaited decision was a victory for lawyers who three months ago used the graphic photograph of a recently electrocuted prisoner to support their arguments that the electric chair is inhumane.
"This decision ends the degrading spectacle of smoke, fire and burning flesh that almost every other modern society in the world has abandoned," said attorney Stephen Bright, who argued the case against the electric chair.
The state had argued that electrocution brought immediate unconsciousness. "There is no way a person being electrocuted is able to feel pain," said Susan Boleyn, a senior assistant state attorney general.
Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker would not completely rule out an appeal, but said "it's very difficult to appeal a ruling of the Georgia Supreme Court that is based in part on an interpretation of the Georgia Constitution."
In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court last year turned away an appeal of a Alabama case challenging the electric chair. But it remained unclear whether the court would use some other case to review the legitimacy of electrocutions. It is examining related issues, including whether the mentally disabled can be executed.
© MMI, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters Limited contributed to this report