NEW YORK - Human rights activists are weighing the significance of one U.S. state's total ban on the use of the electric chair for executions, suggesting that this should be seen as another important milestone in winning battle against the death penalty in their country.On Feb. 8, the Supreme Court of Nebraska, the only state still using the electric chair as its sole method of execution, ruled that this form of capital punishment was 'cruel and unusual'. The decision means that the ten men on Nebraska's death row cannot be executed until the state decides on whether to adopt a replacement execution method.
According to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), there are currently nine states that have electrocution as an alternative execution method to lethal injection -- Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Two of these -- Illinois and Oklahoma -- will only authorise electrocution if lethal injection is ever found to be unconstitutional.
The Nebraska ban on the electric chair could also make these states 'think about abolishing this method of execution', Sarah Tofte, a Human Rights Watch researcher working on the death penalty in the U.S., told IPS. The ruling was especially important because it was made by a state where the electric chair was the sole method of execution.
The history of the electric chair dates back to 1881 when Albert Southwick, a dentist, saw an inebriated man accidentally kill himself -- without visible pain -- after touching a live generator terminal in Buffalo, New York. Southwick convinced friends in the state legislature that such a method of execution would be humane.
Since 1884 the electric chair has been used in the executions of more than 4,000 people in the U.S. Nebraska adopted the electric chair as its method of execution in 1913. In 2004, the state set higher standards for its use. A more powerful, 2,450-volt, 20-second charge of electricity was to be used. Eighteen minutes after this massive charge, the go-ahead was to be issued for officials to examine whether the inmate was dead.
'If the U.S. Supreme Court ever has to rule on the electric chair, the Nebraska ruling would be very influential,' Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the DPIC, told IPS. It would also indirectly influence the current U.S. Supreme Court case on whether lethal injection violated the constitution, 'laying out some standards for what is cruel and unusual'.
'The evidence here shows that electrocution inflicts intense pain and agonising suffering,' Justice William M. Connolly wrote for the majority in the Nebraska Supreme Court ruling. 'We recognise the temptation to make the prisoner suffer, just as the prisoner made an innocent victim suffer. But it is the hallmark of a civilised society that we punish cruelty without practicing it.'
Justice Connolly noted that the burning of the prisoner's body was 'an inherent part of electrocution'. It was not unusual for witnesses to see smoke coming from the prisoner's head and legs.
Smoke and the smell of burning were witnessed by Herbert Shaps, William E. Vandiver's lawyer, who was executed by electrocution in 1985 for killing his father-in-law, according to the DPIC.
Vandiver was still breathing after the first administration of 2,300 volts. Five additional jolts of electricity were required in an execution that lasted 17 minutes. Shaps called the execution 'outrageous'. The Department of Corrections admitted the execution 'did not go according to plan'.
Dieter predicted that the focus of attention in Nebraska would now turn on whether to abolish the death penalty, rather than on which new method of execution to adopt.
'There is currently a bill to abolish the death penalty in Nebraska. That bill will probably be heard before any change is made to the method of execution. I suspect this bill will come very close to passing, although the governor may veto any bill,' he said.
In 2007, a similar bill to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska failed by just one vote. The present governor, David Heineman, has said he would veto any bill that abolished the death penalty. That would mean that the state legislature would have to muster 30 votes to override his veto.
The death penalty abolition bill in Nebraska is being presented by Senator Ernie Chambers. He has tried to repeal the death penalty every year since 1970.
'Eventually, the death penalty will be eliminated in Nebraska,' Dieter said. 'The polls there indicate that people would be willing to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life (imprisonment) without parole.'
© 2008 Inter Press Service