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Governor moves to pull plug on Virginia’s ‘reprehensible’ electric chair

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RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe threatened to do his part to effectively end the death penalty in Virginia if state lawmakers refused sign off on his changes to a capital punishment bill that passed the General Assembly.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers in the Virginia House and Senate passed bills that directed the Department of Corrections to use the electric chair to execute death row inmates when there was a shortage of the drugs used to carry out the lethal injection.

Supporters of HB 815 said it was a necessary move because states across the country have struggled to obtain lethal drugs used in executions.

The governor does not believe the electric chair is a viable options for Virginia.

Under his amendment, if a shortage of the lethal injection drug occurred,  Virginia would then contract with pharmacies to create a similar lethal drug to be used in the execution.

"There is no justification for a bill that carries such horrific consequences," Gov. McAuliffe said. "I personally find it reprehensible. We take human beings, we strap them in a chair, and then we flood their bodies with 1,800 volts electricity, subjecting them to unspeakable pain, until they die."

Pharmacies that provide lethal drugs to Virginia to carry out executions would be allowed to remain confidential under the governor's proposal.

McAuliffe's proposed amendment to the bill, which came only a few hours before a deadline to act on the legislation, would grant pharmacies that provide lethal drugs immunity from civil action and keep their contract with the Department of Corrections confidential.

During a news conference announcing his amendments, McAuliffe said he would veto the bill if the General Assembly does not accept the amendments.

The original sponsor of HB 815, Del. Jackson Miller (R - Manassass), said he plans on encouraging his colleagues to accept the Governor's amendment even though its "not ideal ".

"Capital punishment is reserved for the most heinous crimes committed by the most heinous criminals. It is essential to the strength of Virginia’s criminal justice system.  I am pleased the Governor agrees that the death penalty must remain available in order to preserve the full measure of justice," Miller said in an emailed statement.

More than 300 faith leaders had urged McAuliffe to veto HB 815 calling the measure "inhumane."  Local minster Mark Boswell signed the letter, and said during an interview with CBS 6 he is concerned about the confidentiality provisions of the Governor's proposal.

"If the state is going to take the life one of its citizens, if should not be done under a shroud of secrecy," said Boswell.

"Let`s not replace one bad approach with another," said Jeff Caruso with the Virginia Catholic Conference.  "Instead, the debate we should be having is why do we need executions anymore at all."

Why lethal injection drugs are drying up

Lethal injection initially required a three-drug cocktail: The first (sodium thiopental or pentobarbital) puts the prisoner to sleep, the second (pancuronium bromide) brings on paralysis, and the final agent (potassium chloride) stops the heart.

In 2010, European drug manufacturers began to ban exports of the cocktail ingredients to the United States. The following year, concerned about the use of sodium thiopental in executions, Illinois-based Hospira stopped making the drug, and Denmark-based Lundbeck banned U.S. prisons from using its pentobarbital.

The United Kingdom also introduced a ban on exporting sodium thiopental, and the European Union took an official stance in 2012 with its Regulation on Products used for Capital Punishment and Torture.

Death penalty states began looking for alternatives. Among them: procuring the drugs from alternative sources, devising a one-drug method, employing other drugs such as midazolam or propofol, and using controversial compounding pharmacies to manufacture the drugs.

This has spurred a cascade of lawsuits

Such lawsuits saw a significant uptick in 2014. That's the same year numerous executions, all employing midazolam, were widely considered botched. In Ohio, Dennis McGuire gasped and convulsed for 10 minutes before dying. In Arizona, Joseph Wood snorted and gulped for air as he died over a period of two hours. And in Oklahoma, Clayton Lockett writhed for 43 minutes before succumbing to a heart attack.

After each of those cases, states issued holds on capital punishment while the processes were reviewed. Attorneys for death row inmates in several states have also used these botched efforts to challenge the constitutionality of their clients' executions.

Now, states are looking at alternatives

In 2014, Tennessee said that when lethal injection drugs can't be found, the state can use the electric chair. The next year, Utah successfully passed legislation to reintroduce firing squads.

Fourteen other states have a secondary means -- Oklahoma actually has three -- but in those states, inmates must opt for them.

Back to Virginia

Virginia used electrocution exclusively until 1995, when the state began permitting death row inmates to choose between the chair and lethal injection. Since then, seven condemned men have opted to die by electrocution.

But those were the exceptions. The majority of Virginia's 87 executions since 1995 -- as in the rest of the country -- were carried out via lethal injection.

CNN Wire was used in the report.

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