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Tennessee Is Bringing Back the Electric Chair

It's the first state to bring back Ole' Smoky without offering death row inmates other execution options.

by Grace Wyler
26 May 2014, 6:00am

The electric chair at New York's Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It’s getting pretty hard to kill a death row inmate these days. Faced with a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs, states have been scrambling to figure out how to keep executing prisoners without creating more controversy about their methods of capital punishment. Tennessee believes it has found a great solution: Bring back Ole' Sparky.

On Thursday night, Republican Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill into law that allows the state to electrocute inmates if prison officials can’t get their hands on lethal injection drugs. The move made Tennessee the first state to bring back the electric chair without offering death row prisoners another option for execution. “I think the legislature felt very strongly we needed to have some sort of backup in case the drugs for the lethal injection weren't available,” Haslam said on Friday.  

The law, which was overwhelmingly passed by state lawmakers, comes amid mounting questions about the humanity and effectiveness of lethal injection, the preferred method of execution for all 32 states that still use capital punishment. But the drought of lethal injection drugs has forced state officials to experiment with untested lethal cocktails obtained through shady, back-alley transactions. The results are often disastrous, as we saw with the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last month. 

As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump points out, the use of the electric chair isn't exactly new – it was one of the more common methods of execution in the US for most of the 20th century. Seven other states still offer electrocution as an option for inmates, and it was most recently used in January 2013 to execute a death row inmate in Virginia.

Of course, there is a reason that most states retired the electric chair: Electrocution is a messy, gruesome way to kill someone. “Basically, the prisoner is mutilated,” said Deborah W. Denno, a Fordham University law professor who specialises in execution methods. Curious to know what fate could be in store for the 74 inmates still on death row in Tennessee, I asked Denno to explain how the electric chair works.

The process starts, she said, by shaving the prisoner’s head and part of the leg, usually near the ankle, reducing the body's resistance to the electricity. Next, the prisoner is typically strapped to the chair across the chest and legs, and then a metal skullcap with electrodes – “kind of like a yarmulke,” Denno explained – is put on the prisoner’s head with a moistened sponge. The executioners put a hood over the prisoner, and then they flip the switch.

How the prisoner actually dies still isn’t totally clear, according to Denno’s research, but electric-chair deaths are some sort of combination of asphyxiation and cardiac arrest, and the nervous system is usually paralysed. The body tenses up – sometimes violently – and inmates often defecate. Smoke and steam rise out of the body probably because the inmate’s blood is boiling. The inmate's temperature becomes so hot, flesh falls off if someone touches the body and the inmate usually receives third and fourth-degree burns under the electrode cap. I asked Denno if the eyeballs pop out. “Sometimes the eyeballs can pop out,” she said. The body can also bleed because of the pressure of the expanding tissue. Denno said, “It’s horrible, but it’s really like the body is cooking.” 

The electric chair used in Texas. Texas, which has the highest rate of executions in the country, now relies solely on lethal injection. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And that’s what happens when the execution goes well. If the process is botched, Denno said, the results can be even more gruesome. In two Florida executions during the 1990s, for example, flames burst out of the inmates’ hoods, because prison officials used the wrong sponges. In another particularly grisly case, Florida death row inmate Allen Davis’s 1999 electric chair execution went horribly awry, leaving Davis with burns on his face and covered in blood from a nosebleed. Evidence showed Davis had been partially asphyxiated by a mouth strap that had tied him to the chair, according to Denno’s research.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario, though, is when the inmates don’t actually die after the first few minutes in the electric chair. “When there have been botched electrocutions, it's often because there is a problem with the electric current,” Denno said. “When that happens, the inmate doesn’t seem to be dead during the first jolt – it can be enough electricity to be extremely painful, but not actually kill the person. Someone could be burning to death and dying, but be consciously aware and not able to cry out.”

Given this contingency, it’s not surprising that states eventually decided to abandon the electric chair in favour of lethal injection, a method of execution that, at the time, seemed more evolved – clearly shooting prisoners up with toxic pharmaceutical cocktails has come with its own set of problems. “What’s strange is that as we’ve moved toward these modern methods of executions, they’ve just gotten even more barbarous,” Denno said.

Tennessee prison officials, however, seem unconcerned. “We are ready as needed” to use the electric chair, the state Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield said on Friday. “We believe the procedures we have in place to run tests on the equipment will make it work.”

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