Gov. Lawton Chiles said Tuesday he would block legislation that would permit execution by lethal injection only if Florida's electric chair is found unconstitutional.
The Senate voted later in the day to take up the legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, and send it to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee for consideration Wednesday.
The vote was 30-2, more than the two-thirds, or 27 votes, needed to consider a bill outside the call of the special session, which was limited to school construction issues. Sens. William "Doc" Myers, R-Stuart, and Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, voted no.
Burt said the possibility of failing to send death row inmates to the electric chair "outrages my constituents. They cannot understand what is happening in this state. They want the judgment of judges and juries carried out."
Chiles wants lawmakers to consider lethal injection, but he is afraid Burt's bill could result in the commutation of existing death sentences to life in prison.
"I think that's too big a risk to take," Chiles said. "I'm not going to approve something that I think is going to release 380 people" from death row.
Chiles also said he would prefer that the Legislature delay any action on the issue until its next regular session in March and April rather than taking it up in special session this week. Chiles called lawmakers to Tallahassee this week to deal with school crowding.
"What I worry about is, do we have a bill that we're all satisfied with that will pass the constitutional requirements?" Chiles said. "I think that's something that we ought take a little time, take up at the general session."
Chiles last week delayed the state's next two executions, scheduled for last April, so that lawmakers would have time to consider the lethal injection issue. He rescheduled the executions of convicted murderers Leo Jones and Gerald Stano for late March 1998.
"I have delayed the warrants now because I think now we need to make sure we get it right," the governor said. "And I think to do that you have to have lethal injection as an alternative."
Burt's legislation would not do that, but Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, has sponsored another bill that would give inmates already on death row a choice of electrocution or lethal injection and require lethal injection for future death sentences.
Last month, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 4-3 the electric chair is not cruel and unusual punishment. Five justices, however, urged that lethal injection be approved to avoid what one called a "constitutional train wreck" if a future court bars electrocution.
The issue went to the high court after a foot-long flame burst from the headpiece worn by Pedro Medina, the last Florida inmate electrocuted.