- Associated Press - Friday, May 23, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee has decided how it will respond to a nationwide scarcity of lethal injection drugs for death-row inmates: with the electric chair.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill into law Thursday 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.

Tennessee is the first state to enact a law to reintroduce the electric chair without giving prisoners an option, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that opposes executions and tracks the issue.

“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 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 Thursday evening, but offered no further comment.

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.”

The decision comes as lethal injection is receiving more scrutiny as an execution method, especially after last month’s botched execution in Oklahoma.

In that case, convicted killer Clayton Lockett, 38, began writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow after he had supposedly been rendered unconscious by the first of three drugs in the state’s new lethal injection combination.

The execution was halted, and Lockett died of an apparent heart attack 10 minutes later, authorities said. They later blamed a collapsed vein, not the drugs themselves.

In 2009, Ohio abandoned an execution attempt after Romell Broom was pricked 18 times with needles. Broom remains on death row, challenging the state’s right to try again.

In January, an Ohio inmate snorted and gasped during the 26 minutes it took him to die. The state said this week it doesn’t believe Dennis McGuire suffered, but it also announced it would increase the drug dosages “to allay any remaining concerns.”

Also in January, Oklahoma death row inmate Michael Lee Wilson said during his execution: “I feel my whole body burning.”

Concerns about lethal injection also have risen at a time when Tennessee and many states - including Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas - obtain execution drugs in secret from unidentified compounding pharmacies. Death penalty opponents say the secrecy raises the risk of something going wrong.

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