Virginia's governor vetoes electric chair bill. What does it mean for death row?

Gov. Terry McAuliffe says his veto essentially shuts down capital punishment in his state. 37 percent of Americans oppose the death penalty.

Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has vetoed a bill allowing for the use of electric chair when lethal injection drugs aren't available but has offered an amendment that would allow pharmacies to supply lethal injection drugs anonymously.

Virginia's governor has vetoed a bill that would allow the state to use the electric chair to execute death row inmates when the drugs required for a lethal injection are unavailable.

The decision reflects a growing tendency among US states to steer away from using the electric chair, despite Tennessee's reversal in 2014 to reintroduce its mandatory use when lethal injection is not possible. The use of lethal injection has also faced heavy scrutiny following a series of prolonged and botched executions and as public support for the death penalty overall continues to fall.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed the bill Monday but proposed amendments that would allow state prisons to buy drugs for executions on an emergency basis. However, given the shortage of drugs in the United States to carry out lethal injections, Governor McAuliffe told reporters that his decision would effectively put an end to capital punishment in Virginia, according to Reuters.

"These amendments deliver a valid path forward to continue VA's capital punishment policy," McAuliffe said on Twitter.

"Our citizens share my concerns and do not wish to be forced into using this terrible form of punishment," he said, referring to the electric chair.

Under the amendments, US pharmacies would be able to anonymously supply the drugs to state prisons to stop protesters targeting them.

Drug shortages for carrying out lethal injections have increased as many drug suppliers in such places as Europe have refused to supply them because they do not wish to be associated with enabling capital punishment.

The use of the electric chair has been the subject of contentious legal debate in the US regarding whether it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden under the eighth amendment.

But the use of lethal injections, which is meant to be a more humane practice than electrocution, has also been highly controversial.

The state of Ohio will now be allowed to execute death-row inmate Romell Broom a second time after executioners failed on their first attempt, which lasted around two hours. The state's supreme court ruled last month that a second attempt would not constitute cruel and unusual punishment because the drugs never entered his body.

"I find that unacceptable," Deborah Denno, the Arthur A. McGivney Professor of Law at Fordham University in New York, told the Monitor at the time. "First of all there's no precedent that because the drugs didn't make it into his system that that would be the basis for deciding that this wasn't an attempted execution." 

In 2015, the number of prisoners executed in the US – 28 – fell to its lowest in 25 years, and the number of people sentenced to death – 49 – dropped to its lowest point in 41 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). So far in 2016, 11 people have been executed by lethal injection, DPIC figures show.

"The low rates of executions probably have as much to do with lethal injection's practical problems as with principled objections to the death penalty," Leah Libresco wrote in an analysis on the data site 538, which found that half of the stays issued in 2015 were because of issues surrounding the method of execution, rather than questions about the morality of the death penalty overall.

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who oppose the death penalty rose to 37 percent in 2015, the highest rate in 44 years.

Virginia law currently defaults to lethal injection but offers inmates the choice of the electric chair. Of the 32 states that have capital punishment, six offer this option to inmates.

Last year, Virginia procured vials of pentobarbital from Texas to execute Alfredo Prieto for murder.

Two executions were scheduled in Virginia for 2016 but each led to a stay in federal court. So far, no executions are currently scheduled.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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