For a generation now, the electric chair, dogged by gruesome accounts of botched electrocutions, has been generally displaced by lethal injection as this country’s preferred form of execution. But the recent scarcity of lethal-injection drugs has prompted some death-row states, including Utah and Wyoming, to consider retro-style solutions. Firing squads, for example.But Tennessee made the first concrete move this week by effectively dusting off its electric chair, which has not been used since the execution of Mr. Holton, and which is said to contain oaken pieces dating to the gallows.On Thursday, Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, signed into law a bill that allows for electrocution if the drugs for lethal injection are not available. The governor has not elaborated on his reasoning. But his spokesman, David Smith, said in an email that the bill had passed overwhelmingly in the Tennessee General Assembly, with the legislature feeling strongly “that the state should have an alternative option if lethal injection was not available.”Electricity, by contrast, is never in short supply.
Tennessee’s decision is breathtakingly regressive, according to Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham University School of Law and a national expert on capital punishment. States have historically gone to new methods of execution, she said, from hanging to electrocution, to lethal gas, to lethal injection.“But they’re going backwards,” Ms. Denno said of Tennessee. “They’re going back to using a method of execution that was basically rejected because it was so problematic. That’s never happened before.”
Even against this disturbing backdrop, Tennessee’s decision to revert to the electric chair seems regressive, given the practice’s long, ugly history.“This is a method that the states themselves got away from, and I think for good reasons,” said Richard C. Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “They were seen as barbaric, and this could lead to more censure, more public discomfort, more legal challenges.”“The attempt is to keep executions going,” he added. “But it might have a reverse effect.”