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A barbaric way to die

The state of Florida has demonstrated once again that strapping a human being into the electric chair and flipping the switch does not guarantee a painless, antiseptic death. The horrific scene in the execution chamber Tuesday should outrage even supporters of the death penalty and force all Floridians to reassess whether their state should continue to kill people.

Witnesses said blue and orange flames up to a foot long shot from Pedro Medina's masked head after an anonymous executioner sent 2,000 volts of electricity through his body. The flames lasted for up to 10 seconds, and the death chamber filled with smoke. Such a barbaric act carried out by an elected government would be unthinkable in virtually any other part of the world.

This is not a defense of Medina, who was convicted of stabbing to death an elementary school teacher he had befriended. But the assurances Gov. Lawton Chiles received from the medical examiner who concluded Medina felt no pain are hardly a solid defense for the manner in which the state carried out this death penalty.

After a similar fire burned double-murderer Jesse Tafero in 1990, prison officials blamed the problem on a synthetic sponge used to conduct electricity on the inmate's head.

Executions resumed a short time later after the Florida Supreme Court, in one of its most callous opinions in recent memory, concluded that the state's malfunctioning electric chair does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, simply because the government said it had corrected the problem.

Now there has been another gruesome incident. It will trigger another government review and another debate over whether there are less offensive ways to put people to death. Only six states use electrocution as their sole method of carrying out the death penalty. Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay already has said he would favor lethal injection, which has its own shortcomings.

There are no humane methods of execution, but the state should not be in the torture business. The death penalty is wrong because there are no guarantees that an innocent man or woman will never be killed. And even proponents of the death penalty should be concerned when the state performs its executions so cavalierly and unprofessionally.

Yet headline-seeking politicians such as Attorney General Bob Butterworth will continue to demagogue the death penalty as long as public opinion polls indicate strong support for executions. Butterworth actually suggested the flames that shot from Medina's head will be a deterrent to would-be criminals. By today, he may be calling for public hangings.

The only deterrent to such blood-thirsty declarations and to recurrences of Tuesday's hideous execution is public opinion. Only the public has the power to demand that their elected leaders seek justice instead of revenge.