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May 24, 2014

Could lethal inject furor return the firing squad?

In Tennessee, electric chair option discussed

OKLAHOMA CITY — NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The disarray surrounding lethal injection in the U.S. is beginning to steer states back toward methods of execution that many had long ago deemed less humane than the needle.

Tennessee jumped out front this week with a law that could essentially bring back the electric chair. Elsewhere around the country, lawmakers have been talking about reviving the firing squad and the gas chamber, methods largely abandoned a generation ago.

The reason: Lethal injection — the primary means of execution in all 32 states with capital punishment — is under fire as never before because of botched executions, drug shortages caused by a European-led boycott, and a flurry of lawsuits over the new chemicals that states are using instead.

The Tennessee legislation signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday would allow the state to use electrocution against any current or future death row inmate if lethal injection drugs become unavailable.

In truth, Tennessee never did abandon the electric chair; killers who committed their crimes before the state adopted lethal injection in 1999 have been given the choice of electrocution or the needle.

But the new law could take that choice away from the inmates and make everyone on death row subject to the electric chair.

Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School who has studied executions for more than two decades, called Tennessee's law unprecedented.

"No state has gone backward, to go back in time to a prior method of execution," she said. "For over a century, they have all moved forward."

Some attorneys warned that changing the method of execution on inmates who were originally subject to lethal injection would be unconstitutional.

Other experts noted that the legal and political attacks on lethal injection as cruel and unusual have had the unintended effect of driving states toward methods that are considered even worse.

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