This undated photo shows the electric chair at the Tennessee State prison in Nashville. First used by New York State in 1890, the electric chair was used throughout the 20th century to execute hundreds and is still an option in eight states. Since 1976, 158 inmates have been executed by electrocution. / AP
The national shortage of drugs necessary for death penalty states to carry out lethal injections has led Tennessee this week to become the first to allow a return to use of the electric chair.
The bill signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslamon Thursday allows prison officials to use the state electric chair at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville if there are not enough drugs to perform lethal injection.
The state's electric chair is the choice if "one or more ingredients essential to carrying a sentence of death by lethal injection is unavailable through no fault of the government," the new law says.
"I think the Legislature felt very strongly we needed to have some sort of backup in case the drugs for lethal injection weren't available," Haslam said. "The Supreme Court has looked at the electric chair and said it meets its definition of not being cruel and inhuman punishment, so we made the decision to sign it." Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a data clearinghouse and death penalty opponent, said the move likely will trigger more legal challenges.
"(It) exposes inmates to the mandatory use of the electric chair. Tennessee would be the only state to impose one of these older methods of executions," he said. "This is certainly a step backward in terms of states seeking more humane methods."
Tennessee law had provided for only lethal injection with the narrow exception of prisoners who chose death by electrocution and whose crimes were committed before 1999. Daryl Holton, a Persian Gulf war veteran who killed his three sons and a stepdaughter in 1997, chose electrocution and was the last executed that way in Tennessee in 2007.
The Associated Press reported that the new law's retroactive application to prisoners already on death row may be unconstitutional, according to legal experts.
All 32 death penalty states, the U.S. government and the military have lethal injection as the only or primary means of capital punishment. Several allow for the condemned inmate to choose an alternative method. Those include electrocution, the gas chamber, hanging or firing squad.
The last electrocution in the USA was carried out in Virginia in January 2013, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
States have struggled in recent years to find drugs for lethal injection, particularly anesthetics or barbiturates, because manufacturers have refused to sell them for use in executions.
Some have begun using new, untested combinations. In a recent case in Oklahoma, convicted killer Clayton Lockett, 38, struggled for 43 minutes writhing, mumbling and raising his head before executioners halted the process. He died of a heart attack shortly afterward. Oklahoma delayed the next execution and is investigating Lockett's death.
Corrections officials have chosen to buy their drugs from lightly regulated compounding pharmacies that will do business with states only in secret.
The result has been a new round of legal challenges, including one earlier this week in which the Supreme Court blocked the execution of Russell Bucklew in Missouri.
Tennessee last September changed its lethal injection protocol to the use of one massive overdose of the barbiturate pentobarbital, a drug many states are forced to buy from compounding pharmacies.
Tennessee has not carried out any executions since adopting this new protocol but has two set for this year, the soonest for convicted killer Billy Ray Irick, who murdered a 7-year-old girl he was babysitting in 1985. His execution date is Oct. 7.
Dorinda Carter, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Corrections, said the state was ready to carry out lethal injections even before the new bill was signed into law.
"We have said that we are confident we'll be able to secure the necessary drugs when we need to," Carter said.
She said the state's electric chair, though not used since 2007, has been kept in working order.
Contributing: Associated Press
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