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Governor decides to delay executions

Florida's electric chair probably won't be used again until after lawmakers consider an alternative.

Gov. Lawton Chiles on Friday urged the Legislature to quickly adopt a new way to kill condemned inmates. He set March execution dates for convicted killers Gerald Stano and Leo Jones, hoping that lawmakers will have legalized an alternative means of execution by then.

Chiles was responding to last week's 4-3 Supreme Court decision allowing the continued use of the chair, in which five justices suggested in their written opinions that the state consider lethal injection.

"After careful consideration, I have determined that the proper course is to reschedule the executions in a manner that will allow the Legislature an opportunity to consider the court's recommendation," Chiles wrote in letters to House Speaker Daniel Webster, Senate President Toni Jennings and Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan.

"I will urge the Legislature to act swiftly in adopting an alternative method of execution," Chiles wrote.

Serial killer Stano is scheduled to die the morning of March 23. Jones, convicted of killing a Jacksonville police officer in 1981, is scheduled for the next day.

Reaction to Chiles' announcement was mixed Friday, with one lawmaker suggesting the Legislature take up the matter during next week's special session on education.

Senate Majority Leader Locke Burt of Ormond Beach suggested the public would be "outraged" that the executions would be delayed yet again.

"My simple remark is that the victims lost again," said Burt, an outspoken supporter of keeping the electric chair who last week changed his mind to considering lethal injection. "And I think the Legislature's probably going to do something about it in a hurry."

Others applauded Chiles' decision.

"This sends a very strong signal to the Florida Legislature that we must change capital punishment procedures to lethal injection as an alternative means of execution," state Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, said in a written statement. Klein is sponsoring legislation to adopt injection as an option.

The state's chair, a 74-year-old original housed at Florida State Prison in Starke, has been idle since March, when flames erupted from the headpiece of condemned inmate Pedro Medina.

That incident, similar to an electric-chair fire seven years earlier, unleashed a worldwide wave of criticism of the electric chair and intense debate on the future of capital punishment.

Many states have moved to other forms of execution, such as lethal injection or the gas chamber, while only six still have electric chairs as the sole means of execution.

After the Medina fire, Chiles delayed the Jones and Stano executions. Experts reviewed the chair, blaming the blaze on a faulty sponge, and the Supreme Court ordered Duval Circuit Judge A.C. Soud to hold hearings on whether it is constitutional or, as opponents charge, cruel and unusual punishment.

Soud ruled that the chair is indeed legal, and last week a split Florida Supreme Court backed him up. But in their ruling, five of the justices said it would be prudent for the state to adopt lethal injection in case future challenges to the chair were successful.

One justice said doing so would avoid a constitutional "train wreck."

That argument proved convincing for the governor.

Chiles previously expressed concern that changing the law would give some 370 death row inmates a new reason to appeal their sentences, thus causing more frustrating delays.

While many inmates were condemned simply to death, many others _ including Jones and Stano _ were specifically sentenced to die by electrocution.

Presumably, any new law would allow inmates to choose how they would die, either in "Old Sparky" or by injection.

But even if the law does spur additional appeals and delays, that's better than losing the electric chair and having no alternative, said Chiles' spokeswoman, April Herrle.

Appeals are "certainly a possibility," she said. "But lethal injection has been held constitutional in many other states. The bigger risk to the state would be to have capital punishment thrown out."

Jones' attorney, Martin McClain, said Friday he had not thought about whether changing the law would create new appeals.

"I really haven't analyzed that or even thought about it," McClain said. "Other states have adopted lethal injection as an option, and they have not had a problem. They have not delayed executions."

It is not clear when the Legislature will take up the issue, despite Burt's call to do it during the special session.

House Speaker Webster's top lieutenant on criminal justice issues, state Rep. Victor Crist, R-Temple Terrace, said he was not pleased with Chiles' announcement and was not in a hurry to make changes.

"The electric chair was found constitutional by Florida's Supreme Court," said Crist, chairman of the House Justice Council. "Therefore the Jones and Stano executions should be set now, not postponed.

"Further delay is not justice served. The Legislature should not be forced to rush into deliberations of consideration of lethal injection. We should be allowed time to deliberate it, debate it and discuss it."

Meanwhile, the daughter of one of the condemned men said she doesn't care how inmates die. She thinks the government should not be in the death business at all.

"Maybe to some people (lethal injection) may be better," said Sharronda Williams, 28, daughter of condemned inmate Jones.

"But I don't think anyone should have any say-so over how anybody should die. That's left up to God. We just leave everything up to Him."