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Virginia Wants to Bring Back the Electric Chair

With lethal injection drugs in short supply, the Virginia’s House of Delegates is joining the list of states pushing for archaic methods of killing prisoners.

"Old Sparky," the decommissioned electric chair in which 361 prisoners were executed between 1924 and 1964, at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas.(Fanny Carrier/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Dustin Volz
January 22, 2014

As lethal-injection drugs become harder to come by, states are turning to electrocution to carry out executions.

The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill Wednesday that would mandate electrocution be used to carry out a death sentence if a lethal injection cannot be performed. The vote is the latest and boldest maneuver in a steady stream of state moves aimed at addressing the growing shortage of death-penalty drugs.

States across the country are running out of the drugs they have relied on for decades to carry out death sentences, as European manufacturers are making it increasingly difficult to procure such chemicals if their use is to be a lethal injection. The European Union strongly opposes capital punishment and has pressured companies that knowingly export drugs to the U.S. for executions.

 

Virginia's move would make it the first state in the country to mandate death by electrocution. The measure, House Bill 1052, passed by a vote of 64-32. To become law, it would need to clear the state's Senate and get a signature from new Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a prospect that currently seems unlikely.

Other states, also facing drug shortages, are turning to execution methods that until recently have been declared all but obsolete.

Last week a lawmaker in Wyoming proposed a return to the firing squad because it is "the cheapest [option] for the state." Missouri's Statehouse is also flirting with reintroducting firing squads, which a bill sponsor said was "no less humane than lethal injection." Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill tweeted in response, "Not my state's finest moment."

Most states, including Florida and Texas, are either turning to secret compounding pharmacies to procure their drugs or carrying out executions with new, untested lethal-injection cocktails. Ohio executed Dennis McGuire last week with a two-drug protocol that reportedly left the convicted murderer and rapist writhing in pain for 10 minutes.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which officially takes no stance but is usually regarded as opposed to capital punishment, called the proposals in Virginia and elsewhere "mostly symbolic" attempts to make access to necessary lethal drugs easier for states.

"There are plenty of drugs to kill people with," Dieter said. "What states don't want is a lot of interference. These are statements aimed at courts or regulators to allow lethal injections."

Dieter added that the "demise of the death penalty would be hastened" if firing squads or electric chairs became normal again because of the inevitable cruel-and-unusual-punishment challenges that would await.

Virginia currently allows death-row inmates to choose between death by lethal injection or electrocution. The latter option has only been used in seven of the 86 executions Virginia performed since 1995, according to DPIC. Virginia's last execution, on Jan. 16, 2013, was carried out in an electric chair.

"The 'cruel and unusual' clause is not concerned if the inmate chooses a punishment," Dieter said. "If the warden chooses it, that's a different thing."

The state's Department of Corrections has said its lethal-injection drug supply will expire in November.

Republican Del. Jackson Miller, the bill's sponsor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

To learn more about the wide-reaching implications of states confronting lethal-injection drug shortages, read National Journal's earlier coverage here.

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