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Most favor switch to the needle

By SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 7, 1999


By a substantial margin, Florida voters want to unplug the electric chair and switch to lethal injection.

In a survey of 600 voters, 58 percent said they favor a new law replacing electrocution with death by needle -- more than twice as many who said they want to keep the chair.

The poll, conducted by Washington-based Schroth & Associates for the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald, is the latest sign that Florida's electric chair, one of America's most notorious execution devices, could be headed for the museum.

Only 23 percent of likely voters surveyed advocate electrocution, which has been Florida's sole method of execution for 76 years but abandoned as the only method in all but four states.

In interviews, many voters said they feel strongly the chair is too cruel and too much of a spectacle for the 21st century, even for heinous murderers.

"I believe in an eye for an eye. If you take a life, you should be willing to lose your life," said Loretta Kenneman of Palm Harbor, a 69-year-old retired assembly manager. "But to sit somebody in the chair is so archaic; it's like something out of the dark ages. . . . (State leaders) need to sit back and think about why they would want to stand by something so outdated and so archaic."

Voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties were even more emphatic that the chair should be retired, rejecting electrocution by 63 percent to 25 percent.

The poll results come as Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida's legislative leaders rethink execution methods after last month's U.S. Supreme Court decision to review the chair's constitutionality.

Three Florida executions this decade have been marked by flames, blood or screams.

Hoping to keep the death penalty on track, Bush is now weighing a choice of lethal injection, though his spokesman, Cory Tilley, said last week that the governor still believes the chair is humane and neither cruel nor unusual.

But many voters who participated in the Times/Herald poll said they disagree with the governor about execution methods.

"I really feel the electric chair is cruel and unusual punishment for the people who have to observe, the people who have to sit in it and the people who have to pull the switch," said Betty Krysowaty, a retired middle-management recruiter from Miami-Dade County. "I think lethal injection is more humane all around."

The growing popularity of lethal injection is part of an American trend to search for humane execution methods. In 1923, the chair replaced hanging in Florida. States started switching to lethal injection (from electrocution, firing squad and the gas chamber) after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

The Times/Herald poll did not ask voters whether they favor or oppose capital punishment. Rob Schroth, head of the Washington-based polling firm that conducted the survey, said the results don't mean Floridians are opposed to the death penalty.

"Florida has always been supportive of the death penalty," Schroth said. "Now it is just supportive of a different way."

In interviews, some people who favor sticking with the electric chair said they favor a painful death penalty method. Nothing, they said, is too cruel for Florida's 372 death row inmates.

"I personally don't care if their hair burns up or not," said Richard Wright, 67, a retired computer director for Stetson University who now lives in Volusia County. "Look at all the suffering and pain they've caused to the victims' families."

But the poll results and voter interviews suggest that most Floridians see a difference between justice and vengeance.

"Floridians are compassionate and moderate, and a majority of them now believe the electric chair's time has come and gone," Schroth said. "These problems with the chair have undoubtedly seemed brutal and cruel to many in Florida."

In the Times/Herald survey, 19 percent gave no opinion on which execution method the state should use, with some of those undecided saying "dead-is-dead" and others saying they oppose the death penalty.

Support for lethal injection is higher among women than men, the poll shows. It is lowest among people under 35.

Kevin Mulligan, a 48-year-old Brevard County contractor who favors lethal injection, thinks he can explain the age differences. "Everyone feels fairly invincible in their 20s, and the older you get, whether you like it or not, you have a different concept of what death is all about," said Mulligan, who works at the Kennedy Space Center.

He said he "the whole concept of the electric chair, with somebody in a black hood who actually pulls the button, is fairly disgusting." Pro-chair politicians, Mulligan added, are "playing to the crowd."

Tilley downplayed differences between the governor and the public on execution methods.

"With all that's been going on with the death penalty in the last few years, and particularly this year, it's not surprising you'd see favorable poll numbers supporting a switch to lethal injection," Tilley said. "But the governor has confidence that Floridians share a widespread support for capital punishment.

"He's always been more concerned about the length of time it takes for a death row inmate to have his sentence carried out than he is about the actual method used," Tilley said.

Martin McClain, a death row lawyer who led the legal attack against the chair, said the poll "supports the notion that electrocution is inconsistent with our general mores today."

-- Times staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

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