Law enforcement officials will again resort to executing death row inmates with the electric chair in the event that they are unable to obtain lethal injection drugs after Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill into law Thursday.
The often controversial issue of capital punishment among Americans was less so among Tennessee legislators, with the Senate voting 23-3 in favor last month and the House voting 68-13 in favor. The Republican governor’s signature makes Tennessee the ninth state where death by the electric chair is still a method of execution, although Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Tennessee is the only state where inmates will not have a choice.
“There are states that allow inmates to choose, but it is a very different matter for a state to impose a method like electrocution,” he told the Associated Press Thursday. “No other state has gone so far.”
The electric chair was first used in New York State in 1890 and quickly earned the nickname “Old Sparky” before falling out of favor decades later for what many considered to be a more humane method of execution: lethal injection. The first lethal injection was carried out in 1982 and, from the state’s point of view, has been largely successful. (The most recent execution by electric chair was in Virginia in 2013, however.)
That grace period ended in 2011 when the European Union banned the export of drugs used in the lethal injection process to the US, citing it as a violation of the EU Torture Regulation. States that had not stockpiled their supply of barbiturates, paralytics, and potassium solution were suddenly scrambling and had little choice but to ask local pharmacies to replicate the necessary drugs.
Yet the dispute remains a hot button issue even in states where the death penalty is legal. Angry residents began boycotting the pharmacies that manufactured the drugs, and instead of reconsidering the death penalty state officials simply refused to disclose which pharmacies were making the lethal injection cocktails or, more importantly, what drugs were inside them.
Last month, ignoring legal challenges that sought to unmask which drugs are used, Oklahoma officials used a drug cocktail on a convicted murderer and rapist who, instead of dying in peace, writhed and groaned on the lethal injection table, ultimately dying of a heart attack 43 minutes after he was scheduled to.
The brutal incident revived the debate over the morality and efficiency of how inmates are killed, with lawmakers through the country suggesting that prisons revert to the tried and true methods of the past.
Governor Haslam declared that Tennessee will only use the electric chair if the state is unable to acquire the necessary drugs. Although Dieter, in part because the state has 81 inmates sitting on death row, said he expects that defense attorneys will deploy a variety of legal challenges to the new law. David Raybin, who helped draft Tennessee’s current death penalty law decades ago, said that the method of execution could change, but not retroactively for inmates currently awaiting their fate.
Republican state Senator Ken Yager, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, told the Associated Press he initially introduced the bill because of “a real concern that we could find ourselves in a position that if the chemicals were unavailable to us that we would not be able to carry out the sentence.”
The return of the electric chair comes just as politicians in Wyoming, motivated by the same drug shortage, are considering changing the state law so condemned inmates could be executed by firing squad. A legislative committee has been charged with the responsibility of drafting legislation by January, although Representative Stephen Watt told CBS he already doubts the measure will be popular.
“The biggest and probably the most popular [factor against] is probably my Christian beliefs that’s wrong for man to kill man,” he said this week. “The second one is because of technology. All the time, we’re coming up with more and more technology, and we’re finding innocent people that have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to die. It would be a tragedy for one innocent person to die.”