Virginia May Start Using the Electric Chair Again If Lethal Drugs Keep Getting Delayed

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Virginia's Electric Chair
Back in action?Photo: Tim Wright/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

The Virginia State Senate doesn’t want a lack of lethal-injection drugs to get in the way of executions. The legislature passed a bill on Monday saying that when lethal injection was unavailable, Virginia’s executioner must resort to the electric chair. The bill will now go back to the House (where it already passed in February) with an amendment requiring that the director of the Department of Corrections make “substantial efforts” to locate the deadly drugs before firing up the chair instead.

Six states (Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia) are the only places in the world that still use the electric chair as a method of execution. In Virginia, inmates are allowed to choose between the chair and the needle as they face death at the hands of the state. The problem — as the State Senate sees it — is that injection cases are being delayed, sometimes indefinitely, because the makers of the preferred drugs have been pressed to stop selling them for this purpose. Republican senator Mark Obenshain calls that “a perverse result,” adding, “Opponents of capital punishment are making it impossible for us to carry out executions in the most humane way possible.” Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe is a supporter of capital punishment and said he would look at the bill, but has not pledged support for or against.

Although lethal injection is thought of as the “more humane way,” it has been known to fail horribly and leave the prisoner in immense pain or paralysis. But the electric chair is almost indisputably worse. The Nebraska Supreme Court in 2008 ruled the use of the electric chair “cruel and unusual,” and thus unconstitutional. In 1997, Pedro Medina was sent to Florida’s infamous “Old Sparky,” which malfunctioned during his electrocution and caused flames to shoot out of his head. Two years later in the same chair, Allen Lee Davis was seen all over the internet, blood soaking his white shirt and burns all over his body. Then-governor Jeb Bush infamously called the damage done during the botched execution a “nosebleed.”