POLITICS
01/22/2014 07:14 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

Virginia Could Mandate Electrocution, Without Drugs To Carry Out Lethal Injections

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Virginia Department of Corrections said Tuesday it does not have the drugs necessary to carry out a lethal injection.

Lisa E. Kinney, director of communications for the department, said the drugs used by the department in the past have expired. She said the department is attempting to find the needed drugs.

There are eight people on death row in Virginia with no execution dates set.

On a voice vote Tuesday, the House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to a proposal that would override a condemned prisoner's choice of execution in the case of a shortage of lethal injection drugs.

House Bill 1052, sponsored by Del. Jackson H. Miller, R-Manassas, essentially means that death row inmates in Virginia who wish to die by lethal injection still could face execution by electrocution if the chemicals used for lethal injections are not available.

The Department of Corrections did not comment on the pending legislation.

Miller said his proposal would not expand capital punishment.

"This is merely a process bill," he said. "The Department of Corrections has problems getting the chemicals. The bill will allow them to fulfill a court order if the drugs are not available."

Miller added that the department's drug supply expired in November.

Miller's measure advanced in the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee last week after a proposal by Del. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, that would do away with the electric chair as a method of execution in Virginia, was defeated in subcommittee.

"This bill heads in the wrong direction," Surovell said about Miller's proposal Tuesday. "We ought to be talking about ways to make our system more humane," he said.

Under current state law, a condemned prisoner may choose whether to die by lethal injection or in the electric chair. If the inmate doesn't select either option at least 15 days before the scheduled execution, the method is lethal injection by default.

Most convicts on death row have opted to die that way or were put to death that way by default since the introduction of lethal injection in Virginia in the mid-1990s.

In the past, the Virginia Department of Corrections has said it used the same three-drug cocktail that many other states employ. The first drug renders the subject unconscious, the second stops breathing and the third stops the heart. The drugs that have been used are: pentobarbital or thiopental sodium, pancuronium bromide or rocuronium bromide, and potassium chloride.

Of the 86 people executed in the commonwealth since 1995, only seven chose electrocution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

But the U.S. is facing a shortage of a drug widely used for lethal injections, which is mostly imported from European manufacturers.

Last week, Ohio, which also ran out of drugs used in the past, conducted the controversial execution of Dennis McGuire using two drugs never used before, a sedative, midazolam, and a painkiller, hydromorphone.

According to Reprieve, an international prisoner rights group based in the United Kingdom, it was the first of its kind anywhere. The group said concerns had been raised by experts that the new form of lethal injection could lead to suffering.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia opposes Miller's proposal and all forms of capital punishment.

"We are dismayed that the legislature is spending time debating how to make it easier to kill someone if there is difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs rather than debating repeal of the death penalty or what additional protections we can put into place to be sure that the commonwealth does not ever execute an innocent person," said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, the group's executive director.

Virginia is one of eight states that still execute prisoners by electrocution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Del. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Henrico, called death by electrocution "wrong, horrific and barbaric."

"We put our dogs to sleep in a more humane way," Morrissey said.

mschmidt@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6537

Twitter: @MSchmidtRTD ___

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