5 things to know about Tennessee's electric chair
Under a new state law in effect since Tuesday, July 1, 2014, Tennessee is allowed to use the electric chair to execute death row prisoners if it can't obtain drugs needed for lethal injections
By Erik Schelzig
NASHVILLE, Tennessee — A law took effect this week in Tennessee making it the first U.S. state to have the option of executing death row inmates with the electric chair if drugs for lethal injections are not available. Billy Ray Irick, who was convicted of murder in the death of a 7-year-old girl he was babysitting in 1985, is the next Tennessee death row inmate scheduled to be executed, on Oct. 7. Corrections officials have said they have no lethal injection drugs on hand but are confident they can obtain them when needed. Here are five things to know about the state's electric chair:
THE RETURN OF 'OLD SPARKY'
Tennessee is one of several states to nickname its electric chair 'Old Sparky.' The chair was built out of the gallows used by the state before it abolished hangings in 1913. A replacement chair was built in 1989, but it kept the old wooden back legs. The original chair that was retired after 125 electrocutions is now on display at the Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum in Gatlinburg, while the new chair is stored in the state's execution chamber in Nashville alongside the lethal injection equipment.
Fred Leuchter, the Massachusetts man who rebuilt Tennessee's electric chair in 1989, has taken issue with subsequent decreases in the voltage and duration of the jolts, arguing that they make it more likely for theinmate to feel pain and to "cook the executee and boil his blood." But Leuchter said his concerns have been ignored because of statements he's made in the past claiming historians have inflated the number of Holocaust victims during World War II.
MOST RECENT ELECTROCUTION
The last person to be electrocuted in Tennessee was convicted child killer Daryl Holton, who in 2007 chose to die via the electric chair. The state's medical examiner later found that Holton suffered minor burns on his head and legs, but had no signs of severe burning, disfigurement or other major injuries like those that had occurred in some other electrocutions around the country. Under previous law, death row inmates convicted before lethal injection was introduced in 1999 could choose to die by electrocution.
PREPARATIONS AND TESTING
Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield has expressed confidence that procedures and testing on the electric chair have been sufficient to put it back into regular use. Records obtained by The Associated Press show that an electrician — whose identity is redacted under state law — tests the chair each year to confirm that "the equipment will execute an inmate." The testing is meant to confirm the chair will deliver 1,750 volts at 7 amps over 20 seconds, disengage for 15 seconds, and then re-engage for another 15 seconds.
Tennessee's death penalty procedures came under scrutiny in 2007 when its 100-page "Manual of Execution" turned out to be a jumble of conflicting instructions that mixed up guidelines for lethal injections and the electric chair. For example, the document instructed executioners to shave a prisoner's head before a lethal injection, and to have a fire extinguisher nearby. Executions were put on hold while the state re-wrote the manual.