State officials may be using Va. execution to bring back electric chair

Officials have given contradictory comments on whether they have the drugs to kill Ricky Gray

By Gary A. Harki
The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK, Va. — There is no mystery surrounding the murders committed by the man scheduled to be executed March 16.

But there is a mystery about how the state will kill him.

State Department of Corrections officials have given contradictory comments on whether they have the drugs to kill Ricky Gray.

Gray is sentenced to die for killing two young girls in Richmond in 2006. In all, he and his nephew are linked to the killings of nine people, including the girls’ parents.

Corrections officials have said they have two lethal doses of the first drug in the deadly cocktail needed for execution. They have also said they do not have enough of the first-step drug for the execution.

The House of Delegates passed legislation Wednesday that would bring back the electric chair as Virginia’s default method of execution because of difficulty obtaining the drugs used in lethal injections.

“I wonder what it is that they are not telling us,” said Megan McCracken of the Death Penalty Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law and lethal injection expert. “There is some sort of lack of transparency where … Virginia says it can’t get the drugs but has the drugs.”

Last week, the House of Delegates passed legislation that would make the electric chair an option for future executions. If it passes the Senate and Gov. Terry McAuliffe signs it, Gray could be executed in the electric chair after July 1.

How – and when – Gray will die remains in question.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County, believes a theory flying around some circles in Richmond: The Corrections Department has the drugs it needs but is using the threat of not executing Gray as leverage to bring back the electric chair as an option that Department of Corrections officials can choose for the execution.

“They did not introduce their (electric chair) bill last year, so it’s either that they are trying to use the gruesomeness of the Ricky Gray case to justify this, or else it is one heck of a coincidence,” Surovell, a long-time opponent to the bill, said. “If it’s such an important department prerogative, I’m not clear why they didn’t try the bill last year. I don’t think the legislature got any more friendly with the last election.”

State law now gives condemned inmates the choice between the electric chair and lethal injection. Unless an inmate chooses the electric chair, the state’s only option is lethal injection.

That’s become problematic for Corrections Department officials . They say lethal injection drugs have gotten more difficult to obtain. Major drug companies won’t sell them to states because they don’t want to be associated with the death penalty.

Corrections officials obtained three vials of pentobarbital, the first drug in the state’s three-drug cocktail, from Texas last year to execute convicted murderer Alfredo Prieto. They used one vial to kill Prieto and say there are two unexpired vials left.

But they also say they don’t have the step-one drugs they need to kill Gray.

“The Department currently doesn’t have the step-one drugs necessary to carry out a death sentence by lethal injection. I can’t comment further regarding lethal injection drugs due to potential litigation,” Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said in an email. “The Department still has two vials of pentobarbital from Texas. They expire in April.”

When asked to clarify last week, Kinney said the Department of Corrections “absolutely does not have the lethal injection drugs necessary to carry out a death sentence by lethal injection.”

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that in a well-administered system, there are often backup supplies of the execution drugs.

“The problem you have here is that because of Virginia’s secrecy practices, we can’t know,” he said. “Generally when a state lacks the means to carry out an execution, it defers the execution.”

States that still use lethal injection have been forced to turn to compounding pharmacies, which make drugs on a small scale. There are questions about their potency, McCracken said.

Legislators in past sessions have proposed bills giving the state the option to use the electric chair and to get its drug supply directly from compounding pharmacies. Both have failed.

Kinney said execution dates are set by the court, not the department. Corrections Department officials do not have a position on the bill from Del. Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, she said.

Sen. Kenny Alexander, D-Norfolk, said he opposes the measure because it puts the decision about what method to use in the hands of corrections officials and out of the hands of legislators, who represent the public.

“I think as a society we decide what the method should be,” he said. “What if you get a correction officer who has the drugs, but is bent on, or for whatever reason, just wants to use the chair? I think that’s the wrong public policy.”

A botched electric chair execution more than 25 years ago brought attention to what could go wrong with the method and led to the state making lethal injection the default option.

On Oct. 17, 1990, Wilbert Lee Evans was executed for shooting Deputy Sheriff William Truesdale to death in the Alexandria courthouse in 1981.

Witnesses to the execution said Evans, whose face was partially covered by a leather mask, appeared to bleed profusely from his nose, ears and possibly his eyes. Prison officials later said he bled only from his right nostril.

In the aftermath of Evans’ execution, state officials started to consider other methods. Then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said he would support legislation changing the execution method.

In 1994, Gov. George Allen signed a bill giving the condemned a choice between the electric chair and lethal injection. Today, the inmate still has that choice, but if an inmate does not choose within 15 days of the execution, the state must use lethal injection.

The bill was opposed more than two decades ago by a mix of senators who said death sentences should be painful and others who argued that capital punishment should be abolished.

Since the bill went into effect, seven of the 87 people executed in Virginia have chosen the electric chair.

“It just makes it too easy on someone who has committed a horrible crime,” then-Sen. Frank W. Nolen, D-Augusta, said of lethal injection at the time of the bill’s passing. “To me, to put that individual to sleep is not good enough. The punishment should correspond with the crime.”

Then-Sen. John H. Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, dismissed Nolen’s argument.

“Whether it’s electrocution or lethal injection, the results are still the same,” he said at the time. “All this bill does is give prisoners a choice.”

Before the vote on his bill in the House last week, Miller gave a graphic description of Gray’s crimes.

In all, Gray and his nephew Ray Joseph Dandridge are linked to the killings of nine people, including Bryan and Kathryn Harvey. Bryan was a well-known musician and Kathryn was a former Virginia Beach homecoming queen who owned a toy store.

Gray is sentenced to die for murdering their 9- and 4-year-old girls in Richmond on New Year’s Day in 2006.

All four were found in the basement of their burning home, bound, beaten with a hammer and stabbed, with their throats cut.

The murders shocked the Richmond area. An endowment supporting the arts still gives out scholarships in the family’s name .

Surovell said he believes the Department of Corrections could be using Gray’s execution as leverage because of what he sees as a pattern of secrecy within the department.

Officials said they could not find drugs for executions in 2014 when another bill was introduced to bring back the electric chair.

Then they got the pentobarbital from Texas to execute Prieto in October, the last man executed in Virginia.

Surovell said opponents were concerned last year when a bill was introduced to prevent public disclosure of the drugs and drug manufacturers used in lethal injections. The measure passed the Senate but was defeated in the House of Delegates 56-42.

“It’s very clear to me that the DOC has an agenda to conduct executions with as little government or public oversight as possible, which is highly disturbing,” Surovell said.

The Department of Corrections’ statements don’t add up, UC Berkeley’s McCracken said, adding, “If there is something wrong with this compounded pentobarbital, VDOC should explain what has changed.”

State officials defended use of the same batch of pentobarbital in federal court in October, and the court relied on the state’s representations when it ruled that the department could use it, she said.

Copyright 2016  The Virginian-Pilot

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2019 All rights reserved.