Virginia Wants to Make the Electric Chair Its Back-up, in Case Execution Chemicals Aren’t Available

The Virginia House of Delegates has passed a bill (HB 815) to allow executions by electric chair in case the state cannot procure the lethal chemicals it would otherwise use, and a battle over the proposal is shaping up in the state Senate.

lethal injection

The measure passed February 10 by a 62-33 margin in the GOP-controlled chamber. During the floor debate, the bill’s sponsor spent over a quarter hour recounting the gruesome details of the torture and murder of a Richmond family of four, including two young girls, by Ricky Javon Gray, who is scheduled to be executed on March 16. According to that sponsor, Del. Jackson Miller (R) of Manassas, the case represents “exactly why” Virginia has “this punishment on our books.”

The Virginia Department of Corrections says it may not have an adequate supply of pentobarbital, a sedative that is one of the chemicals required by the state’s lethal injection protocol. Officials in Texas supplied Virginia with two doses of the drug, which have an April expiration date. The state says any delay would leave the state unable to conduct the execution by lethal chemicals; some legislators and other opponents of capital punishment have criticized what they say is a lack of transparency by state corrections officials. If the Virginia Senate passes the House-cleared bill and Gov. Terry McAuliffe signs it – although a professed opponent of capital punishment, the governor allowed the state’s most recent execution to proceed last October – Gray could face electrocution anytime from July on.

The outcome of the state Senate vote remains in doubt. That chamber stalled a similar House-passed bill two years ago, and, unlike the House of Delegates, Republicans hold only a narrow majority in the upper chamber. If the bill is enacted, Virginia would be the only state where the state could order a prisoner to be electrocuted.

Since 1995, Virginia law has allowed a Death Row prisoner a choice of execution method: lethal injection or electric chair (only seven of the 87 prisoners executed in the state given that choice opted for the chair); if a condemned prisoner fails to name a choice within 15 days of the execution date, the state uses its default method, a combination of three chemicals.

Unavailability of lethal chemicals – drug makers, facing protests and potential boycotts, resisting supplying them for executions – has forced states with capital punishment to search for sources and led some states to postpone executions or authorize other methods. Tennessee has recently taken the same action as the Virginia lower house, authorizing the electric chair if lethal chemicals are not available, and last year Utah adopted firing squads as its back-up execution method, although neither state has thus far employed that alternative method since passing their new law.

Virginia has a long history of capital punishment, recording its first in 1608 and leading all states in the number of persons condemned to death during its history (it’s third behind Texas and Oklahoma for executions within the last 40 years).

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com