LINCOLN, Neb. – After decades of legal challenges and criticism that it is barbaric, Nebraska's use of the electric chair ended Friday when the state Supreme Court equated electrocution with torture and ruled it unconstitutional.
The landmark decision removed Nebraska's distinction as the only state in the country with electrocution as its sole means of execution. State courts are left with the ability to sentence people to death but no way to carry out the final penalty.
"Condemned prisoners must not be tortured to death, regardless of their crimes," Judge William Connolly wrote in the opinion for the high court. Chief Justice Mike Heavican filed a lone dissent, disagreeing that electrocution is "cruel and unusual."
Only nine other states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia — still allow electrocution as an option or a backup method for execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Lethal injection is the most common form of execution in the 36 states with the death penalty. A handful of states also allow hanging, firing squad and gas chambers as alternate methods.
The Nebraska high court made its ruling against electrocution in the case of Raymond Mata Jr., convicted for the 1999 kidnapping and killing of 3-year-old Adam Gomez of Scottsbluff. Parts of the boy's body were found in a freezer and dog bowl at Mata's home. Bone fragments also were recovered from the stomach of Mata's dog.
The court said in its opinion that evidence shows that electrocution inflicts "intense pain and agonizing suffering" and that it "has proven itself to be a dinosaur more befitting the laboratory of Baron Frankenstein than the death chamber" of state prisons.
"Contrary to the State's argument, there is abundant evidence that prisoners sometimes will retain enough brain functioning to consciously suffer the torture high voltage electric current inflicts on a human body," Connolly wrote. "The evidence supports the district court's statement that instantaneous and irreversible brain death is a myth."
The Legislature's staunchest death penalty opponent, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, said he believes the decision will force the state to take the 10 inmates now on death row off of it and instead give them life sentences. Executing the inmates using a different means of execution than the one they were sentenced under wouldn't be legal, Chambers said.
In its opinion Friday, the high court stressed repeatedly that its ruling did not strike the death penalty — just electrocution as the method. In fact, Mata's death sentence was affirmed by the high court.
The court said the Legislature may vote to have a death penalty, just not one that offends constitutional rights.
The speaker of the Legislature, Mike Flood, who supports the death penalty and helps set the legislative agenda, said it will be very difficult to approve a replacement for electrocution this late in the legislative session.
A legislative committee could introduce a bill to replace electrocution, but that would take a three-fifths vote of the Legislature, Flood said.
Mustering enough votes for a committee to introduce a bill could be difficult. Last year, a bill to repeal the death penalty failed after first-round debate by just one vote.
Friday's decision is another step in the decades-long erosion in support for electrocution. The use of the electric chair began to decline when Oklahoma adopted lethal injection in 1977, said Dieter, with the Death Penalty Information Center.
As more states adopted lethal injection, it became more difficult to justify the electric chair, he said.
"It's been a 30-year decline," Dieter said.
The last person to be executed by electrocution was Daryl Holton on Sept. 12, 2007, in Tennessee. Holton, who confessed to murdering four children in 1997, chose the electric chair over the state's preferred execution method of lethal injection.
Nebraska death row inmate Carey Dean Moore was scheduled to be executed in May of last year, but the state Supreme Court halted it less than a week before he was supposed to be put to death. The court said at the time it must reconsider whether the electric chair amounts to cruel and unusual punishment given a "changing legal landscape."