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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Lacking enough execution drugs, Virginia eyes electric chair

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A proposal that would force inmates to die by electric chair if lethal injection drugs can't be found is gaining steam in Virginia, in part because of a looming execution scheduled for next month.

State officials are frantically searching for the drugs for the March 16 execution of convicted killer Ricky Gray, one of Virginia's seven remaining death row inmates. While the electric chair measure wouldn't go into effect by then, supporters say the state needs to ensure the policy is in place for future inmates, or if Gray's execution is delayed because the drugs can't be found.

"Either way, Ricky Gray will die very quickly, with very little, if any, pain," said Republican Del. Jackson Miller, who introduced the bill that could come up for a vote in the GOP-controlled House this week. "The numerous victims of Ricky Gray didn't get a choice on how they wanted to die. And neither should Ricky Gray."

Virginia is one of at least eight states that allow electrocutions, but it currently gives inmates the choice of lethal injection or the electric chair. If they don't choose at least 15 days before the execution, they receive the injection.

Drug companies have blocked the use of their products in executions, creating a nationwide shortage and forcing lawmakers across the country to scramble for other options.

"If states want to carry out the death penalty, they may be facing a choice. What kind of executions do they think their constituents will stomach?" said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

In 2014, Tennessee became the first state to enact a law reintroducing the electric chair without giving prisoners a choice. Last year, Utah lawmakers passed a bill that would allow firing squads for executions if drugs aren't available. Neither state has carried out executions under those methods since the laws were passed.

Opponents of Virginia's bill say a legal fight over the electric chair law would be inevitable and tie up executions even more. It could also be cruel and unusual punishment, they say.

Georgia's Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that using the electric chair violated the state constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court said electrocution "inflicts purposeless physical violence and needless mutilation" and criticized the electric chair for its "specter of excruciating pain and its certainty of cooked brains and blistered bodies."

"The chair basically cooks someone to death," said Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat who opposes the bill.

Gray was convicted in the 2006 stabbing and bludgeoning deaths of 49-year-old Bryan Harvey, 39-year-old Kathryn Harvey and their daughters, 9-year-old Stella and 4-year-old Ruby.

Bryan Harvey was a well-known Richmond musician, and his wife was co-owner of a toy store.

Gray's attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said it currently lacks enough pentobarbital to carry out Gray's execution. The drug is the first used in Virginia's three-drug protocol.

A legislative panel endorsed the electric chair bill with an 11-6 vote on Wednesday. The bill is expected to easily pass the House, but its fate in the Senate — where Republicans hold a much slimmer majority — is unclear. A similar measure stalled in the Senate two years ago, but there was no pending execution at the time.

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe wouldn't say whether he supports the idea.

Source: The Associated Press, Alanna Durkin Richer, Feb. 3, 2016

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