Tennessee Controversy Over New Death Penalty Law


Tennessee is the now at the center of controversy upon Governor Bill Haslam signing a new death penalty law. The newly signed law makes death by electrocution mandatory in the event of a failed execution or the unavailability of the pharmaceuticals needed to carry out the lethal injection. Up until Thursday, death by electrocution was left for the decision of the inmate.

Tennessee is the first state to make a law requiring death by the electric chair without giving the option to inmates on death row. Ken Yager, Republican state Senator, introduced the bill over the concern that if the drugs were unavailable the sentence would not be able to be carried out. Due to the scarcity of the chemicals used in lethal injections, states like Oklahoma and Ohio were forced to scramble to find alternative drugs; the executions were botched in both states.
President of the Death Penalty Information Center, Richard Dieter stated that it is a “cruel and unusual punishment.” He believes that any inmate forced to have death by the electric chair has an automatic challenge of the Eighth Amendment which protects against cruel and unusual punishment.

The botched lethal injection in Oklahoma last month launched the controversial issue back into the spotlight. There has been much debate in recent years when the use of Pentobarbital in executions was banned by the European manufactures. In 2009, the painkiller Sodium Thiopental, commonly used in executions was discontinued. That left states to create a substitute of multidrug cocktails to be used for lethal injection. It was recommended by a group of criminal justice experts that state and federal governments make the move to a single drug for lethal injection oppose to a multidrug cocktail that can be easily botched, leaving the inmate to suffer for a period of time before dying.

Tennessee could face some legal issues if it is decided that they are forced to use electrocution. The state would have to prove that the needed drugs were not available and does not constitute a cruel and unusual punishment. On the grounds of cruel and unusual punishments, the Supreme Court has so far never deemed a method of execution unconstitutional. Updated execution methods have been put in place over the years by both and state and federal governments, all looking for a more humane effort of euthanizing a death row inmate.

The electric chair was first used in 1890 in New York State. It was used throughout the 20th century as the primary means of execution. Eight states still give the option to its inmates as a means to carry out their death sentence. At the time of its introduction, the electric chair was considered humane opposed to the firing squad. Tennessee had last used the electric chair as a means of execution in 2007 when convicted murderer Daryl Holten opted for its use rather than lethal injection. Holten was convicted of killing his three biological sons and his stepdaughter back 1997. Before its use by Holten in 2007, Tennessee had not executed any death row inmates by the means of electrocution in 47 years.

By Melissa Monk

NY Daily News
USA Today

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