RICHMOND — Virginia could use the electric chair to execute death-row inmates when lethal-injection drugs are not available, under a bill that passed the state Senate on Monday.
The proposal puts Virginia at the center of a national debate over how to carry out capital punishment at a time when lethal-injection drugs have become hard to obtain.
The legislation was approved by the House of Delegates in February, but it will have to return to that chamber because the Senate amended it. The Senate version requires the director of the Department of Corrections to make “substantial efforts” to obtain lethal-injection drugs before using the electric chair.
If the House accepts that change, the measure will go to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who has not stated a position on it. The bill’s sponsor in the House, Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Mannassas), said late Monday that he will oppose the amendment. If the House does not accept the amended bill, it could wind up in a conference committee.
The electric chair is already an option in Virginia; condemned inmates are allowed to choose between it and lethal injection. The intent of the bill is to make the electric chair the default method of execution if the state is unable to obtain the lethal-injection drugs.
The bill is only the latest attempt in Richmond to wrangle with the drug shortage. On Monday, lawmakers delved so deeply into the details of several grisly killings that teenage Senate pages were led out of the chamber.
The debate did not fall neatly along partisan lines, with Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax) among the most forceful advocates for finding a way to carry out the death penalty.
Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) detailed the crimes of Ricky Gray, whose scheduled March execution has been postponed as he appeals his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Gray, 38, was convicted in 2006 of brutally killing a Richmond musician, his wife, and their 9- and 4-year-old daughters. Court documents say Gray also confessed to killing his wife and three members of another Richmond family
“You’ve got to earn your way into that electric chair or [onto] that gurney,” Saslaw said,
“If you kill seven people,” he said, referring to members of the two families targeted, “you’re not a human being. You deserve whatever you get.”
Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) conceded that Gray’s crimes were “barbaric” but said that did not justify having the state employ an “outdated, barbaric” execution method.
Obenshain noted that he had voted against similar bills in recent years because he had thought then that the state government could find a way to obtain the lethal-injection drugs. But he said he had become convinced that the drugs could not be had.
A frequent critic of the McAuliffe administration, Obenshain said Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran had gone to great lengths to try to obtain the drugs.
“It’s a perverse result,” Obenshain said. “Opponents of capital punishment are making it impossible for us to carry out executions in the most humane way possible.”
Last year, McAuliffe supported a bill that would have allowed the state to order lethal-injection drugs from specialty pharmacies. That measure died amid controversy over provisions that would have shrouded the pharmacies in unprecedented secrecy to protect them from political pressure. A European export ban has stopped pharmaceutical firms from sending the drugs to the United States.
McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy, said the governor would review the bill if it reaches his desk.
McAuliffe supported capital punishment when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2009. Amid last year’s debate, Coy noted that McAuliffe is a Catholic but said he would not let his personal beliefs about capital punishment keep him from performing his duties as governor.
On Monday, Surovell sought to amend the bill to require the corrections director to publicly disclose what efforts had been made to obtain lethal-injection drugs, including which pharmaceutical companies had been contacted.
The effort failed. But the Senate passed an amendment proposed by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) that called for the director to make “substantial efforts” to obtain the drugs. That amendment does not require the director to disclose details of those efforts.
David Bruck, a law professor at Washington and Lee University and death penalty opponent, said courts are unlikely to approve executions where use of the electric chair is the only option.
He predicted that any execution invoking the statute would be delayed for months or even years of legal wrangling.and could easily land before the Supreme Court.
“It is not going to cause anyone to be executed sooner,” Bruck said.
There are seven people on death row in Virginia, according to the state Department of Corrections. The only scheduled execution is for Ivan Teleguz on April 13. Teleguz was convicted of taking part in a murder-for-hire plot in Harrisonburg that left a woman dead.
In 2014, Tennessee became the first state to allow use of the electric chair when no lethal-injection drugs are available. No one has been executed since the law passed and, last year, Tennessee’s Supreme Court delayed the remaining four executions in the state pending appeals.