Tennessee Suspends Executions Amid Legal Challenges To Lethal Injection, Electric Chair

Tennessee Suspends Executions

The Tennessee Supreme Court has suspended executions of convicted murderers amid legal challenges contending that lethal injection and the electric chair are cruel and unusual punishments.

The state high court, in an order filed Friday, halted all executions and vacated execution dates for four inmates who had been scheduled to be put to death through early 2016.

"We're grateful that the Tennessee Supreme Court saw fit to lift these execution dates at least temporarily as the courts are proceeding with all this litigation," Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told The Huffington Post by phone Monday.

The court may set new execution dates as the anti-death penalty litigation proceeds.

Inmates on Tennessee's death row have sued the state, alleging that the primary execution method of single-drug lethal injection and the backup execution method of electrocution are unconstitutional because they're cruel and unusual punishments.

The trial over Tennessee's use of the electric chair starts next month, and the trial over the lethal injection protocol is scheduled for July, the Tennesseean reports.

"Obviously for us, the lethal injections are troubling," Rector said. "But equally troubling is the whole system: The expense to taxpayers, the lingering effects on victim's families and the prospect of executing an innocent person."

In May 2014, Tennessee legalized the electric chair as a backup execution method to lethal injection. In the '90s, the U.S. Supreme Court was poised to examine the constitutionality of the electric chair after a Florida inmate's hair caught fire during an execution.

As death penalty states struggle to find lethal injection chemicals that have run low due to bans and distribution issues, and defend legal challenges to the legality of execution methods, states like Georgia have suspended scheduled executions, while states like Pennsylvania have imposed moratoriums.

Other states -- like Utah and Oklahoma -- have rushed legislation to approve backup methods of execution, should lethal injection become an unworkable option.

Rector said such actions are a "band-aid" to the systemic problems that she says plague the death penalty, and prove the system is "broke and dysfunctional."

"We are really seeing a lot of concern in our legislature with this issue -- particularly with risks to executing an innocent person, costs and the effects on victim's families," Rector said. The new execution methods, she said, will make the existing system even more costly and complex.

Since 2000, Tennessee has executed six inmates and exonerated three, Rector said. (One of those exonerated inmates accepted a deal to plead guilty to a lesser crime in exchange for freedom.)

Before You Go

Lethal Injection
Until 2010, most states used a three-drug combination: an anesthetic (pentobarbital or sodium thiopental), a paralytic agent (pancuronium bromide) to paralyze the muscle system, and a drug to stop the heart (potassium chloride). Recently, European pharmaceutical companies have refused to sell drugs to the U.S. for use in lethal injections, requiring states to find new, untested alternatives.
Gas Chamber
Gas chambers, like this one pictured at the former Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Mo., were first used in the U.S. in 1924. In the procedure, an inmate is sealed inside an airtight chamber which is then filled with toxic hydrogen cyanide gas. Oxygen starvation ultimately leads to death, but the inmate does not immediately lose consciousness.
Electric Chair
The first electric chair was used in 1890. Electrodes attached to an inmate's body deliver a current of electricity. Sometimes more than one jolt is required.
Hanging was used as the primary method of execution in the U.S. until the electric chair's invention in 1890. Death is typically caused by dislocation of the vertebrae or asphyxiation, but in cases when the rope is too long, the inmate can sometimes be decapitated. If too short, the inmate can take up to 45 minutes to die.
Firing Squad
This Old West-style execution method dates back to the invention of firearms. In a typical scenario in the U.S., the inmate is strapped to a chair. Five anonymous marksmen stand 20 feet away, aim rifles at the convict's heart, and shoot. One rifle is loaded with blanks.
Wikimedia Commons
Decapitation has been used in capital punishment for thousands of years. Above is the chopping block used for beheadings at the Tower of London.
Kauko via Wikimedia Commons
Invented in France in the late 18th century during the French Revolution, the guillotine was designed to be an egalitarian means of execution. It severed the head more quickly and efficiently than beheading by sword.
Hanging, Drawing and Quartering
Wikimedia Commons
A punishment for men convicted of high treason, "hanging, drawing and quartering" was used in England between the 13th and 19th centuries. Men were dragged behind a horse, then hanged, disemboweled, beheaded, and chopped or torn into four pieces.
Slow Slicing
Carter Cutlery/Wikimedia Commons
Also called "death by a thousand cuts," this execution method was used in China from roughly A.D. 900 until it was banned in 1905. The slicing took place for up to three days. It was used as punishment for treason and killing one's parents.
Boiling Alive
Wikimedia Commons
Death by boiling goes back to the first century A.D., and was legal in the 16th century in England as punishment for treason. This method of execution involved placing the person into a large cauldron containing a boiling liquid such as oil or water.
Wikimedia Commons
Crucifixion goes back to around the 6th century B.C.used today in Sudan. For this method of execution, a person is tied or nailed to a cross and left to hang. Death is slow and painful, ranging from hours to days.
Burning Alive
Pat Canova via Getty Images
Records show societies burning criminals alive as far back as the 18 century B.C. under Hammurabi's Code of Laws in Babylonia. It has been used as punishment for sexual deviancy, witchcraft, treason and heresy.
Live Burial
Antoine Wiertz/Wikimedia Commons
Execution by burial goes back to 260 B.C. in ancient China, when 400,000 were reportedly buried alive by the Qin dynasty. Depending on the size of the coffin (assuming there is one), it can take anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours for a person to run out of oxygen.
Wikimedia Commons
This ancient method of execution continues to be used as punishment for adultery today.
Crushing By Elephant
Wikimedia Commons
This method was commonly used for many centuries in South and Southeast Asia, in which an elephant would crush and dismember convicts as a punishment for treason.
Michelangelo/Wikimedia Commons
Records show flaying, the removal of skin from the body, was used as far back as the 9th century B.C.
Wikimedia Commons
Records show this execution practice used as far back as the 18th century B.C., where a person is penetrated through the center of their body with a stake or pole.

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