Electric chair brings life to old death penalty debates

(WBIR - Knoxville) On Friday afternoon, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam defended his decision to sign a bill that requires the use of the electric chair to carry out executions if lethal injection is not available.

"The bill passed the legislature by a 90 percent margin," said Haslam during a stop in Sevier County. "I think the legislature felt really strongly there needed to be a backup method in case the drug used in executions wasn't available."

Lethal injections are arguably on shaky ground due to a national shortage of the drugs used to carry out the execution. The method has also come under criticism due to the secretive nature of the concoctions as well as a botched execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma.

Therefore, Tennessee brought in a familiar backup plan by reinstating use of the electric chair. Some deem electrocution too brutal, but Haslam said he believes use of the chair will stand up to legal challenges.

"The Supreme Court has ruled that it is a means that is acceptable and does not constitute cruel and inhumane treatment," said Haslam.

Choosing Death

From 1916 to 1960, the state of Tennessee executed 125 people and used the electric chair as its sole method of death. Those on death row had no options other than what prisoner's nicknamed "old sparky."

From 1960 until 2000, the state did not carry out any executions due to a variety of legal challenges.

When the state resumed executing prisoners in 2000, Robert Glenn Coe became the first Tennessee prisoner to die by lethal injection.

Lethal injection became the state's sole method of execution available to inmates placed on death row after 1999. However, those already awaiting execution prior to 1999 are still allowed to choose between lethal injection and the electric chair. Daryl Holton, a man who shot and killed his three children, chose to die in the electric chair in 2007.

Now the state still says inmates convicted after 1999 have no choice. They will be executed by lethal injection. If lethal injection is not available, they will die in the electric chair.

Deadly Delays

A major criticism of capital punishment is the length of time it takes to execute prisoners. There are currently 74 inmates on death row in Tennessee. The state has executed a total of six people since 2000.

The constant delays for executions are painfully slow for victims' families.

Related Link: Victim's brother says wait for execution 'never-ending'

There are currently 13 people on death row for crimes committed in East Tennessee. Six were convicted in the 1980s, six were convicted in the 1990s, and one was convicted in 2009.

"Huge Step Backwards"

Friday the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee released a statement criticizing Haslam's decision to sign the bill that brings back the electric chair.

"Regardless of the method, state killing is wrong," wrote Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU-TN. "Tennessee took a huge step backward by mandating use of the electric chair—an extremely brutal and cruel means of execution—at a time when eighteen states have recognized that the death penalty is unfair and unjust and repealed it altogether."

Governor Haslam said "That's the ACLU's opinion. We had elected representatives in the state of Tennessee voted 90 percent in favor of doing this because they felt like there needed to be an alternative method set up."


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