Effort to revive electric chair passes Virginia House

Virginia lawmakers, facing a shortage of the drugs used to perform lethal injections, are moving toward re-embracing use of the electric chair.

The House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed a bill Wednesday that would make electrocution the default method of death for condemned prisoners if lethal injection is not available. Currently, electrocution is used only at the request of the inmate sentenced to die.

Virginia, like other states that allow capital punishment, is struggling with a shortage of the drugs used to execute prisoners. European manufacturers will not sell chemicals for use in executions, and a major U.S. supplier halted production in 2011.

Only six states — Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia — still authorize use of the electric chair, according to research compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. And Kentucky and Tennessee permit electrocution only for crimes committed before 1998. All of the six states will electrocute only those inmates who specifically request it.

A Senate version of the bill is in committee. At a recent hearing, Sen. Kenneth D. Alexander (D-Norfolk), a funeral home director, questioned the use of the electric chair, saying it left the deceased “disfigured.”


The Virginia electric chair is shown before the scheduled execution of Frank J. Coppola at the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond on Aug. 10, 1982. (Steve Helber/AP)

“It’s a barbaric way for the state to execute people,” Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said after Wednesday’s vote. “It’s disappointing to me that my colleagues want to take a step backwards.”

The electric chair was last used in Virginia in January 2013, when Robert Gleason Jr., 43, chose to die by electrocution. He was the first prisoner since 2010 to do so; there were no complications.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.
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