Pulling the Plug on the Electric Chair

ByABC News
May 2, 2001, 6:00 PM

May 4 -- When Florida's Supreme Court posted photos of the bleeding, bubbling corpse of 340-pound triple-murderer Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis on the Web, the court may have sentenced to death a particularly American form of execution: the electric chair.

Opponents have long argued that electrocution was cruel and unusual punishment even before the chair took a man's life for the first time in the late 1800s, George Westinghouse, one of the pioneers of electricity, argued against it. He was opposed by Thomas Edison.

But after Florida made the gruesome photos Davis public on the Internet, it prompted a new surge in opposition, leading several states to drop the chair as a method of execution, or give inmates a choice of lethal injection, including in Florida.

Inmates overwhelmingly opt for lethal injection. And now, according to most experts, the electric chair is on its last legs.

In Georgia, electrocutions have been suspended since March, when the state supreme court halted the execution of double-murderer Ronald Spivey hours before it was scheduled because it wanted to consider claims that the electric chair violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Georgia last year passed a law instituting death by lethal injection for anyone sentenced to die for a crime committed after May 1, 2000, but Spivey committed his crime in 1976.

In fact, there are only two states where the chair is still effectively in use Nebraska and Alabama where inmates sentenced to die have no alternatives.

Michael Rondelet, a social sciences professor at the University of Florida says the electric chair is a cruel way to kill a man, and that it would disappear just as the noose, the method of execution that the chair replaced, has largely disappeared as a way of punishment.

The electric chair "is going to go the way of burning at the stake or sawing a person in half," he said. And twenty years from now, he said, our children may be debating the cruelty of lethal injection, if they don't abolish the death penalty altogether.