SINCE THE turn of the century, capital punishment in the United States has been on an accelerating downward spiral. Fewer states sentence people to death, fewer still carry out those sentences, and the relative handful of states that continue to execute people do so with diminishing frequency.
At the same time, with vanishingly few exceptions, lethal injection has become the consensus method used for the dwindling number of executions — the only technique regarded as relatively humane, meaning absent obvious manifestations of the intentional infliction of pain.
Yet as so many states move forward, Virginia is considering a step back. That’s the direction the commonwealth would go if it enacts legislation forcing convicts to die by electric chair if lethal injection drugs cannot be found.
The legislation, passed by Richmond’s Republican-controlled House of Delegates and now before the Senate, arises from two factors: the scheduled execution of one of the state’s seven death row inmates, and the fact that drug companies have blocked the use of their products in lethal injections, leaving death penalty states scrambling.
The bill’s sponsor, Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas), used the horrific murders committed by Ricky Gray, who is scheduled to be executed next month, to argue for requiring use of the electric chair in the absence of lethal injection drugs. Mr. Gray was convicted of killing a Richmond musician, his wife and their two daughters, age 9 and 4, and also confessed to killing his own wife and three other members of a Richmond family.
Mr. Gray’s crimes were ghastly; their ghastliness does not negate or diminish the electric chair’s cruelty.
Of the 744 people executed in the United States since Jan. 1, 2001, just nine of them (including five in Virginia) have died by electrocution, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. There’s a reason the chair is no longer used by the vast majority of states: It’s barbaric.
A court in Georgia, a death penalty state, outlawed use of electrocution in 2001 as violating its state constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court noted the chair inflicts “purposeless physical violence and needless mutilation,” noting its “specter of excruciating pain and its certainty of cooked brains and blistered bodies.”
Since 2008, no state besides Virginia has used the electric chair. Virginia allows inmates to select the electric chair as an alternative to lethal injection. Yet if Mr. Gray elects to die by lethal injection, and the needed drugs are lacking, then what?
One alternative is to wait until the drugs are procured. Executions are routinely delayed for any number of reasons; a delay in order to carry out the sentence humanely is hardly unreasonable.
Another alternative is for Virginia to recognize the future and scrap capital punishment altogether. Use of the death penalty nationwide has fallen steadily for 15 years, to just 28 executions last year from 85 in 2000. In the same span, death sentences have plummeted to 49 last year from 223 in 2000. The trend is clear; Virginia should embrace it.
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