PRESENTED WITH legislation that would expand use of the electric chair in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has offered an alternative that he called “a reasonable middle ground.” In fact, the governor’s proposal would replace a barbaric practice (the electric chair) with a constitutionally suspect one (a veil of secrecy over executions).
Mr. McAuliffe opposes capital punishment in principle but has enforced it as governor. The state’s most recent execution, just its third this decade, took place on his watch in the fall; the condemned man was killed by lethal injection.
Mr. McAuliffe’s reluctance to sign a measure approved by lawmakers — to require the use of the electric chair when the state can’t obtain lethal drugs — is admirable. His suggested amendment is not.
If accepted by lawmakers, it would empower state officials to order the necessary drugs from compounding pharmacies, whose identities would be kept secret to shield them from the possibility of adverse publicity, even in the event of botched executions. The effect would be to drape a shroud of secrecy over such pharmacies, exempting them from the state’s Freedom of Information Act or even the normal process of fact-finding and evidence-gathering in civil suits, unless plaintiffs could show good cause.
It’s hard to think of a good reason that these particular government contractors — suppliers of a drug that might otherwise be unavailable owing to an embargo imposed on European drugmakers — deserve what amounts to a gag order. The secrecy would muzzle public debate over capital punishment and negate government transparency.
Virginia has long offered condemned inmates the choice of death by lethal injection or the electric chair. In practice, just six of 38 convicts put to death in the state since 2000 chose electrocution.
The increasing scarcity of lethal injection drugs prompted lawmakers to pass a bill this year that would make electrocution the default means of execution, even when prisoners opted for lethal injections. It’s a bad call. As a court in Georgia noted in affirming that the electric chair violates the state’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the chair is an instrument of “needless mutilation” that results in “excruciating pain and [the] certainty of cooked brains and blistered bodies.”
The electric chair’s inhumane violence is the reason lethal injection has become the only widely accepted method for the dwindling number of executions in this country. If states cannot arrange for lethal injection executions to be carried out according to the normal strictures of democratic procedure, then the decent alternative is not to abandon those strictures; it is to seek an alternative method or scrap the death penalty.
Mr. McAuliffe insists he will veto the legislation unless his amendment is adopted. If it comes to that, the effect will be a de facto moratorium on capital punishment in Virginia. That sounds like a fine outcome until a better alternative is available.