Ala. approves legislation that would revive use of electric chair
Electric chair would be used if state is unable to execute inmates via lethal injection
By Brian Lyman
MONTGOMERY — The Alabama House of Representatives Wednesday evening approved legislation that would revive the use of the electric chair in executions should the state be unable to execute inmates via lethal injection.
An amendment added to the floor would also keep the names of manufacturers of death penalty drugs secret, a measure brought last year as a separate bill.
Sponsor Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said the legislation, modeled on a similar bill passed in Tennessee last year, was aimed at providing a method of execution should ongoing legal challenges to lethal injection — and shortages of the drugs used — make the method unworkable.
“Our system is broken,” Greer said after the debate. “It’s working for the criminal, but not the victim.”
The measure passed 76 to 26 after a lengthy debate led by black lawmakers, who challenged the death penalty in general and the need for the legislation in particular.
“Something bothers me in my conscience that we are willing to bend over backwards in so many ways to kill people and pretend it’s justice, when it’s not,” said Rep. Christopher England, D-Tuscaloosa.
There are 195 inmates on Alabama’s death row. The state has not conducted an execution since July 25, 2013, due to drug shortages and legal challenges. The state has twice run out of or been unable to secure supplies of sedatives used in the three-drug procedure. Last year, the Alabama Attorney General’s office said in a court filing that the Department of Corrections had switched to a new procedure that used midazolam as the sedative, and attempted to schedule executions under the procedure.
A federal court last month stayed the execution of Thomas Arthur, a death row inmate convicted in 1982 in a murder-for-hire scheme. Arthur has challenged the state’s execution protocols, arguing that the sedatives involved would not render him unconscious quickly enough to avoid the pain of two subsequent drugs that paralyze the muscles and stop the heart.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear a challenge to the use of midazolam in Oklahoma’s executions later this year. Alabama switched its primary method of execution from the electric chair to lethal injection in 2002, in part due to concerns that the chair would be ruled unconstitutional by the federal courts. The return of the electric chair would almost certainly tirgger constitutional challenges.
Many black lawmakers during the debate cited the state’s shameful racial history. Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, said she “could not sleep” without getting on the floor to speak against the death penalty.
“Most of your legislators can’t walk a mile in my shoes or of the blacks in this room of what we’ve been through in our lives, of slavery of abuse of all kinds,” she said.
Rep. Louise Alexander, D-Bessemer, said the men who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 — killing four young girls — did not receive the death penalty, and said “I cannot go to heaven” if she voted for the bill.
Though the bill passed easily, few supporters spoke on the measure. Rep. Jim Martin, R-Clanton, speaking in support of the legislation, said “we have done enough protecting the people on death row.”
The bill was amended by Rep. Mac McCutcheon, R-Huntsville, to include provisions that would allow the manufacturers of execution drugs to remain secret. England asked what “compelling state interest” required the secrecy; McCutcheon said it was to ensure a supply of drugs, but England suggested the move could be unconstitutional. A similar attempt brought by Greer last year died in the Senate.
The Advertiser, The Anniston Star and the Associated Press last year filed Freedom of Information Act requests on the state’s execution protocol, which are publicly available in other states, including Florida. The Alabama Department of Corrections, citing the ongoing Arthur litigation, denied the requests.