Virginia Governor Rejects The Electric Chair, But Still Wants To Carry Out Executions

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe gestures as he delivers his State of the Commonwealth Address before a joint session of the 2016 Virginia Assembly at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/STEVE HELBER
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe gestures as he delivers his State of the Commonwealth Address before a joint session of the 2016 Virginia Assembly at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/STEVE HELBER

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) rejected a bill that would’ve made the electric chair the default means of carrying out executions in his state, but still doesn’t oppose capital punishment altogether.

McAuliffe wants to enable so-called “compounding pharmacies” to secretly supply state officials with the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections. His proposal comes in the form of an amendment to a bill that would’ve allowed the state to use the electric chair as its default means of execution. Currently, death row inmates face a choice between lethal injection or the chair, but few have opted for the chair since the current law went into effect in 1995. According to Vice, during that span of time, just seven of the 87 inmates who have been executed in Virginia have chosen the chair. But the bill McAuliffe was considering would’ve made the chair Virginia’s default execution method if lethal drugs aren’t available.

How It Feels To Kill 62 PeopleJustice CREDIT: ap photo/pat sullivan When it comes to capital punishment, we already know the fiscal cost: studies…thinkprogress.orgStates are encountering difficultly obtaining lethal injection drugs from “non-compounding pharmacies” that, unlike compounding pharmacies, fall under the regulatory scope of the Food and Drug Administration. Since professional medical associations and European drug companies have increasingly refused to supply states with drugs if they’re intended to kill people, state officials have resorted to questionable sources and shady dealings to obtain them. Legislators in Virginia sought to avoid going down that road by instead using the electric chair.

McAuliffe had until midnight Monday morning to sign the bill. He ended up not doing so, but proposed his amendment as a compromise solution of sorts. Under the proposal, Virginia officials could hire a pharmacy to make a batch of the lethal drugs in secret, shielding the company from accountability or possible reprisals.

Under McAuliffe’s amendment, the names of the pharmacies involved or any other identifying information “shall be confidential, shall be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act… and shall not be subject to discovery or introduction as evidence in any civil proceeding unless good cause is shown.” ​A number of other states, including Georgia and Missouri, have enacted similar laws to shield executioner identities and drug manufacturers from public record as it becomes increasingly difficult to find legitimate medical sources.

The governor, who says he personally objects to capital punishment as a Catholic but must distinguish between his personal beliefs and the law, explained why he rejected the electric chair on Twitter:

McAuliffe’s amendment now goes back before the legislature, where it’ll be considered during during a “veto session” later this month. As NBC reports, a similar measure was rejected by Virginia lawmakers last year, and similar laws in other states have prompted legal challenges from people who are concerned about government transparency.

During a news conference Monday, McAuliffe said that if lawmakers reject his amendment, his state will move away from capital punishment altogether.

“If they pass up that opportunity, they will bring the death penalty to an end here in Virginia,” McAuliffe said, adding that pharmacies with access to lethal drugs “will not do business in Virginia if their identities are to be revealed.”

But Virginia Senator and death penalty opponent Scott Surovell (D) said McAuliffe’s proposal “replaces one bad idea with another bad idea.”

“I don’t know how a court is supposed to evaluate whether we’re complying with the constitution if we’re going to kill somebody using a secret drug,” he added.

Gallup polling shows support for the death penalty has steadily eroded over the past 20 years, but as of last October, 61 percent of respondents continued to favor it, compared to 37 percent opposed.

The impending executions of Virginia inmates Ivan Teleguez and Ricky Javon Gray were both recently stayed by state courts.

Update:

Thanks largely to support from Republicans, McAuliffe’s proposal was approved by the legislature on Wednesday, meaning executions will continue to be carried out in Virginia, with the companies that provide lethal drugs to the state being shielded from accountability.