NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee has decided to bring back the electric chair.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on today signed a bill into law allowing the state to electrocute death row inmates in the event the state is unable to obtain drugs used for lethal injections.
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 in terms of whether the state could prove that lethal injection drugs were not obtainable and on the grounds of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
A Haslam spokesman confirmed to The Associated Press that the governor had signed the measure today, but offered no further comment.
States have found themselves running out of drugs used to execute prisoners after a European-led boycott drug sales to prisons.
Republican state Sen. Ken Yager, a main sponsor of the electric chair measure, said in a recent interview that he introduced the bill because of “a real concern that we could find ourselves in a position that if the chemicals were unavailable to us that we would not be able to carry out the sentence.”
A Vanderbilt University poll released this week found that 56 percent of registered voters in Tennessee support the use of the electric chair, while 37 percent are against it.
Previous Tennessee law gave inmates who committed crimes before 1999 the choice of whether they wanted to die by electric chair or lethal injection. The last inmate to be electrocuted was Daryl Holton, a Gulf War veteran who killed his three sons and a stepdaughter with a high-powered rifle in Shelbyville garage in 1997. He requested the electric chair in 2007.
A provision to apply the change to prisoners already sentenced to death has also raised a debate among legal experts.
Nashville criminal defense attorney David Raybin, who helped draft Tennessee’s death penalty law nearly 40 years ago, has said lawmakers may change the method of execution but they cannot make that change retroactive. To do so would be unconstitutional, he said.
Supporters of the bill requested a legal opinion from state Attorney General Bob Cooper, who said the law would pass constitutional muster, but there was no guarantee it would not be challenged in court.
Thirty-two states have the death penalty, and all of them rely at least in part on lethal injection. Fewer than a dozen regularly carry out executions, among them Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Virginia and Texas, which leads the country. The federal government also uses lethal injection but rarely carries out executions.
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.