Death row inmates sue to stop electric chair 'torture'

A group of 10 death row inmates suing over lethal injection in Tennessee argued on Friday that the state's backup plan -- the electric chair -- is an unconstitutional "torture device."

The inmates are locked in a battle with the state over whether they have a right to know how they will be killed and who will do the killing. Their lawsuit stems from a 2013 law that makes nearly all information about lethal injection secret. Friday's lawsuit targets a 2014 law Gov. Bill Haslam signed that makes the electric chair the state's official backup if lethal injection is declared unconstitutional or if the necessary drugs are unavailable.

Attorneys for the inmates say that no other state -- or any government in the world -- imposes electrocution on the condemned.

"The state of Tennessee stands alone as the only jurisdiction in the world to involuntarily impose the electric chair on its condemned citizens," said Kelley Henry, a federal public defender involved in the lawsuit. "Even when the chair works exactly as it is intended, it is a torture device."

The lawsuit says that the electric chair amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment", which is outlawed by the U.S. Constitution. It points to the last man killed in Tennessee by the electric chair, Daryl Holton.

Holton was electrocuted in 2007 for murdering his three sons and a stepdaughter in 1997 in Shelbyville. Under the prior law, Holton was given the choice of lethal injection or electrocution. He chose the latter.

Friday's lawsuit describes how Holton died, according to those who witnessed it.

"A loud bang sounded, Holton's body jerked violently upward and remained there. The black shroud fluttered and witnesses may have heard Holton sigh. Holton's hands gripped the electric chair's arms tightly and turned red. After approximately 20 seconds, Holton's body slumped over," the lawsuit said. "Approximately 15 seconds later, a loud bang sounded, and Holton's body jerked higher than it jerked the first time. Holton's hands continued to grip the electric chair, and they turned bright red. After approximately 15 seconds, Holton's body slumped."

The suit said an autopsy found extensive burning on Holton's body.

Attorneys for the condemned argue that the electric chair doesn't render inmates like Holton unconscious, meaning they feel the effects of the electrocution. They say the electric chair "cooks" an inmate's internal organs and that they may catch fire while fully conscious.

The man who created Tennessee's electric chair in 1989, Fred Leuchter, was a Holocaust denier with no electrical engineering experience or license. Leuchter in 2006 told The Tennessean that the device he created was torture "tantamount to somebody being burned at the stake."

The inmates are waiting for an appeals court to decide whether the state must turn over the names of the execution team.

At least 11 inmates are currently scheduled to die through 2016, though the lawsuit is likely to delay those executions. Billy Ray Irick, who raped and murdered a 7-year-old Knoxville girl in 1985, is scheduled to be executed first, on Oct. 7 of this year.

Reach Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 and on Twitter @brianhaas.


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