DATE: Saturday, April 12, 1997              TAG: 9704120007

SECTION: LOCAL                   PAGE: B6   EDITION: FINAL 

TYPE: Editorial 

                                            LENGTH:   43 lines


Florida has 377 inmates on death row, a 74-year-old electric chair that sometimes malfunctions, and an attorney general with a sick sense of humor.

Last month, for the second time this decade, a prisoner's leather face mask burst into flames as the prisoner was being executed in the electric chair.

``It was something entirely out of the ordinary,'' said a visibly shaken Gene Morris, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections. ``I have witnessed 11 executions and have never seen anything like what we saw this morning.''

But Florida Attorney General Robert A. Butterworth indicated that an electric chair that malfunctions in a gruesome manner might prove useful as a deterrent to murder. ``People who wish to commit murder,'' he quipped, ``they better not do it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair.''

Gov. Lawton Chiles ordered an investigation into whether the prisoner whose mask caught fire suffered. Investigators reported back that he didn't. We wonder whom they asked.

Chiles temporarily considered replacing the electric chair with lethal injections, but Florida Senate Majority Leader Locke Burt and many other Florida legislators opposed adopting the injection method, which is used in most states that impose the death penalty. Burt complained that it ``appears to be a medical procedure'' and added, ``A painless death is not punishment.''

Burt is wrong. Death, even painless death, is punishment.

On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court rightly granted a three-day reprieve to a man scheduled to die next week, so a lower court would have time to determine whether Florida's chair, in its present state, is cruel and unusual punishment.

Since 1994, condemned Virginia prisoners have been allowed to choose between lethal injection and the electric chair. All have chosen lethal injection.

One can argue that a murderer should suffer as much as his victim - an eye for an eye. But the idea behind the death penalty is not for society to behave as badly as the criminals we execute. In taking a prisoner's life, we should not sink to torture and afterward make jokes.

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