States look to past for execution methods

Electric chair, firing squad, gas chamber back in conversation

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The disarray surrounding lethal injection in the U.S. is beginning to steer states back toward methods of execution that many had long ago deemed less humane than the needle.

Tennessee jumped out front this week with a law that could essentially bring back the electric chair. Elsewhere around the country, lawmakers have been talking about reviving the firing squad and the gas chamber, methods largely abandoned a generation ago.

The reason: Lethal injection — the primary means of execution in all 32 states with capital punishment — is under fire as never before because of botched executions, drug shortages caused by a European-led boycott, and a flurry of lawsuits over the new chemicals that states are using instead.

The Tennessee legislation signed into law Thursday by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam would allow the state to use electrocution against any current or future death row inmate if lethal injection drugs become unavailable. In truth, Tennessee never did abandon the electric chair; killers who committed their crimes before the state adopted lethal injection in 1999 have been given the choice of electrocution or the needle.

But the new law could take that choice away from the inmates and make everyone on death row subject to the electric chair.

Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School who has studied executions for more than two decades, called Tennessee’s law unprecedented.

“No state has gone backward, to go back in time to a prior method of execution,” she said. “For over a century, they have all moved forward.”

Some attorneys warned that changing the method of execution on inmates who were originally subject to lethal injection would be unconstitutional.

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, when the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in the U.S., 158 inmates have been electrocuted.