In Florida, the killing is just electric!

The best fun I had before Christmas was watching a night-time launch of the shuttle Discovery: from where I was, more than a hundred miles south in Florida, the bright orange afterburn of its rockets made it seem that the millennium fireworks had come early. Then I enjoyed watching America's brief television coverage of Britain's millennium celebrations - sandwiched somewhere in between those of Finland and Iceland - with one commentator saying that the Queen looked as though she'd "rather be having a root canal" than be in that Dome in Greenwich.

Down in Florida, though, where were thoughts turning to at this historic time of peace, goodwill and new beginnings? In the case of Governor Jeb Bush - Dubbya's younger brother and the one their dad has always thought would be president - his preoccupation was simple: he wants to find a way to execute people more efficiently. Brother Dubbya held the record last year by executing 34 men and one woman in Texas, but Jeb managed only one: and this in a state where radio stations celebrate electrocutions by playing tapes of bacon sizzling and you can buy T-shirts saying, "Only Sissies Use Injections".

The dilemma for Bush is that Florida now has the third largest death row in the country; California has the most (551), followed by Dubbya's Texas (458) and then Florida with 393. One hapless soul has been sitting there waiting to die for 32 years, and the typical death row inmate in Florida has now been imprisoned for more than a decade (and I've been there, too: the conditions are truly horrible).

So why is Jeb falling behind with his brand of compassionate conservatism while Dubbya is compassionately executing people like crazy? The reason is that Florida continually botches executions. The local politicians love it, naturally: after the head of one condemned man caught fire in the electric chair a couple of years ago the state attorney-general Bob Butterworth said that people who commit murder "better not come to Florida because we may have a problem with the electric chair".

The state thought it better to construct a new chair, though, and last July came the turn of Allen Davis, a disturbed 25-stone man who had killed a pregnant woman and her two children.

But official pictures of Davis's execution turned out to be so appalling that one of Florida's Supreme Court judges had them posted on the Internet: they showed clearly that his nose and mouth were crushed and obstructed by a leather strap, at least partly asphyxiating him rather than electrocuting him to death by what (it transpired) was too low a voltage. His face turned purple and he bled copiously. The results of seeing such raw reality had a sobering effect: the people of Florida voted in public opinion polls by 2:1 to abolish their brand-new electric chair in favour of lethal injections.

Then "experts" started weighing in, giving conflicting opinions on whether someone being electrocuted feels pain: while proponents insist that death is instantaneous, others say that internal body organs literally slowly boil and that paralysing muscle contractions cause intense pain before the prisoner dies (witnesses to Davis's execution say they heard loud roars from him when he was supposed to be already dead).

Following all this, the US Supreme Court reluctantly agreed to hear a motion that continued use of the electric chair violated the eighth amendment of the US constitution outlawing "cruel and unusual" punishment - the first time for more than a century it had considered whether the electric chair, as opposed to execution in general, was cruel and unusual. Now only three states besides Florida - Nebraska, Alabama and Georgia - insist on using the chair.

So our Jeb, realising that Supreme Court deliberations could drag on so long that his condemned prisoners would end up dying natural deaths in prison, has been forced to try to pre-empt all this by making his state forsake its beloved "Old Sparky" chair in favour of lethal injections: at least he will then be able to have more people put to death, possibly even leading to a fraternal battle with Dubbya to see who can kill the most in 2000.

By the end of this month, in fact, Florida's electric chair may already have been retired (two museums so far have eagerly asked to have it). If Florida does abolish the electric chair, the other three states will almost certainly then follow suit, and thus a cherished old US tradition - started as a result of business rivalry between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison in the 1880s - will end, with electric chairs becoming curiosity items from the past much as the gallows now are in the UK.

Following the death of the first man in the electric chair in New York in 1890, thousands of men and women have been put to death this way; at least 165, according to anti-capital punishment groups, were innocent. A far greater proportion of blacks than whites were put to death. And however the majority may have died, at least some had their lives end in agony when incompetent executioners - they are still paid $150 per killing in Florida - botched the job.

But even as far back as 1926, some wardens had a conscience over the barbarity around them. Then, Jim Williams, 26, waited strapped in the chair for half an hour while two wardens ordered to pull the switch refused to do so. Williams finally slumped forward, having fainted - and was given a reprieve. Not long afterwards he heroically jumped off a prison truck and rescued a woman and baby from being gored to death by a mad bull.

A story, perhaps, that Jeb and Dubbya could mull over?

By Andrew Stephen

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.