Tennessee has decided how it will respond to a nationwide scarcity of lethal injection drugs for death-row inmates: with the electric chair. Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill into law last week allowing the state to electrocute death row inmates in the event prisons are unable to obtain the drugs, which have become more and more scarce following a European-led boycott of drug sales for executions.
Tennessee lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the electric chair legislation in April, with the Senate voting 23-3 and the House 68-13 in favor of the bill.
Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Tennessee is the first state to enact a law to reintroduce the electric chair without giving prisoners an option.
"There are states that allow inmates to choose, but it is a very different matter for a state to impose a method like electrocution," he said. "No other state has gone so far."
Dieter said he expects legal challenges to arise if the state decides to go through with an electrocution, both on the grounds of whether the state could prove that lethal injection drugs were not obtainable and constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Supreme Court has never declared a method of execution unconstitutional on the grounds that it is cruel and unusual. It upheld the firing squad in 1879, the electric chair in 1890 and lethal injection in 2008.
The court made it clear over the years that the Eighth Amendment prohibits inflicting pain merely to torture or punish an inmate, drawing a distinction between a method like electrocution and old European practices such as drawing and quartering. The Constitution prohibits "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain," the court said in 1976.
Nonetheless, U.S. states and the federal government have updated execution methods several times in efforts to find more humane ways to put condemned criminals to death.
First used by New York State in 1890, the electric chair was employed throughout the 20th century to execute hundreds and is still an option in eight states. Since 1976, 158 inmates have been executed by electrocution. It was considered humane when it was first introduced but has resulted in many horrific executions over the years.
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