Tennessee’s new law brings back electric chair


An undated file photo of the electric chair at the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville. (AP Photo, File)

Tennessee can now use the electric chair in the event that its prisons are unable to obtain lethal injection drugs — a recent problem in some states that employ the death penalty.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill into law Thursday allowing the state to electrocute death row inmates as a backup to lethal injection, still the main method of execution in the United States. The move makes Tennessee the first state to enact a law to reintroduce electrocution without giving prisoners a say, the Associated Press reported.

The electric chair, once the preferred method, fell into disuse after a number of botched executions appeared to prolong the deaths of condemned inmates, who received multiple shocks before dying.

“There are states that allow inmates to choose, but it is a very different matter for a state to impose a method like electrocution,” said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “No other state has gone so far.” Dieter said he expects legal challenges if the state decides to go through with an electrocution.

A Haslam spokesman confirmed to the AP that the governor had signed the bill, but offered no further comment.

Recently, a handful of states have been scrambling to obtain drugs during a nationwide shortage following a European-led boycott of drug sales for executions.

Some states have responded to these shortages by discussing other methods they could use. Wyoming lawmakers are contemplating using firing squads. Eight states allow electrocution, three allow the gas chamber and three others allow hanging. Two states permit the firing squad, though only technically. The last execution by firing squad was in Utah in 2010.

Lethal injection faces increased criticism, especially since last month’s botched execution in Oklahoma left inmate Clayton Lockett writhing on a gurney before he suffered a fatal heart attack. Some states have also been scrutinized for obtaining execution drugs in secret from unidentified compounding pharmacies, where medications are customized for patients.

Tennessee’s new bill came after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a rare last-minute stay of execution for Missouri death row inmate Russell Bucklew. The justices directed a lower court to take another look at the case. The Supreme Court did not specify its reasons.

First used by New York State in 1890, the electric chair was employed throughout the 20th century to execute hundreds. Since 1976, 158 inmates have been executed this way.

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Lindsey Bever is a national news reporter for The Washington Post. She writes for the Morning Mix news blog. Tweet her: @lindseybever
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