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US: Electric Chair Banned as Cruel, Unusual Punishment

Nebraska Ruling Brings US Closer to Ending This Inhumane Form of Execution in US

The Nebraska Supreme Court’s ruling today that use of the electric chair violates the state constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment is an important step toward eliminating inherently inhumane executions in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today.

Nebraska is the only state to use the electric chair as its sole method of execution; all other US death penalty jurisdictions use lethal injection.

“This ruling abolishes the barbaric practice of electrocutions in the state of Nebraska,” said Sarah Tofte, US researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of a 2006 report on executions by lethal injection in the United States.

The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled today that execution by electrocution violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment found in Article I, section 9 of the Nebraska Constitution. “Condemned prisoners must not be tortured to death, regardless of their crimes,” the court wrote.

Since 1994, Nebraska has electrocuted three condemned prisoners. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the US in 1976, there have been at least 10 visibly botched electrocutions, including the 1997 electrocution of Pedro Medina in Florida. During his execution, flames shot out from the headpiece, filling the execution chamber with a cloud of thick smoke and gagging the two dozen official witnesses. An official then threw a switch to manually cut off the power and prematurely end the two-minute cycle of 2,000 volts. Medina’s chest continued to heave until the flames stopped, and then he died.

As a result of today’s ruling, the task falls to the Nebraska legislature to consider an alternative method of execution if it wishes to retain the death penalty. Although the court contends that lethal injection “is universally recognized as the most humane method of execution,” Human Rights Watch urged the Nebraska legislature to carefully examine the risk of suffering posed by the three-drug protocol currently used in lethal injections in other states.

In January, the US Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of lethal injection. Pending the court’s decision, there is a de facto moratorium on lethal injections in the country.

“Lethal injection is not as humane as it might appear to be,” said Tofte. “There is mounting evidence that condemned prisoners are at risk of suffering excruciating pain. With today’s ruling, the Nebraska legislature has an opportunity to reject methods of execution that cause inhumane pain and suffering.”

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently cruel and unusual form of punishment and a violation of fundamental human rights.

To view the Nebraska Supreme Court opinion, please click here.

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