Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill authorizing the state to use the electric chair as a backup to lethal injection, but the measure could spur the legal challenges that supporters had hoped to avoid.
The Republican governor approved legislation Thursday night that would let the state conduct electrocutions if courts block the use of lethal injection or the drugs needed to administer the procedure are unavailable.
"It passed overwhelmingly, 80 or 90 percent, in the legislature," Haslam told reporters today. "I think the legislature felt very strongly we needed to have some sort of backup in case the drugs for lethal injection weren't available. The Supreme Court has looked at the electric chair and said it meets its definition of not being cruel and inhuman punishment, so we made the decision to sign it.
Asked if he feels personally comfortable that electrocution isn't cruel and inhumane punishment, the governor replied, "That's what the Supreme Court has said." He noted that the state attorney general, Bob Cooper, has said he was comfortable that the legislation is legally defensible.
Haslam said a recent Vanderbilt University poll that found a majority of Tennesseans in support of using the electric chair for executions had no impact on his decision.
Tennessee previously allowed death row inmates to opt for electrocution if their offenses were committed earlier than 1999. The state has used the electric chair just once since then, electrocuting Daryl Keith Holton in 2007 for four counts of first degree murder.
The signing came less than two days after Vanderbilt University released a poll showing 56 percent of registered voters in Tennessee support using the electric chair for state executions. Thirty-eight percent said they are opposed.
Tennessee lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to expand the use of electrocution this spring as debate over the procedures, effectiveness and constitutionality of lethal injection has spread across the nation. After a four year interval brought on largely because lethal injection drugs could not be obtained, Tennessee scheduled execution dates for 10 death row inmates last year, and many lawmakers argued the state should create an alternative plan to keep executions on track.
Some said they would consider methods such as the gas chamber, firing squads or hanging — all of which are allowed in some states, but not Tennessee.
The bill's passage drew immediate objections from civil rights advocates.
"Regardless of the method, state killing is wrong," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Tennessee chapter. "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.
"The death penalty does not achieve real justice when over 100 people sentenced to death have been exonerated and decisions about who lives and who dies are largely dependent on how much money they have, the skill of their attorneys, the race of the victim, and where the crime took place. Life without parole is a better way to keep communities safe without sacrificing our values."
Tennessee has had the electric chair on the books as an execution method since it re-instituted the death penalty in 1977, but no sentences were carried out until 2000, after the state had made the electric chair optional.
Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper said in an opinion released in March that electrocution most likely would be upheld by the courts. He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has rejected challenges to the method, ruling that it does not violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."
As recently as 1997, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Tennessee, said "electrocution has never been found to be cruel and unusual punishment by any American court."
But other lawyers say applying electrocutions to all death row inmates could prompt lawsuits on behalf of those who committed capital offenses after lethal injection became the state's preferred method of execution.
Electrocution cannot be applied to those death row inmates retroactively, said David Raybin, a Nashville defense attorney who authored the state's first death penalty statute after executions were reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.
Tennessee made lethal injection optional precisely because legal authorities wanted to avoid suits on that basis, he added.
"Should it be applied retroactively? Absolutely it should not," he said. "Is it constitutional to have an electric chair? Probably."