States that still administer capital punishment are taking desperate measures to keep the executions going. In some it means administering lethal injections under a shroud of legally suspect secrecy. In Tennessee, it could mean returning to electrocution. Death penalty supporters should know what that means.
The electric chair is back in Tennessee.
Technically it never went anywhere, but the electric chair did give way to lethal injection in the Volunteer State, just as it has in every state that still has capital punishment, Alabama included.
That changed last week, however, when Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a bill expanding the use of the electric chair in the event Tennessee is either unable to obtain the necessary drugs to carry out lethal injections or the courts find its method of lethal injection unconstitutional.
The law makes Tennessee the first state to come up with an alternative to lethal injection in the wake of a national shortage of sodium thiopental, one of the drugs used in the lethal injection cocktail. The sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental has stopped making it.
European countries — which have abolished capital punishment and yet still have emptier prisons and fewer intentional homicides than the U.S. — refuse to export it.
That has led some states to scramble for alternatives to sodium thiopental. It also has led states to try to keep secret the drugs they use and their manufacturers, whom leaders in death-penalty states seek to shield from lawsuits and bad publicity. So far, the result has been April’s grotesquely botched execution involving an inmate in Oklahoma.
State Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, sponsored a bill in this year’s legislative session to similarly shield manufacturers that provide
Alabama’s lethal injection drugs. His bill didn’t pass, but Greer has said he will reintroduce it in the 2015 legislative session.
Meanwhile, similar laws in other states work their way through the courts, with the grizzly shadow of Oklahoma hanging over them all.
That brings us back to the electric chair. Like Tennessee, Alabama still has one, although it hasn’t been used since 2002. Unlike his counterpart just to the north, Gov. Robert Bentley said he is against putting it back into regular service. Perhaps he has good reason, and a good memory.
Alabama’s electric chair, nicknamed “Yellow Mama,” has its own gruesome past. In 1983, John Louis Evans III became the first person executed in Alabama following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. The first jolt set off sparks and nearly caught his leg on fire, but it didn’t kill him. It took two more jolts and 14 minutes for doctors to finally pronounce Evans dead.
Capital punishment isn’t pretty, but as its supporters say, neither are the crimes that merit it.
Still, that hasn’t stopped most of the world from abolishing the death penalty, suspending it or limiting its use to punishment for wartime atrocities. When it comes to capital punishment, the United States is in the company of China, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
If Alabamians are determined to support the death penalty, they should at least know exactly what they’re supporting.