December 18, 2018

Tennessee Resumes Use of the Electric Chair

The state of Tennessee carried out two executions by electric chair in 2018, the first state to do so since Virginia in 2013. Nine states currently authorize the electric chair as a method of execution, although lethal injection is the default method of execution in all those states. Lethal injection has been the subject of intense debate and frequent legal challenges for many years, as commercial drug manufacturers have refused to allow their drugs to be used in executions, and states have turned to loosely regulated private compounding pharmacies or experimental drug combinations to carry out their executions. There have also been numerous reports of “botched” executions by lethal injection, including several where the prisoner appeared to be conscious and suffering long after the drugs should have taken effect. 

“Such madness should not continue.”

Justice Sotomayor, dissenting

U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a lethal injection challenge in 2015, holding that prisoners wishing to bring a challenge to a method of execution must first identify an “available alternative method.” Under that rule, the Tennessee prisoners elected to be executed by electric chair rather than risk “torturous” death by lethal injection, but also asked the Supreme Court to intervene, arguing that the electric chair was not an acceptable alternative. The Court declined to stop the executions, with Justice Sotomayor dissenting both times. The second time, she wrote that “electrocution can be a dreadful way to die” but that the prisoners had elected it anyway “against the backdrop of credible scientific evidence that lethal injection . . . may well be even worse.” She chastised the Court for forcing prisoners to make such a choice, saying that the situation is a “byproduct” of the Court’s 2015 decision requiring prisoners to elect an alternate method and concluding that “[s]uch madness should not continue.”