Tennessee brings back electric chair but suspends executions

Tennessee brings back electric chair but suspends executions
file photo shows the execution chamber at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas, where convicted death row inmates are executed by lethal injection.

MEMPHIS - Tennessee suspended all executions this month, ahead of a US Supreme Court ruling on the future of lethal injections, but it could still subsequently put prisoners to death, with the electric chair.

The southern state recently brought the electric chair back from retirement as a backup method for capital punishment.

The US Supreme Court is set to consider Wednesday whether a lethal injection mix should be banned. In Tennessee, state law allows for electrocution if lethal injection is ruled to be unconstitutional.

Once widely used in the United States, the electric chair fell out of favour decades ago.

"We do believe that the new law in Tennessee, which would involuntarily electrocute a condemned prisoner, is a huge step back," said Kelley Henry, a lawyer who helps represent many of the state's condemned prisoners.

"Two states (Nebraska and Georgia) have already declared the electric chair unconstitutional.

"We are prepared to present evidence that the Tennessee electrocution protocol is inherently cruel and unusual, in that it literally cooks the internal organs of the inmate, causing immeasurable pain and suffering."

Currently, 69 inmates are on death row in Tennessee. They are housed in the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.

The facility replaced the old penitentiary, which was featured in the 1999 movie "The Green Mile" about a condemned inmate.

Though it has only executed six prisoners since 1976, most recently in 2009, Tennessee is the third state to have brought back an old method of execution to replace lethal injection.

Utah recently re-introduced the firing squad and Oklahoma has approved asphyxiation with nitrogen.

"I really see it that as a symptom of a system that is completely falling apart," said Stacy Rector, executive director of the group Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

"This is an attempt to fix the system by bringing back the electric chair, or the firing squad. It is really a reactionary decision made in light of a system that is completely dysfunctional." However, Tennessee will not carry out any executions soon.

On April 10, it halted all executions that had been scheduled through March 2016 while the courts weigh the constitutionality of lethal injections.

"A bit surprisingly, the Tennessee Supreme Court decided to vacate everybody's execution while this litigation is being considered," Rector said.

"The Tennessee Supreme Court wants to wait to see what the US Supreme Court is going to do... it gives everybody a little more breathing room to really dig into the legal issues."

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