The Electric Chair, Lethal Injection, and the Misplaced Focus of Our Death Penalty Debate

By Frank Knaack, ACLU of Virginia Director of  Public Policy and Communications

Death PenaltySome good news today!  The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted to continue SB 607 until 2015.  The bill would have allowed the Commonwealth to default to the electric chair if it runs out of lethal injection drugs.  While we are pleased with this result, the current focus of our death penalty dialogue remains a serious concern.

This legislation is premised on the fact that states are having a hard time securing lethal injection drugs.  As we wrote last week, this is in part because of the stance against the use of capital punishment taken by the European Union, which restricted the export of certain drugs used as part of the execution procedure in the US.  Unfortunately, the bill’s proponents have taken the view that executions must go forward, even if that means defaulting to the electric chair.  Not surprisingly, we’ve taken a different view.  To us, the potential pause in executions that would occur if we run out of drugs would offer the Commonwealth the opportunity to reassess its death penalty system – a system that the American Bar Association found to have “several areas of concern.”  These concerns extend from the law enforcement identification and interrogation process at the beginning to the post conviction process at the end.  It is unconscionable that we are debating methods of execution when there is strong evidence that calls into question the basic fairness and accuracy of Virginia’s death penalty process.

Instead of recognizing this problem, this morning’s committee debate continued to focus on the method of execution.  While support for electrocution appeared to be weak, there was much debate over whether the General Assembly should amend the Virginia Code to permit the use of compounded drugs, which are causing their own set of concerns.  Again, this focus misses the underlying problem – we have a capital punishment system that doesn’t ensure fairness and accuracy.  And, until we do we should put on hold any discussion over how we should kill those on Virginia’s death row.

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