Alabama: A Kinder, Gentler Mode of Execution?

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Is one form of the death penalty more cruel and unusual than another? That's what the U.S. Supreme Court will have to decide when they hear arguments in the case of Alabama death row inmate Robert Lee Tarver. Convicted of robbery and murder in 1984, Tarver was hours from death when the Justices issued a stay of execution and agreed to consider the inmate's claim that Alabama's primary mode of execution — the electric chair — violates his Eighth Amendment rights, which protect him against cruel and unusual punishment. Alabama, Nebraska and Georgia are the only remaining states to use the electric chair exclusively, and have faced a growing tide of criticism in recent years after several botched executions, which resulted in more blood and highly visible pain than anyone was prepared for. Alabama officials responded to Tarver's pleas, according to the Associated Press, saying "death in the chair is almost painless and instantaneous."

Recently, several states, including Illinois, have reexamined the effects of their death penalty laws. There is a growing trend of concern, both domestically and abroad, that executions in the U.S. may be carried out disproportionately against minorities. And while Robert Tarver wasn't arguing against his death sentence per se, TIME senior reporter Alain Sanders points out that the ensuing legal maneuvers will probably grant Tarver quite a lengthy reprieve. "Tarver argued that he couldn't legally be electrocuted, and in Alabama, that means he can't be executed. Any judicial review will take months, if not years, to wrap up," says Sanders. The Court was poised several months ago to examine a similar case in Florida, until the state rendered the arguments moot by replacing electrocution with the more popular (and, its supporters argue, more "humane") lethal injection as its chief method of execution. Tarver's lawyers are hoping Alabama won't use the same strategy to expedite their client's execution; they maintain Tarver, who is black, was denied a jury of his peers. Eleven of the jurors who convicted him were white, and one was black.