Lethal Injection Problems Prompt State to Bring Back Electric Chair

The status of the death penalty in the United States has been in question for some time. First, European drug manufacturers refused to export certain lethal injection drugs to the United States, knowing that those drugs would be used to put condemned prisoners to death. Following on their heels and bowing to political pressure and death threats, U.S. drug manufacturers also declined to sell certain lethal injection drugs to Departments of Corrections in death penalty states. These moves have led to a shortage of lethal injection drugs, and they have prompted states to rely on compounding pharmacies to provide the drugs necessary to carry out death sentences by lethal injection. In order to protect the safety and security of the compounding pharmacies used to supply lethal injection drugs, many states refuse to disclose the source of the drugs. Death row inmates in several states, including Oklahoma, have sued the state in an effort to force disclosure, saying that shrouding the identity of drug suppliers in secrecy prevents the inmates and others from knowing if the drugs are properly mixed and stored. Any failure could prevent the drugs from functioning as intended, and therefore, could cause a painful or torturous death, violating the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Now, as a result of several apparently traumatic inmate deaths, including the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, the debate over the death penalty has intensified. Many are questioning whether lethal injection is as humane a death as it was billed to be. Interestingly, Oklahoma is the birthplace of lethal injection, and with Lockett's apparently agonizing execution, it may be the state where lethal injection dies. The United States as a whole and the individual states separately are pondering how to address the issue of lethal injection. Some say the system is not broken and that Lockett's death is an anomaly; others call the painful death of a violent criminal "justice." Some call for a complete prohibition against the death penalty; others are seeking to find ways to reduce suffering in lethal injection. One state has determined to address the shortage of lethal injection drugs by bringing back a method of execution that has been seldom used in recent years: the electric chair. Last week, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a measure into law that allows the state to use the electric chair to execute inmates when the drugs used in the state's lethal injection protocol cannot be obtained. To be fair, the state is not really "bringing back" the electric chair. It has always been an option for condemned Tennessee inmates convicted of crimes committed prior to 1999, but few have selected to die by electrocution rather than lethal injection. In fact, the last electric chair death in the state was carried out in 2007. The new law, however, removes the inmate's choice. Lethal injection is still to be Tennessee's primary method of execution, but in the event that the necessary drugs cannot be obtained, the execution will still be carried out through electrocution. There are a handful of states with laws that provide condemned inmates with a choice between two methods of execution. A few others, like Oklahoma, allow alternate methods of execution, but only in the event the primary method is ruled unconstitutional. If lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional, the state will utilize the electric chair in carrying out executions. If electrocution is ruled unconstitutional, the state allows use of the firing squad to put inmates to death.

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