A Virginia state Senate committee has agreed that legislation bringing the electric chair back into regular use should be shelved this year.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Charles W. Carrico (R-Grayson), would have made electrocution the default mode of execution in the state if the Department of Corrections certified that lethal injection drugs were not available. Like many states, Virginia has been struggling to procure those drugs as manufacturers resist the use of their products in capital punishment.
Senators on the Courts of Justice Committee said they want more time to look into alternative methods of drug procurement before reverting to the electric chair, which is currently an optional mode of execution chosen by few prisoners.
Dean Ricks of the Virginia Department of Corrections testified that while other states are using compounds to deal with a shortage of pentobarbital, compounding pharmacies in the commonwealth cannot legally sell drugs for lethal injection. Several senators suggested that they would prefer to write legislation making those sales possible.
“I happen to favor the death penalty,” said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “However, if we pass this bill essentially, and we don’t change anything else, we’re back to electrocution, period. It seems to me we need to . . . see if we can’t change the law to enable us to be able to get this compound.”
None of the eight convicts on death row in Virginia is currently scheduled for execution. Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) suggested that should any execution be scheduled before the 2015 legislative session, Gov. Terry McAuliffe could delay that sentence until the issue is resolved.
The electrocution bill made it to the Senate floor last week, where all 20 Democrats and one Republican in the evenly split chamber agreed to send it to committee for further study. State Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), a death-penalty supporter who joined Democrats in that vote, has questioned the necessity of going back to the electric chair.
“The drug that they’re describing a shortage of is commonly available,” he said Monday. “It just seems to me that there are better alternatives.”
Virginia’s D.O.C. has purchased the two drugs used in a recent Ohio execution, although the state has not announced any plans to change to that new protocol.
Carrico argued that even if the state finds a short-term source, drug availability will always be a problem. “I think we’re still going to be down this road,” he said.
The House of Delegates passed legislation similar to Carrico’s bill in January.