Tennesee Electric Chair Law Reignites Capital Punishment Debate

By:  Dave Bohon
Tennesee Electric Chair Law Reignites Capital Punishment Debate

A Tennessee law renewing the use of the electric chair has re-ignited debate over capital punishment. 

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has signed a bill allowing for the use of the electric chair in executions in that state when the appropriate drugs are not available for lethal injection. Botched executions over the past months and an increasing refusal by some foreign manufacturers to make the necessary drugs available has prompted a number of states to look for alternative ways to carry out executions, including a return of such archaic but effective methods as the firing squad.

Haslam's signature followed passage of the bill in April, with the State Senate voting 23-3 and the House 68-13 to reintroduce the electric chair as an alternative to lethal injection. The bill's main sponsor, Republican State Senator Ken Yager, explained that he introduced the bill because of “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.”

Tennessee has 74 inmates on death row, and since 1999, condemned prisoners have had the option of choosing the electric chair over lethal injection. The last one to do so was Daryl Holton, a Gulf War veteran who was electrocuted in 2007 for the murders of his three sons and stepdaughter with a rifle 10 years earlier.

The new law will put the decision in the hands of prison officials, who will decide the means of execution based on the availability of lethal drugs such as pentobarbital, which some European drug makers have refused to sell to state governments for the use of lethal injection, reportedly because of the increasing number of botched executions. In 2009, the U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, another commonly used execution drug, stopped making the drug.

The latest execution gone awry was in April in Oklahoma, where convicted murderer Clayton Lockett, 38, began writhing, clenching his teeth, and lifting his head off the pillow of the death gurney after he was supposed to have been rendered unconscious by the first of three drugs in the state's death machine. Lockett reportedly finally succumbed to a heart attack 10 minutes after the execution procedure began.

Earlier in the year, convicted murderer and rapist Dennis McGuire gasped and convulsed for some 10 minutes during his lethal-injection execution in Ohio before finally expiring. In 2009, Ohio stopped the lethal injection of convicted murderer Romell Broom after the executioners tried nearly 20 times to get a needle in his veins. Broom remains on death row, but is challenging the state’s right to try to kill him again.

Currently 32 states allow for the death penalty, and while most rely on lethal injection and a handful have the electric chair as a prisoner-preferred option, according to the Washington Post three states also allow the gas chamber (Arizona, Missouri, and Wyoming), three have an option for hanging (Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington) and two states keep a firing squad on reserve (Oklahoma and Utah).

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