POLITICS

Virginia Lawmakers Vote To Bring Back The Electric Chair

One lawmaker said the bill may actually speed the death penalty's decline in the long run.

• New bill would make it easier for Virginia to use electric chair for executions
• At least two states have ruled that the electric chair is unconstitutional as a default execution method
• Bill still needs signature from Gov. Terry McAuliffe

Virginia lawmakers have approved a bill that would mandate the electric chair for executions if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. 

The proposal on Monday passed the Virginia Senate 22-17; it easily cleared the House of Delegates in February. 

Under HB815, capital inmates can still choose between lethal injection or the electric chair 15 days before their execution. While the method defaults to lethal injection if no choice is made, the new bill makes electrocution the default should the drugs become unavailable.

The bill makes it easier for Virginia to kill someone by electric chair because there's no requirement for the Department of Corrections to go to any length to overcome challenges to performing a lethal injection, said state Sen. Scott Surovell (D), who opposed the bill.

"If the DOC certifies that they’re unable to perform the execution for any reason with lethal injection, then the electric chair can be used," Surovell said by phone shortly after Monday's vote. "It could be for literally any reason -- they don’t have drugs, they can’t find someone to do it."

Surovell said while he found the bill to be unnecessary, if passed, it actually puts Virginia's entire death penalty structure in jeopardy. 

In the last 20 years, the Supreme Courts in states like Nebraska and Georgia have ruled the electric chair an unconstitutional method of execution, while eight states have retained it only as an alternative option to be elected by the condemned, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. 

"Every court that has looked at [the electric chair] in the past 20 years said, 'We don’t do this anymore,'" Surovell said of the evolving standards of what's considered cruel and unusual punishment.

"I think the [U.S.] Supreme Court will get rid of the electric chair now that we’ve teed it up for them,” Surovell said, noting that he warned his colleagues in favor of HB815: "If you vote yes on this, you’re hastening the end of the death penalty." 

Lethal injection is the primary method in all 31 states that still have the death penalty, but an ongoing shortage of drugs has frustrated states' efforts to legally carry out executions. 

Convicted murderer Ricky Javon Gray was scheduled for execution March 16, but received a stay while the U.S. Supreme Court considers hearing his case.

The Virginia Department of Corrections said in January it did not have enough of a crucial drug used in the state's lethal injection protocol to carry out Gray's execution. 

We have more transparency buying furniture than we do taking a life in this state. State Sen. Scott Surovell

 Drugs used in both single-drug and three-drug lethal injection protocols have become increasingly hard to find in the wake of European manufacturers banning the drug's use for executions and domestic producers pulling their drugs from the market. 

States like Texas have turned to compounding pharmacies -- whose identities and standards remain shrouded in secrecy, per state laws -- to obtain lethal injection drugs. Others, like Nebraska, have even attempted to illegally import drugs from India. 

Virginia lawmakers have been fighting to keep even basic information about its execution process a secret. 

“We have more transparency buying furniture than we do taking a life in this state,” Surovell said, adding HB815 felt like it was "legislation pushed through by some secret society."

Surovell said the DOC did not come to speak to either the House or Senate committees as the proposal developed. 

The legislation now heads to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) for signature. The governor's office did not immediately respond to questions on whether he would sign the bill into law.

McAuliffe, who has said he personally opposes the death penalty, is among just three sitting Democratic governors to allow an execution on their watch. 

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