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Will Virginia Allow Broader Use of the Electric Chair?

by Glen Luke Flanagan, published
The electric chair could make a comeback in Virginia.

Due to a shortage of the drugs used for lethal injection, the Virginia House of Delegates recently passed a bill (proposed by Del. Jackson Miller, R-Manassas) that would allow electrocution of condemned prisoners, rather than giving them a choice which way they prefer to die. The bill still has to go through the Senate before becoming law, however, and Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Richard Dieter thinks it's unlikely to pass.

"This is not just a procedural change in the law," he said. "It would establish the electric chair as a mandatory and likely punishment in the state, making Virginia the only state in the country with such a method of execution."

Stephen A. Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, pointed out that such a measure might not even be necessary in order to carry out executions.

"We understand that the [Virginia] Department of Corrections has no position on the bill," he said. "That suggests that DOC believes it can get replacement drugs."

Additionally, lack of drugs for lethal injection may not be a particularly pressing problem, as Mary Atwell, professor emerita of criminal justice, explained.

"Virginia has no executions scheduled at present, and had only one last year," she said.

Dieter pointed out that some states are turning to compounding pharmacies -- which can mix drugs from their base components -- as a way to continue execution by lethal injection.

"Virginia could convene a panel of experts to determine how lethal injection could best be carried out, insuring that it was humane as possible using available drugs," he said.

But, a better solution may be for the state to do away with the death penalty entirely, according to Kristine Artello, assistant professor of criminal justice at the Wilder School at Virginia Commonwealth University. She pointed out that many studies have shown execution to be more expensive than life imprisonment without parole, and she also questioned whether any method of execution can be truly humane.

"The lethal injections we use have been deemed harmful to animals," she said. "They don't put animals down that way. We really have to think about whether we have come all that far from when we used to do hangings in the public square."

Her point is poignantly illustrated by the recent case of an Ohio killer who was executed with an untested drug cocktail, and whose death took 25 minutes.

While Virginia is tied with Oklahoma as the state with the second-highest number of executions since 1976 (Texas has the highest number), data from Gallup shows that national support for the death penalty is the lowest it has been in 40 years.

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