Virginia looks at bringing back the electric chair

posted at 2:41 pm on February 18, 2016 by Jazz Shaw

Earlier this month, the Commonwealth of Virginia saw the introduction of a bill in the state legislature which would send capital punishment convicts to the electric chair if lethal injection drugs were not available. This was in response to a growing shortage of the drugs, as companies refused to sell them for use in death penalty cases.

Across the country, states are struggling to procure the drugs necessary to perform lethal injections. Manufacturers in Europe have refused to sell drugs for use in capital punishment, as has at least one major U.S. manufacturer. The three-drug cocktail used commonly since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 is now out of reach.

That has left states to experiment with other drugs. Virginia opted for a new three-drug combination; other states have been moving toward using one large dose of a sedative. But the new options are prompting the same protests from manufacturers as the old ones. And untested formulas have led to complications and court challenges; a man executed in Ohio recently took 25 minutes to die.

This prompted a predictable response from the Left, including the editorial board at the Washington Post. Their arguments were definitely framed to discourage use of the chair, but more broadly pushed to strike down capital punishment entirely.

Of the 744 people executed in the United States since Jan. 1, 2001, just nine of them (including five in Virginia) have died by electrocution, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. There’s a reason the chair is no longer used by the vast majority of states: It’s barbaric.

A court in Georgia, a death penalty state, outlawed use of electrocution in 2001 as violating its state constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court noted the chair inflicts “purposeless physical violence and needless mutilation,” noting its “specter of excruciating pain and its certainty of cooked brains and blistered bodies.”

First of all, the legislation in question isn’t attempting to ban lethal injection and replace it with Old Sparky. It seeks to mandate that path only if the drugs in question are unavailable. If that’s the big sticking point in the discussion, perhaps the WaPo could work on solutions to get the drugs out of legal limbo and back in supply rather than fighting this bill. (Virginia already offers convicts the option of either the needle or the chair, though few go for the latter for obvious reasons.)

It’s also curious that the editorial board chooses to invoke the name of Ricky Gray when making their argument. Let’s recall that this is the same guy who tied up Bryan and Kathryn Harvey along with their 9 and 4 year old daughters in their basement, beat them to death, slit their throats and burned their house down around them. He followed that up by admitting to additionally murdering his own wife and a second Richmond, Virginia family for good measure. Is that really a guy who should still be sharing the communal oxygen supply? There are a couple of points to remember about the death penalty here:

  • The recidivism rate for death penalty recipients is zero
  • The studies claiming that capital punishment isn’t a deterrent are impossible to validate

Before we throw out the electric chair baby with the bath water, I’d simply make one observation. I offer no argument against the WaPo’s contention that death in the electric chair is pretty awful with, as they say, the promise of “excruciating pain and its certainty of cooked brains and blistered bodies.” But isn’t that sort of the point? People are supposed to fear the death penalty, not only for the specter of their own mortality, but because it’s a terrible way to die. A promise of an execution where you are put to sleep only to never awake again pretty much describes how most people would choose to go at the end of their own hopefully long and healthy lives. There are far worse deaths experienced by innocent people every day.

Frankly, I still maintain that prisons should show video of executions to non-capital punishment inmates just to drive the point home and hopefully have them take the story with them to any other prospective murderers on the outside. A painless deterrent isn’t much of a deterrent at all, and I have a hard time mustering a lot of sympathy for Ricky Gray.


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