Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill Thursday that allows the state to send death row inmates to the electric chair if authorities are unable to obtain drugs used for lethal injections.
Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the electric chair legislation in April, with the Senate voting 23 to 3 and the House 68 to 13 in favor of the bill.
"It gives us another option out there," said the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Dennis Powers, a Republican. "We've had so many problems with lethal injection."
The law comes as various states encounter difficulty in obtaining drugs for lethal injections because many of the pharmaceutical companies that make them, mainly in Europe, object to their use in executions. The measure also comes in the wake of last month's botched execution in Oklahoma, which has raised scrutiny of lethal injection as an execution method.
In that case, convicted killer Clayton Lockett, 38, began writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head after he had supposedly been rendered unconscious by the first of three drugs in the state's new lethal injection combination.
Tennessee is the first state to enact a law to reintroduce the electric chair without giving prisoners an option, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that opposes executions and tracks the issue.
"There are states that allow inmates to choose, but it is a very different matter for a state to impose a method like electrocution," he said. "No other state has gone so far."
Dieter said that if the state decides to go through with an electrocution, he expects legal challenges to arise — both on the grounds of whether the state could prove that lethal injection drugs were not obtainable and on the grounds of constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
"There certainly have been some gruesome electrocutions in the past, and that would weigh on courts' minds," Dieter said when the bill passed the state Senate in April.
Lethal injection is the primary execution method in all states that have capital punishment, but some states allow inmates the option of electrocution, hanging, firing squad or the gas chamber.
Previous Tennessee law gave inmates who committed crimes before 1999 a choice between the electric chair and lethal injection. The last Tennessee inmate to die by electrocution was Daryl Holton, a Gulf War veteran who killed his three sons and a stepdaughter with a high-powered rifle in a Shelbyville garage in 1997. He requested the electric chair in 2007.
A provision to apply the change to prisoners already sentenced to death has also raised a debate among legal experts.
Nashville criminal defense attorney David Raybin, who helped draft Tennessee's death penalty law nearly 40 years ago, has said lawmakers may change the method of execution but they cannot make that change retroactive. To do so would be unconstitutional, he said.
Tennessee has 74 prisoners on death row. Sidney Porterfield, who at 71 was the oldest inmate on it, died of natural causes this week. Nine others have died of natural causes since 2000, and one committed suicide. Six inmates have been executed in that time, the most recent in 2010.
Republican state Sen. Ken Yager, a main sponsor of the electric chair measure, said in a recent interview that he introduced the bill because of "a real concern that we could find ourselves in a position that if the chemicals were unavailable to us that we would not be able to carry out the sentence."
The measure seems to enjoy public support. A Vanderbilt University poll released this week found that 56 percent of registered voters in Tennessee support its use, while 37 percent are against it.
Concerns about lethal injection have risen at a time when Tennessee and many states — including Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas — have obtained execution drugs in secret from unidentified compounding pharmacies. Death penalty opponents say the secrecy raises the risk of botched executions.
The Tennessee law comes on the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court issued a rare last-minute stay of an execution for death row inmate Russell Bucklew in St. Louis.
The Supreme Court has never declared a method of execution unconstitutional on the grounds that it is cruel and unusual. It upheld the firing squad in 1879, the electric chair in 1890 and lethal injection in 2008.
Nonetheless, U.S. states and the federal government have updated execution methods several times in efforts to find more humane ways to put condemned criminals to death.
First used by New York State in 1890, the electric chair was employed throughout the 20th century to execute hundreds and is still an option in eight states. Since 1976, 158 inmates have been executed by electrocution.