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. 
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Jan. 22, 2014, 10:22 a.m.

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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