Supreme Court Considers the Chair, Unplugged

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Capital punishment's ugliest face — Florida's oft-malfunctioning electric chair — has prompted a national outcry, and now a Supreme Court review. Tuesday, the court agreed to consider whether the dramatic flaws in the chair, which has slowly shocked and suffocated dying men and set their heads on fire, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. But anti-execution activists shouldn't expect the court to move beyond the boundaries of the electric chair, says TIME senior reporter Alain Sanders. "This current court is pro-capital punishment," says Sanders. "So there is no likelihood that they'll use this to discuss whether capital punishment is legal."

The U.S. has long been tagged as hypocritical by other Western nations for high-mindedly using its vaunted Most Favored Nation Status to pressure nations on human rights issues, while it remains the only Western nation to execute prisoners. The issue had been heightened by the international attention paid to the scheduled December execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal (which was stayed by an appeals court on Tuesday), the accused cop killer who some allege received an unfair trial. While Sanders doesn't think that will sway the court, reviewing the chair will serve a purpose: "This is a case that allows them to look humanitarian and throw the capital punishment people a bone by outlawing the chair, while not endangering the whole capital punishment apparatus." So while the chair could be unplugged, the "Free Mumia" chants continue.