Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed a bill Thursday legalizing the electric chair as a fallback option in case his state is unable to obtain the drugs it typically uses to execute death row inmates. The bill overwhelmingly passed both houses of the state legislature before reaching Haslam’s desk.
This bill, which restores a method of killing inmates that was considered cutting edge in the 1890s, was enacted in reaction to a nationwide shortage of execution drugs arising out of growing international opposition to the death penalty. Many drug makers outright refuse to sell their products to state officials if those drugs will be used to kill someone. Many of these drugs are also manufactured overseas, where foreign governments can ban their sale for use in executions. Europe’s already imposed tight restrictions on the exportation of drugs commonly used to kill inmates. Moreover, in 2012, when several vials of a common anesthetic was accidentally shipped to prison officials in Missouri, Germany threatened “strict export controls” on this drug — which is used 50 million times a year by American hospitals — if these vials were used to kill anyone. The state eventually agreed to relinquish the drugs.
Although lethal injection is commonly viewed as a less barbaric way to kill inmates than more primitive methods such as the electric chair — as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in 2008, “[t]he firing squad, hanging, the electric chair, and the gas chamber have each in turn given way to more humane methods, culminating in today’s consensus on lethal injection” — several recent executions suggest that lethal injections place a sterile, clinical gloss on what can sometimes amount to torture. In Oklahoma, a death row inmate named Clayton Lockett went into convulsions during a botched execution that lasted 43 minutes. Another inmate named Michael Wilson cried out that he could “feel my whole body burning” shortly after he was injected with an execution drug.
Should Tennessee ultimately use the electric chair to kill a person, however, it will be unable to cloak its executions with the appearance of a medical procedure. According to one report of an execution in the 1990s, the electric current caused an inmate to jerk in the chair and at the straps holding him in place. Meanwhile, “a trickle of bright red blood began to dribble from under the mask, onto the white shirt he was wearing. The blood continued to flow, dripping onto the leather restraints and leaking through the holes for the buckle until it left a dinner plate-sized stain in the middle of his chest.”