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Death row prisoners may be forced into electric chair if Virginia bill passes

Death row prisoners may be forced into electric chair if Virginia bill passes

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As supplies of the drugs used to administer lethal injections in the United States dry up, state governments are turning to other methods to execute their death row inmates. Ohio officials used an untested cocktail of lethal drugs on an inmate in January, to macabre results. Now Virginia has proposed a bill that would mean inmates will be sent to the electric chair if sufficient amounts of lethal injection drugs can't be found. While Virginia hasn't questioned the legality of the electric chair since 1921, courts in other states, such as Georgia and Nebraska, have classed it as cruel and unusual punishment.

The proposed bill would make Virginia the only state in the US in which a death row prisoner could be forced into death by electrocution. It has already passed the state's House of Delegates, and according to The Washington Post, is likely to go up for state lawmakers to vote on this week. Currently, Virginian inmates sentenced to execution are able to choose between lethal injection and electrocution. If no choice is made, the lethal cocktail will be administered. If the new law passes, officials will be able to force inmates to be executed by electric chair if lethal injection drugs aren't available, or the prisoner declines to choose.

If the bill passes, officials will be able to force inmates to be executed by electrocution

In previous years, many states used Nembutal, a brand name for the drug pentobarbital, for their lethal injections. But the drug's Danish manufacturer banned its export for use in human executions in 2011, and since then, state governments have drained their supplies. Nembutal supplies are unlikely to be restocked: even when the Danish company that made the drug sold the rights for its manufacture to a drug maker based in Illinois, it wrote a catch into the contract that prohibited its use for human executions.

State governments have yet to come up with a long-term plan to make up for the lack of Nembutal. Officials in Texas were forced to use a supply of the drug that had passed its expiration date to kill convicted murderer Arturo Diaz last year. Sedative propofol has been proposed as an alternative for lethal injections, but its use has been denounced by American Society of Anesthesiologists. In October, 2013, Missouri officials backed away from a plan that would've seen the drug used in the execution of convicted killer Allen Nicklassen.

Virginia has executed 110 people since 1976

Virginia's Department of Corrections has explored using other drugs in its lethal injections. The Washington Post says the department purchased doses of the same drugs used in Ohio's reportedly botched execution of convicted rapist and murderer Dennis McGuire, as well as a "new three-drug mixture." But, in addition to concerns about these new cocktails' efficiency, state officials haven't been able to secure consistent supplies of either mixture. Virginia is tied for second in total executions in the United States, having put 110 people to death since 1976. The chair is still commonly used as an execution method in the state: three of the last six Virginia executions were by electrocution.

The Washington Post quotes Debra Gardner, chief deputy director of the Department of Corrections, who says the method leaves only "minor burns, just barely noticeable." Ron Elkins, the commonwealth's attorney from Virginia's Wise County, said, "Having been there and watched it, it was not as dramatic as it's portrayed on television." But others, including Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, have pushed for state governments to research new and efficient drugs for production. Even attempts to copy the pentobarbital previously used in lethal injections have been less than entirely successful. In January, convicted murderer Michael Lee Wilson was heard to say "I feel my whole body burning" 20 seconds after being injected with a version of the drug created at an unnamed pharmacy.