It’s probably not a choice any of us would wish to have to make, but death row inmates in some states are opting to forgo lethal injection and instead choosing an older and more reliable technology: electrocution. The New York Times features the story of one inmate in Tennessee who has made this choice. His name is Nicholas Sutton and he “fears” the process of lethal injection and has used that state’s option for going with “old sparky” instead. But is it really any better? He may find out soon enough since he’s scheduled to be executed tonight.

Nicholas Sutton, like other death row inmates in Tennessee, has a choice in how the state will end his life.

The default, as set by state law, would be a series of injections, one to sedate him, followed by others that would paralyze him and stop his heart. Yet Mr. Sutton, like four other inmates executed before him in Tennessee since 2018, has chosen the state’s other option: Two cycles of 1,750 volts of electricity.

Nationally, the electric chair is a method of the past; no other state has used it since 2013. But inmate advocates and lawyers say the condemned men in Tennessee are choosing electrocution because they fear being frozen in place and feeling intense discomfort while drugs work to kill them.

The Gray Lady seems to be building some sort of sympathy case for Sutton, describing all the horrors of some botched lethal injection executions in the past. But before we get too choked up over his predicament, it’s worth reminding everyone why Sutton is in his current predicament.

In 1979, at the age of 18, Sutton knocked his own grandmother unconscious and threw her in a river where she drowned. After he was arrested, he confessed to killing two other people previously, including one of his best friends from high school. Even then his lawyers were able to obtain a plea bargain leading to three life sentences rather than capital punishment. He only got the death penalty after stabbing another prisoner to death five years later.

This guy was a remorseless, cold-blooded killer and a danger to society. He’s been hanging around and exhausting all of his appeals for more than 35 years. I think he’s been given enough time and he doesn’t deny any of the killings so they’re not at risk of executing the wrong person.

With that in mind, I hope you’ll forgive me for saying that I’m not terribly concerned over whether or not Sutton faces “14 minutes of pain and horror” on the injection table as it’s described in the linked article. It’s still a far kinder end than any of his victims likely received. But is it really any easier to shuffle off this mortal coil in the electric chair?

Yes, death is generally expected to come more quickly following two massive jolts of electricity, but some electric chair executions have been “botched” in the past also. (I’ll just warn you before you click on that link that there’s some seriously disturbing stories there.) Back when I was in the Navy I worked on electrical equipment and once took a hit of 5,000 volts DC off the tip of a magnetron in our ship’s TACAN unit. It knocked me clear across the small space I was in and into the bulkhead, but other than a bit of ringing in my ears I was okay. I can tell you, however, that for a brief moment it really, really, really hurt.

Pretty much every type of execution can go awry in an imperfect world. Hangings used to regularly fail to break prisoner’s necks and turn into a torturous dance of death at the end of a rope. Firing squads don’t guarantee a quick exit if everyone’s aim is a bit off that day. Possibly the only thing that would come close to a 100% success rate would be a well constructed and tested guillotine, but somehow I don’t think the courts would approve going back to the days of the French Revolution.

Each state that still keeps the death penalty on the books needs to decide for themselves, of course. But this story out of Tennessee does bring an idea to mind. Perhaps they can put all of the options on the table and let the Dead Man Walking decide for himself. (Let’s face it… it’s almost always men.) Some states already offer more than one choice, so why not give them all the options? Keep an electric chair, a lethal injection table, a post for a firing squad and a gallows on standby. If nothing else, it might give the defense attorneys fewer things to file appeals over.

I realize that many of you are likely opposed to the death penalty for moral reasons and I’m fine with that. But in closing, I will simply offer one indisputable fact in response. The recidivism rate following capital punishment remains firmly fixed at zero. (Unless you believe in reincarnation, I suppose.)