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May 23, 2014

Tennessee adopts electric chair as back-up execution method

Tenn executionAs reported in this AP article, "Tennessee has decided to bring back the electric chair." Here are the details:

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday signed a bill into law allowing the state to electrocute death row inmates in the event the state is unable to obtain drugs used for lethal injections.  Tennessee lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the electric chair legislation in April, with the Senate voting 23-3 and the House 68-13 in favor of the bill.

Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Tennessee is the first state to enact a law to reintroduce the electric chair without giving prisoners an option.  "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 said. "No other state has gone so far."

Dieter said he expects legal challenges to arise if the state decides to go through with an electrocution, both in terms of whether the state could prove that lethal injection drugs were not obtainable and on the grounds of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment....

Republican state Sen. Ken Yager, a main sponsor of the electric chair measure, said in a recent interview that he 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."

A Vanderbilt University poll released this week found that 56 percent of registered voters in Tennessee support the use of the electric chair, while 37 percent are against it. Previous Tennessee law gave inmates who committed crimes before 1999 the choice of whether they wanted to die by electric chair or lethal injection.  The last inmate to be electrocuted was Daryl Holton, a Gulf War veteran who killed his three sons and a stepdaughter with a high-powered rifle in Shelbyville garage in 1997.  He requested the electric chair in 2007.

A provision to apply the change to prisoners already sentenced to death has also raised a debate among legal experts.  Nashville criminal defense attorney David Raybin, who helped draft Tennessee's death penalty law nearly 40 years ago, has said lawmakers may change the method of execution but they cannot make that change retroactive.  To do so would be unconstitutional, he said.

Supporters of the bill requested a legal opinion from state Attorney General Bob Cooper, who said the law would pass constitutional muster, but there was no guarantee it would not be challenged in court....  The Supreme Court has never declared a method of execution unconstitutional on the grounds that it is cruel and unusual.  It upheld the firing squad in 1879, the electric chair in 1890 and lethal injection in 2008.

May 23, 2014 at 09:32 AM | Permalink


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Usage of the electric chair is guaranteed litigation bait that will delay things for years probably. The USSC avoided having to decide the issue a few years back, but there is a real chance five justices would reject its usage.

Wyoming is thinking about the firing squad again. Some experts say that is safer for the inmate than lethal injection with the additional value of not having most of the medical ethics issues. But, I think this is emotionally upsetting for those carrying it out.

Posted by: Joe | May 23, 2014 10:57:51 AM

The guillotine is quick and humane. What prevents its adoption in the various states?

Posted by: Jardinero1 | May 23, 2014 11:45:56 AM

" The Supreme Court has never declared a method of execution unconstitutional on the grounds that it is cruel and unusual."

-- Give it time. The 'evolving decency' folk have not fully evolved yet.

Posted by: Adamakis | May 24, 2014 9:51:25 AM

I will be amazed if electrocution survives a Baze challenge. Even most of the gallows humor that surrounds the electric chair is in some way related to the infliction of pain (calling the chair itself "Old Sparky" or saying of the condemned that they are "going to ride the lightning"). And as Joe said, regardless of whether it does survive or not it will engender years more litigation. I see a properly constituted firing squad faring much better litigation wise, although as I have also said I am amazed that states have not given serious consideration toward neutral gas asphyxiation.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 24, 2014 11:45:21 AM

It might just be that I post too much - half-way kidding - but my comments are being eaten up lately. Anyway, the guillotine would be hard to put in place for a range of reasons, including the trickiness of new "unusual" punishments and public distaste.

The SC in effect in dicta has said that some methods are unconstitutional -- let's say crucifixion -- but none actually legally used at the time ("legally" would deal with, e.g., lynching practices).

Posted by: Joe | May 24, 2014 11:47:13 AM

BTW, I think my comment about the guillotine applies somewhat to the gas alternative suggested. "Gas" has a negative connotation particularly, even if all types of gas is not the same. Also, what was the reason it was not used in the past, when gas chambers were around? There very well might be a technical or other issue there. If not, curious why it was not used in the past when gas chambers were still used.

Posted by: Joe | May 24, 2014 12:04:49 PM

I don't get why states are so obsessed with the death penalty, it seems because of politics, some folks would love to die in peace then rot away in a prison. As for firing squad, I think litigation would be there as well.

If we follow scalia, we can say the electric chair, hanging, firing squad are constitutional, now I'm not debating the dead v. living constitutional argument, because we can argue whether folks ignored it early in our nation's history, or whether a living one would open up a can of worms (ie, well maybe we don't need juries as much), homosexuality can also be a qualifying offense if we follow scalia's logic, though privacy advocates can argue otherwise.

In any-case, it seems silly to try to pass and sign a bill about electric chairs, the very subject means gives more ammo to folks against the death penalty without having to go into any technical explaining about types of drugs,etc.

In any case, should the electric chair be used for serious cases such as terrorist and not a person who killed someone and is remorseful, is terrorism worse than barely 1st degree or second degree murder in passion.

Posted by: Alex | May 25, 2014 2:31:31 PM

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