Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill Thursday permitting prison officials to use the electric chair to execute death row inmates in the event that lethal injection drugs are unavailable.
The bill makes Tennessee the only state authorizing electrocution as a potential default method of execution. Eight other states allow the use of the electric chair, but only if inmates choose it over another method, usually lethal injection.
We spoke with Dr. Austin Sarat, professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst University, about what this means for Tennessee and capital punishment in the United States. Sarat is the author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.
Steven Hsieh: What happens when an electrocution goes awry?
Austin Sarat: The problems with the electric chair run from merely technical problems to problems with gruesome results. One problem with the electric chair is, on occasion, the voltage of the electricity isn’t sufficient to kill the condemned. A classic example happened in Louisiana in the 1940s when a condemned man named Willie Francis was to be put to death by electrocution. The voltage of electricity administered was not enough to kill him, and after passage of some time, he was removed from the chair, brought back to the jail and a second effort to execute him was scheduled. He contested that second execution attempt, but the US Supreme Court allowed it to go forward. On the other end of the continuum, the electric chair has resulted in people catching on fire. That became a particular problem in Florida in the 1970s and early 1980s. Indeed the first electrocution in the United States, carried out in New York, the execution of someone named William Kemmler, was also botched in a rather gruesome way.
What is the more humane execution method: electrocution or lethal injection?
That is the wrong question. It assumes that it is possible to ensure that an execution will not be botched. I’ve studied every execution between 1890 and 2010 to determine how reliable, safe and humane the methods have been. If you look at every execution over that period of time, approximately 3 percent of executions were botched. If you look at just lethal injection, slightly more than 7 percent in the United States has been botched. In every turn, as we’ve thought about the methods by which we put people to death, the same promises have been made. Go back to the nineteenth century and you look at what proponents of the electric chair said. They said it’d be safe, reliable and humane. If you move forward in the early twentieth century when the gas chamber was authorized and first used in Nevada, proponents of the gas chamber said it would be safe, reliable and humane. If you fast forward to the late 1970s, when Oklahoma became the first state to authorize death by lethal injection, the proponents of lethal injection said it would be safe, reliable and humane. So, I don’t think we’ve found, or are likely to find, a method of execution in which the technology will ensure us that things won’t go wrong. We know that failures will happen. We don’t know when. We can’t predict them, necessarily. What has happened is botched executions are regarded as mere accidents. But if we look at a broader picture of these “mere accidents,” we see that they happen with unnerving frequency.