The Supreme Court dashed those hopes; their decision not to hear Tarver's case sends the condemned man right back to the front of the electrocution line. But, says TIME legal writer Adam Cohen, that may not necessarily be an indication of the Court's attitude toward the death penalty. "It's always hard to read rejections like this," says Cohen. "We can never know the reasons they choose not to hear a case." On the other hand, he notes, "the most liberal Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg and Breyer voted to hear the case, and that may be an indication that this issue has divided the Court along very definitive lines." Also at issue: whether one or more Justices may view electrocution as cruel and unusual punishment but still support the death penalty in another form, such as lethal injection. The Justices' collective leanings, whatever they may be, will remain a source of speculation indefinitely or at least until they decide to hear a case that challenges the death penalty.
Those opposed to the death penalty saw a door open in Alabama, and they tried desperately to stick their collective foot in it. But on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court slammed the door in their faces by refusing to hear the case of death row inmate Robert Lee Tarver, whose February 3 electrocution was suspended when his lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that death by electric chair, Alabama's sole mode of execution, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. In addition to saving Tarver and others facing electrocution, anti-death penalty activists had been hoping that if the Court agreed that electrocution is indeed cruel and unusual, the ruling would serve to dismantle the legality of all forms of execution. It looked like a long road, and until Tuesday morning Tarver, who was convicted of murder in 1984, seemed guaranteed a lengthy reprieve as the legal minutiae were sifted.