ATLANTA – Georgia's highest court struck down the state's use of the electric chair Friday, saying electrocution violates the state constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In a 4-3 decision, the court said that death by electrocution involves more than the "'mere extinguishment of life' ... and inflicts purposeless physical violence and needless mutilation that makes no measurable contribution to accepted goals of punishment."
"Electrocution, with its specter of excruciating pain and its certainty of cooked brains and blistered bodies, violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment."
Three justices signed a strongly written dissent that said Friday's ruling "reflects not the evolving standards of decency of the people of Georgia, but the evolving opinions of the majority members of this court."
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."
Legislators, anticipating such a ruling, passed a law last year that switches the state's method of execution to lethal injection if the courts ruled electrocution illegal.
Mike Light, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the death chamber at the state prison near Jackson about 40 miles south of Atlanta has been retrofitted for injection. "We are fully prepared to carry out the order of the courts."
The most recent count showed that 128 men and one woman are under death sentence in Georgia. Some 441 people have been put to death in Georgia's electric chair since it replaced hanging in 1924.
Friday's 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.
Prior to those arguments, the court had signaled in a series of decisions it was increasingly troubled by electrocution.
A year ago, Justice Norman Fletcher, now the chief justice, noted in an opinion that some members had "grave concerns about the humaneness of electrocution." He said they were willing to confront the issue if presented with "sufficient" evidence.
Electrocution was the sole means of execution in Georgia from 1924 until last year, when the Legislature ordered lethal injection for all persons convicted of crimes committed after May 1, 2000.
The law left electrocution on the books for those convicted of crimes before that date but stipulated a switch to lethal injection if the courts outlawed electrocution.
The law was passed amid fears the U.S. Supreme Court would strike down electrocution, and left Alabama and Nebraska the only states relying solely on electrocution.
The state's most recent execution was June 9, 1998, when 39-year-old David Loomis Cargill was electrocuted for the armed robberies and murders of a Columbus couple in 1985.