Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has killed a bill that would have given the state power to put people to death by electric chair. Instead, he added an amendment permitting the state to hire a pharmacy to secretly make a special batch of lethal injection drugs.
McAuliffe had until midnight Sunday to veto HB 815, which would make it easier for Virginia to execute people with the electric chair if lethal injection drugs become unavailable. The bill would have become effective law on July 1 had he not taken action. The governor had more than a month to consider the bill after state senators approved it.
The legislation is yet another example of the measures some death penalty states are considering as the supply of lethal injection chemicals dwindles -- and as legal challenges to the execution method mount.
Drugs used in both single-drug and three-drug lethal injection protocols have become increasingly hard to find since European manufacturers banned their sale to U.S. executioners, and since domestic producers yanked their supplies from the market.
Religious leaders in Virginia and around the country appealed to McAuliffe to veto the bill, with Regent University professor Antipas Harris told News Channel 3 that "It's just morally wrong, inhumane. We absolutely don't need this in the Commonwealth."
Virginia is currently one of eight states that permits the electric chair to be used as a legal method of execution. All of the states but Tennessee relegate it to a backup method to be used in the event that lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional or if an inmate requests it.
In 2014, Tennessee brought back the electric chair as an option for the state -- rather than the inmate -- to select. But the state suspended executions within a year due to legal challenges contending that state-sanctioned executions, whether by lethal injection or electric chair, constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
In the past 15 years, state supreme courts in both Georgia and Nebraska have determined the electric chair violates state laws against cruel and unusual punishment.
Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell (D), who opposed the bill, last month decried the lack of transparency in the state's execution process -- which, as in many states, is effectively a secret.
He added, however, that the bill's success would hasten the end of the death penalty in the long run.
“Every court that has looked at [the electric chair] in the past 20 years said, ‘We don’t do this anymore,’” Surovell told The Huffington Post last month, describing the evolving standards of what’s considered cruel and unusual punishment.
“I think the [U.S.] Supreme Court will get rid of the electric chair now that we’ve teed it up for them,” he said, noting that he'd told his colleagues in favor of HB815 that “If you vote 'yes' on this, you’re hastening the end of the death penalty.”
Since 2000, six of Virginia's prisoners executed by the electricchair specifically chose the method, most recently in 2013, according to an analysis by Harvard University's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.
This post has been updated to reflect that Gov. Terry McAuliffe killed the bill.