Dead man waitin'

The state Supreme Court rejected this week a promising challenge to the electric chair, but that doesn't mean the argument over the inhumanity of the chair is over.
The 4-3 vote to dismiss the challenge came, confusedly enough, a month after the court invited attorneys to fight the constitutionality of electrocution. Yet the justices ruled Monday that the evidence they asked for — the 20 autopsies of men who died in Georgia's chair — was introduced too late in the case of Troy Anthony Davis. "What the Supreme Court did was dodge the issue," says Michael Mears, executive director of the Georgia Indigent Defense Council.
Davis was sentenced to death in 1991 in Chatham County, convicted in the 1989 killing of an off-duty Savannah police officer. Davis' attorneys, in a 1992 appeal, did not bring up the argument that the electric chair could be a form of cruel and unusual punishment. That evidence was introduced in another round of appeals, in 1996.
"People just weren't doing it then," Mears says. His office, which represents indigent defendants facing the death penalty, consistently challenges the electric chair during pre-trial hearings. Because many of those defendants do not ultimately receive a death sentence, the argument becomes moot.
However, there are at least two capital cases in which the electrocution autopsies were filed in a timely manner. Mears says that in those cases, the Supreme Court can't use a similar excuse.
Yet another hurdle awaits. "Whoever writes the opinion doing away with the electric chair is going to have to worry about all these people coming out of the woodwork to run against them," he says. "It's strictly a political issue."

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