Va. electric chair bill sent back to committee, placing doubt on passage this year

The Virginia Senate on Thursday delayed and possibly derailed a bill meant to send death row inmates to the electric chair if lethal-injection drugs are not available.

The move could table the measure for the year and result in an effective moratorium on executions in Virginia, a state second only to Texas in the number of prisoners it has put to death in recent decades.

The Virginia Department of Corrections is out of the chemicals that make up its three-part execution cocktail and is currently unable to locate more. Under existing law, therefore, the state may not execute any prisoner who does not choose the electric chair.

The bill was prompted by the scarcity of the drugs, which has come about as manufacturers in Europe and at least one in the United States have started refusing to sell them for use in executions.

After a sometimes emotional debate that included three senators recounting the murders of relatives, the Senate voted 21 to 19 to send the bill back to the Courts of Justice Committee for further study.


This undated file photo provided by the Virginia Department of Corrections shows an electric chair that Virginia provides as an alternative to lethal injection. (AP)

Republicans who opposed the delay questioned whether the bill will ever find its way back to the floor. Democrats have had a majority on the committee since a narrow special election victory two weeks ago gave them control of the Senate.

State law allows death-row inmates to choose between two methods of execution: lethal injection and electrocution. Lethal injection is the default method if a prisoner doesn’t choose.

The bill would make electrocution the default method, allowing corrections officials to use the electric chair when a choice is not available and requiring them to use it when a prisoner does not make a choice. Virginia would become the only state where death-row inmates could be forced to accept electrocution as the means of their death.

Virginia has been out of the drugs needed for its three-drug execution protocol since Nov. 30 because its supply of chemicals used for the first step — either pentobarbital or thiopental sodium — had expired and had to be discarded, said Lisa E. Kinney, a spokeswoman for the corrections department.

There are eight people on death row but no scheduled executions, she said.

All 20 Democrats and one Republican in the evenly split chamber supported the delay. Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), noting his long support of capital punishment, said making the electric chair the state’s default method of execution could draw legal challenges and, ultimately, undermine the death penalty.

“In 1976, I was one of the people who helped bring capital punishment back to Virginia, and I don’t regret it for one minute,” Saslaw said. He said he wanted further review “before we put our whole statute in jeopardy.”

State Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) joined Democrats in voting to send the bill back for more study. “I’m not persuaded that there is a critical shortage or that it can’t be addressed,” said Obenshain, a death penalty supporter.

Sen. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson) said concerns about whether the electric chair might be considered cruel and unusual punishment were misplaced. He described the brutal murders of his cousin, her 4-year-old daughter and her husband.

“What about the victims and their families?” he said. “What about the cruel and unusual punishment that took place there? Does anybody think about that? I would ask that we don’t send this back to committee. I believe this is ready for a vote.”

Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) rose to say that capital punishment does not necessarily make life easier for victims’ families. She recalled the 1996 murder of her father-in-law by a burglar and the emotional toll of the potential death sentence on her family.

“Capital punishment is not good for all victims’ families. It splintered my family,” Howell said. “My children were opposed to it. My husband wanted it. . . . There are many victims who respond very differently. And I think what we need to do is make sure that this bill is done correctly and is constitutional.”

Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) spoke up to say that she lost an uncle and nephew to murder. “A lot of us are very serious about this bill. And to say that we are not sensitive or don’t care, well, that kind of strikes at the heart of a lot of us.”

A similar bill passed by the House is on its way to the Senate. But Republicans fear that the outcome will be the same, with the bill sent to a committee from which it might not emerge. Even if it passes, it is unknown whether Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who has not taken a position, will sign it.

“My concern is, regardless of examination, it will not find its way back to the floor because of moral persuasions,” said Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City).

Democrats took control of the courts committee and nearly every other committee last month after a special election win gave them a working majority in the evenly split chamber. Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D) presides over the Senate and has the power to break most tie votes.

“If this bill goes back to the courts committee, I’d like to go with it,” said Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (Louisa), one of the Republicans ousted from the panel when Democrats reorganized the Senate.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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