NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The Senate has voted to allow the state to electrocute death row inmates if lethal injection drugs cannot be obtained.
The measure sponsored by Sen. Ken Yager passed on a 23-3 vote on Wednesday.
The Harriman Republican said current law allows the state to use its alternate execution method only when lethal injection drugs are not legally available. But Yager said there was no provision for what do if there was a shortage of those drugs.
The state's lethal injection protocol uses a sedative commonly used to euthanize animals, but states are exhausting supplies.
The state's last electrocution was in 2007. The companion bill is awaiting a House floor vote.
A plan to bring back the electric chair is making its way through the Tennessee legislature, though some lawmakers have voiced uneasiness about returning to an execution method the state largely had abandoned.
A House committee approved a bill Tuesday morning that would make electrocution the state's method for killing inmates sentenced to death if lethal injection were declared unconstitutional or the drugs needed to carry it out were unavailable. But a handful of members said they have reservations about the electric chair, which the state has used only once since 1960.
"It seems barbaric to me," said state Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Nashville. "I'd rather go with the gas chamber, myself. ... The electric chair bothers me."
Tennessee switched to lethal injection when it brought back the death penalty in the 1990s, but lawmakers gave inmates the option of choosing the electric chair for crimes committed before Jan. 1, 1999. One inmate, Daryl Keith Holton, was electrocuted in 2007.
In recent years, lethal injection has come under scrutiny. Death penalty opponents have pressed manufacturers to stop making available the drugs used in lethal injections, and courts have begun to weigh whether the method really produces the painless death that supporters claim. That has led state officials to reconsider electrocution, which the attorney general said last month never has been found unconstitutional.
State officials nonetheless expect House Bill 2476 would be challenged in court if it were to pass. Jernigan, sighing heavily, spelled out why, describing the damage electrocution does to the body. But state Rep. Dennis Powers, the Jacksboro Republican who filed the bill, stood by the measure.
"What seems barbaric is someone that's been on death row 29 years," he said. "This is really not about the death penalty. The death penalty is already the law in Tennessee. This is about how we do it."
Jernigan responded by noting that some states allow death by firing squad. State Rep. Kent Williams, I-Elizabethton, said that method did not phase him either.
"That'd be the easiest way to go," he said, adding, "I don't know why we got away from hanging."
"We're wanting to make sure that these people on death row go ahead and get the just sentence that they deserve," Powers replied. But some members still weren't convinced.
"I just kind of feel that some kind of injection is a more humane way … than it is, I think, to just fry somebody," said state Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar.
"Our job is not to judge. Our job is to arrange the meeting between the (defendant) and the creator, for him to judge," Powers said.
HB 2476 now heads to the House Finance Committee and could be voted on by the full House of Representatives by the end of the legislative session. The state Senate is scheduled to vote on companion legislation, Senate Bill 2580, on Wednesday.
Reach Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 and on Twitter @chassisk.
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