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In the hot seat in Jackson, Ga. 

Electric chair's humaneness called into question

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The warden gives the inmate two minutes to say something to the audience, usually made up of his friends and family, the friends and family of his victims, the media and half a dozen state officials. The warden offers the inmate a prayer from the prison chaplain, then reads the execution order. The chinstrap is buckled and electrodes are attached to the head and leg. A leather flap is placed over the face. The attorney general gets on the phone to the board of pardons and paroles to make sure there is no last-minute stay.

"At that point, we take over," Turpin says. "We begin the execution process."

In the room behind the death chamber, there are three black handheld boxes, roughly the size of packs of gum. From each protrudes a tiny silver button. Three wires, one extending from each box, are braided so that you can't tell which one activates the generator. Three prison staff members press the buttons simultaneously. The electrocution begins.

Creative Loafing questioned Mike Mears, , executive director of the Georgia Indigent Defense Counsel and author of The Death Penalty in Georgia about electrocution vs. lethal injection.

CL: Is lethal injection a better form of execution than any other out there?

Mike Mears: The problem with lethal injection is it makes people think it's OK. It gives one the appearance or the illusion of putting a puppy to sleep. It's not really any better than the electric chair. It makes it better for the people watching it.

Do you think you're going to see a lot more death sentences handed out because of lethal injection?

I think it makes the jurors less squeamish about their decision. I think it salves their conscious a little bit when they think it's going to be lethal injection rather than the electric chair. If you're going to execute somebody, probably the most humane way to do it is by hanging. There's absolutely no sensation of pain. Your lights just go off.

State Rep. Eugene Tillman, D-Brunswick, says he introduced the legislation to switch to lethal injection because the state ought to offer a more humane method of execution. He didn't offer a choice of execution to the current death-row population because he wanted to avoid a wave of appeals: Defense attorneys might delay executions by filing motions that their clients were sentenced specifically to death by electrocution.

But the legislation that lawmakers thought placed them on firm legal ground may have done the opposite. Paula Bernstein of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington is among the death-penalty opponents who say Georgia legislators unwittingly have invited a constitutional challenge.

And, last week, the Georgia Supreme Court hinted -- for the second time this year -- that it is willing to give a thorough hearing to evidence challenging the constitutionality of the electric chair. Should the court rule electrocution cruel and inhumane, it would be the first such ruling in the country and would likely force lethal injection in lieu of electrocution for all condemned inmates in Georgia.

During a typical lethal injection, a machine compresses three inverted syringes, one at a time, into an IV hooked to the inmate's arm. The first syringe is filled with sodium pentothal. "It simply puts you into a mild state of euphoria so that your muscles will relax," Mears says. "It also makes it easier for the other drugs to get into the system. If your body is not relaxed when the other drugs hit, your body's reaction is going to be so strong it could possibly pop the needle right out of your arm."

The machine then compresses the second syringe, filled with pancuronium bromide. It paralyzes the muscle across the bottom of your lungs, the muscle that forces breath. "So if you're still aware of what's going on, what you feel is this unbelievable sensation of holding your breath and not being able to catch your breath," Mears says.

The third syringe is filled with potassium chloride, which paralyzes the heart. "Both those last drugs are supposed to act in tandem to really make sure you die," Mears says.

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