Virginia lawmakers are mulling a bill that would allow state officials to use the electric chair to execute those on death row when lethal-injection drugs are not available — a measure that might be needed to put an inmate to death next month.
The legislation passed the Virginia House of Delegates last week, though it still must clear the Senate, which it has failed to do in the past. But this year might be different because an inmate is scheduled for execution in March, and prison officials say they do not have the sedatives they need to do it.
“It’s our job to help carry out what they have decided in a court of law,” said Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas), who introduced the bill.
The proposal again thrusts Virginia to the center of a national debate on how the justice system should deal with those it has determined deserve to die. Historically, states turned away from the electric chair, believing lethal injection to be quicker, less painful and less likely to be declared cruel and unusual punishment, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Now — with the needed drugs in short supply — they are being forced to look at alternatives, sometimes turning to practices that have fallen out of favor, Dunham said.
“The irony is they’re looking for alternatives to lethal injection because lethal injection may be found to be cruel and unusual, or because lethal injection drugs are becoming harder for states to lay their hands on,” Dunham said. “It’s pretty clear that states that adopt electrocution as the method of execution are going to face very serious constitutional challenges.”
Virginia is one of eight states that already allow electrocution as a method of execution, letting inmates choose between it and lethal injection. The next inmate slated to die, Ricky Gray, has not yet picked a method. What will happen at his March 16 execution — or if it will go on as planned — remains unclear.
Gray, 38, was convicted in 2006 of brutally killing a Richmond musician, his wife, and their 9- and 4-year-old daughters. He picked the family because he spotted their door open and decided to rob them, court documents say. The documents say Gray also confessed to killing his wife, Treva Terrell Gray, and three members of another Richmond family.
In urging his colleagues to pass the bill, Miller gave a lengthy and graphic description of Gray’s crimes and asked legislators to help the victims’ families “get the justice that they deserve and that our justice system has determined they deserve.”
“This isn’t expanding the death penalty, but the case I just told you about is exactly why we have this punishment on our books,” he said.
Marna Squires, the mother of Gray’s wife, said she does not care what method is used.
“I’d love to be there and lay him down on the gurney and put the needle in him if they’d let me,” Squires said.
Executions by electrocution are far less common than those by lethal injection, though they are not unheard of. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 158 people have been executed by electrocution since 1976, compared with 1,252 by lethal injection.
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia permit the practice in theory, according to data from the center, though each state has different rules. The last inmate to pick electrocution in Virginia was Robert Gleason Jr., who was given a life sentence for killing someone to cover up his involvement in a drug gang, then death for killing two fellow inmates behind bars. He was executed in 2013.
Courts in Georgia and Nebraska have ruled that electrocution violates their state constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, according to the center.
Lisa Kinney, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said the state is out of one of three drugs it needs to perform a lethal injection — which is supposed to be the default method of execution. While state law would let an inmate pick the electric chair, it does not say explicitly that it can be used as a backup plan. The legislation would change that. Dunham said that even if Virginia lawmakers passed the bill, though, it would probably face a challenge from Gray’s lawyers, and that could delay the execution.
Efforts to reach Gray’s criminal lawyers were unsuccessful. Victor M. Glasberg, a civil rights lawyer who represents Gray in a federal case challenging the use of solitary confinement on Virginia’s death row, said the practice of execution by electrocution is barbaric.
“Drawing and quartering is preferable, and what is even better than that is to import somebody from ISIS for instruction on beheading,” he said derisively, using another name for the Islamic State extremist group.
Gray, of course, could pick electrocution nonetheless, or the state could locate the necessary drugs. Kinney said the department “works to maintain an adequate supply of lethal injection drugs so as to be able to carry out court orders” but noted “it has become extremely difficult to obtain lethal-injection drugs.”
Dunham said states across the country are wrestling with the same problem. Pennsylvania, for example, stayed the execution of one inmate to allow its corrections department to procure the necessary drugs, and Ohio put off its executions until at least 2017. Dunham cited a 2014 survey by Hart Research and Public Opinion Strategies for NBC News in which 1 in 3 people said that if lethal injection was off the table, executions should be halted.
“States have to determine what options are available to them and what they’re going to do,” Dunham said. “Do they want to try to change which drugs they use in executions and can they obtain those drugs reliably, or do they want to change the overall method of execution, or have they had enough?”
Jenna Portnoy and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.