Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has until midnight on Sunday to decide whether to make death by electric chair the compulsory method of capital punishment in his state.
Unless McAuliffe, a Democrat, decides to veto legislation passed by state lawmakers last month, a new law will take effect on July 1 that requires the state to use the electric chair to execute inmates who have been sentenced to death. Since 1995, inmates in Virginia have been given the choice between dying by lethal injection or by electric chair. Just seven of the 87 people who have been executed since then have chosen the chair over the injection.
The electric chair bill was drafted to circumvent the nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs, which are manufactured in European labs. In 2012, the European Commission imposed strict controls on the export of drugs used in lethal injections — the go-to method of execution in the US for the last 40 years — to ensure they weren't being used "in capital punishment, torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Instead, some states have gone back to the drawing board to consider alternative options in the event that lethal injection drugs become too difficult to obtain.
McAuliffe has been mulling over the bill very quietly, despite coming under pressure from 300 faith leaders from Virginia and beyond who issued a statement last week condemning the electric chair as "a barbarous relic" that kills inmates with "unspeakable cruelty."
Virginia officials have indicated that the state is already running short on the three drugs used in lethal injections. Last October, The Texas Department of Corrections sent Virginia three vials of pentobarbital to execute a serial killer, returning the favor after Virginia sent Texas the drugs in 2013. Virginia authorities haven't been completely clear on just how much they have left.
The next inmate scheduled to be executed in Virginia will either be Ivan Teleguez, who is scheduled to die on April 13, or Ricky Javon Gray, whose execution was previously scheduled for March 16. Both executions were recently stayed by state courts.
Gray was convicted of murdering five people, and Virginia Senator Scott Surovell believes that proponents of the electric chair have used his case to argue that the state needs an alternative way to execute inmates if lethal injection is no longer feasible. Surovell said these individuals have suggested Gray could avoid being executed if McAuliffe doesn't approve the new electric chair law.
"They did not introduce their (electric chair) bill last year, so it's either that they are trying to use the gruesomeness of the Ricky Gray case to justify this, or else it is one heck of a coincidence," Surovell said.
'Instead of charging from one barbaric execution method to another, states should accept that capital punishment by any means is brutal, unjust, ineffective and expensive.'
The Guardian reported that the Virginia Department of Corrections quietly changed its lethal injection protocols recently without revealing what the change involved. Lethal injections typically involve a cocktail of deadly drugs.
Death by electric chair, known colloquially as "Old Sparky," was first developed in 1880s by a New York dentist as a humane alternative to hanging. The US and the Philippines are the only two countries in the world where prisoners have been executed by electrocution. The Philippines stopped using that method in 1976.
In 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union called for a moratorium on the electric chair after the brutal and bloody execution of Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis who was sentenced to death in Florida for the murder of 37-year-old Nancy Weiler and her two daughters in 1982. Eyewitness accounts said that blood poured out of Davis' mouth and "oozed from his chest" as he was hit with 2,300 volts of electricity.
Davis was the first prisoner to be executed in an updated model of the chair. The older version was replaced after flames shot from the head of condemned inmate Pedro Molina during his execution in 1997.
McAuliffe's decision carries particular weight given Virginia's history of racism when it comes to meting out justice with the electric chair. The state first used the device to execute a black man who was convicted of raping a white woman, and the Guardian found that 217 of the 267 people who have died by electrocution since 1908 were black.
Whatever he decides will have some bearing on the presidential campaign trail due to his close relationship with Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. McAuliffe was the chairman for Clinton's 2008 campaign. In October, Clinton asserted her support for capital punishment in extreme situations, and she reiterated that stance during a Democratic debate in February. "I do, for very limited, particularly heinous crimes, believe it is an appropriate punishment," Clinton said.
Two years ago, Tennessee passed legislation that would allow the electric chair to be used if the state runs out of lethal injection drugs. Wyoming and Oklahoma plan use gas chambers, while Utah's contingency plan is to bring back firing squads. Mississippi is also considering legislation to use firing squads.
Maya Foa, death penalty coordinator at the human rights group Reprieve, told VICE News that the US should abolish capital punishment rather than seeking out alternative methods to kill prisoners.
"Instead of charging from one barbaric execution method to another, states should accept that capital punishment by any means is brutal, unjust, ineffective and expensive," Foa said.
She noted that the US ranks among the top five countries worldwide in the number of inmates that are executed each year, and pointed out that several lethal injections have gone horribly wrong recently. In one notorious incident, Oklahoma's execution of inmate Clayton Lockett in December 2014 lasted 43 minutes and created what a prison warden who witnessed the ordeal described as a "bloody mess."
While it's commonly assumed that lethal injections are a swift and painless way to die, doctors do not administer the lethal drugs because of their Hippocratic oaths, and it is often left to less experienced paramedics to do the job. Decisions about which drugs to use are often left up to prison officials and authorities with no medical training.
The drug midazolam one of three chemicals commonly used in lethal injection cocktails, and it is supposed to knock prisoners out so that they can't feel excruciating pain as the other two drugs are infused into their bloodstream. But prisoner rights advocates argued before the Supreme Court last year that midazolam actually "has no pain-relieving properties and cannot reliably produce a deep, coma-like unconsciousness." The Supreme Court nevertheless ruled 5-4 that the use of midazolam in executions is legal and does not violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment"
"The US remains among the world's top five most prolific executors, with a number of recent high profile botched executions exposing the true brutality of lethal injection executions," Foa said. "Far from being humane and clinical, lethal injection is the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake, so it's little wonder healthcare companies don't want their medicines anywhere near the execution chamber."
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