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News Briefs

Florida Accused of Cruel and Unusual Punishment


The last photographs ever taken of Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis were not pretty. They show the 350-pound inmate sitting in Florida’s refurbished electric chair moments after his recent execution, his white shirt soaked in blood, his face a mottled purple, his features frozen in an expression that death penalty opponents are calling pain.

The color photographs, depicting the aftermath of the July 8 execution, are being used by lawyers working for another death row prisoner to attempt a historic -- and so far, staunchly resisted -- change. They argue that the electric chair represents cruel and unusual punishment and should be outlawed as unconstitutional.

“Your honors, the time has come to retire the electric chair,” said lawyer Martin McClain in an argument this week before the Florida Supreme Court that marked one of the few times execution photos have been made public.

Surely, Florida’s electric chair -- a relic that dates to 1923 and long ago acquired the nickname “Old Sparky” -- has been one of the more notorious execution devices in U.S. history. Serial killer Ted Bundy met his death there; so have 238 others, including 44 since the resumption of capital punishment in 1976.

In an era of lethal injections, the chair has become a true rarity. Only three other states -- Georgia, Alabama and Nebraska, which seldom carries out an execution -- still rely solely on electrocution to dispatch condemned prisoners. Although Texas has the lock on numbers, executing 184 since 1976, and Virginia is second with 69, Florida has acquired a more colorful reputation for what critics call a history of botched executions.

“Internationally, when people think of Florida, they think of beaches, Disney World or flaming executions,” said University of Florida sociologist Michael Radelet, referring to the smoke-filled execution of Jesse Tafero in 1990 and the 1997 case of Pedro Medina in which a plume of flames a foot long shot out from his head.

New NATO Chief’s Peerage Attacked


George Robertson, the newly appointed secretary general of NATO, has received an appointment to Britain’s House of Lords. Depending on your political persuasion, this is either a well-earned tribute for Robertson’s stalwart leadership during the war in Kosovo, or a cynical electoral ploy.

When Prime Minister Tony Blair this week named his longtime Labor Party ally to a seat in the Lords -- where the son of a village policeman will become Lord Robertson of Port Ellen -- Blair said his intention was to recognize Robertson’s effort during the war. As defense minister, Robertson held daily public briefings and traveled to virtually every NATO capital to build and maintain support for the allied air campaign against Yugoslavia.

Robertson is an elected member of the House of Commons. He will give up that seat and his cabinet post in October when he moves to Brussels to take over at NATO. His new place in the House of Lords -- a nonelected body with much less power than the Commons -- is strictly honorary, from Robertson’s point of view. He says he has no plans to sit or vote in the Lords as long as he is overseeing NATO.

But Blair’s political adversaries -- from the Conservative and Scottish National parties -- are crying foul. They have no particular gripe with Robertson, or his management of the war. Rather, they claim the appointment to the Lords is a political gambit designed to ensure that Labor holds onto Robertson’s seat in the Commons.

When a member of the Commons moves to the Lords, a special election must be held within weeks to fill the Commons vacancy.