Execution halted over 'cruel' use of electric chair

Georgian Supreme Court orders inquiry into means of capital punishment, but is criticised for ignoring prisoner's mental handicap
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The State of Georgia, under mounting international pressure, has agreed to postpone the execution of a mentally retarded prisoner convicted of a murder committed when he was a minor.

The State of Georgia, under mounting international pressure, has agreed to postpone the execution of a mentally retarded prisoner convicted of a murder committed when he was a minor.

However, the reason for the indefinite stay granted to Alexander Williams had nothing to do with his age or mental state. In its ruling the Georgia Supreme Court said instead that it was concerned that sending Death Row prisoners to the electric chair might constitute cruel and unusual punishment and required further investigation.

The decision drew a mixed reaction yesterday from Amnesty International and other anti-death penalty activists who have described the United States as a rogue country on capital punishment, saying the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iran were the only other countries to have put an under-age offender to death in the past three years.

"We obviously welcome any measure that spares the life of Alexander Williams and do not want to diminish the importance of the constitutional issues at stake here," Curt Goering, of Amnesty's New York office, said. "However, the most significant issues - Williams' mental illness, childhood abuse and lack of competent counsel - seem to have been ignored in a technical discussion concerning the method of death." Williams was a few weeks short of adulthood when he kidnapped 16-year-old Aleta Bunch from a shopping mall, robbed her, raped her and shot her dead in the Georgia town of August in 1986. The facts are not in dispute but the conduct of the trial and the morality of imposing the death penalty are.

According to Williams' psychological reports he lives in a fantasy world of green frogs and little red men and has been known to dress up as the Lone Ranger. The abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother never came out in court, and has caused five jurors to issue public statements saying they might have come to a different conclusion if they had had the full facts in front of them.

One of the five expressed "silent regret" and "horror" that he not only accepted the prosecutor's portrayal of Williams as an evil man but also leant on the one juror who was briefly sceptical about recommending the death penalty.

In theory, the best Williams can hope from the stay of execution is that the electric chair is deemed unconstitutional - as it has been in neighbouring Florida - and that, after a delay of a few months, he is executed by lethal injection instead.

Campaigners fighting for his cause still hope to save his life. "This gives us more time, and that's a good thing," said Ellyn Jaeger of the National Mental Health Association of Georgia.

The issue also casts an indirect spotlight on Texas, whose governor, George W Bush, is the Republican presidential candidate. Not only has Texas executed more prisoners than all the other US states put together this year, it was one of the first states to extend the death penalty to minors and the mentally retarded.

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