Prisoner’s Electric Chair Choice Forces a Conversation on Execution Technology and Practice in America

December 21, 2018

It’s not a pleasant topic of conversation. Execution practices by American states have drawn intense debate and controversy practically since theys began. On November 1st, Edmund Zagorski, an inmate in Nashville, Tennessee, was executed by electric chair. Zagorski was the first inmate in five years to die by electrocution in Tennessee, and only the second individual in almost sixty years. Only nine states in the U.S. have the option of electric chair for execution purposes. In 2014, Tennessee made the use of the electric chair mandatory when lethal injection drugs aren’t available, becoming the first state to do so. Zagorski chose the electric chair over lethal injection, claiming that the three-drug protocol used is “torture” and that electrocution would be quicker and less painful.

…the fact that Zagorski would rather die by electrocution than lethal injection is a testament to legitimate fears over the drugs that Tennessee uses.

The United States Supreme Court denied a request to stay Zagorski’s execution, but Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting statement revealed the deep tension over the use of lethal injection drugs. Sotomayor noted that the fact that Zagorski would rather die by electrocution than lethal injection is a testament to legitimate fears over the drugs that Tennessee uses. The use of lethal injection drugs has undergone severe scrutiny in the past few years, and it is becoming harder for many states to have access to the cocktail of drugs that are required to complete an execution. Afraid of the potential damage to their reputations, many pharmaceutical companies have filed suit to keep their drugs from being used in executions. Lethal injection is more likely to go awry than any other execution method, and statements from witnesses to execution by lethal injection highlight how problematic it can be. The use of a paralytic drug is common, which prevents the inmate from being able to express the actual pain they may be in. However, later autopsies have revealed that lethal injection can cause suffocation and organ failure which are indisputably painful ways of dying.

Many states are opting to abandon the death penalty altogether. On October 11, 2018, Washington became the 20th state to either ban or suspend capital punishment. The Washington Supreme Court cited statistics that capital punishment is arbitrary and racially biased. Even in states where capital punishment is still enforced, the carrying out of death sentences has been on a steady decline. In 1999, 98 inmates were executed nationally. So far, as we near the end of 2018, only 20 inmates have been put to death (all of which, with the exception of Zagorski, were by lethal injection). In addition, the time between sentencing and carrying out of death penalties has grown at a steady rate. In 2001, there were 3,500 prisoners on death row, and the average time between sentencing and execution was 8.6 years. For inmates executed in 2014, the waiting time had grown to 18 years. States are facing a variety of barriers to carrying out capital sentences, including shortages of lethal injection drugs. Further, public support for capital punishment has dropped below 50% for the first time in almost 50 years. The execution landscape may soon change, as the Supreme Court this week will hear oral arguments on a lethal injection case. Russel Bucklew is arguing that Missouri’s plan to execute him by lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment because of a rare medical condition he suffers from that could interact with the execution drugs. The Supreme Court has routinely rejected challenges to lethal injection, but this case could see an opinion acknowledging the gruesome side effects of that form of execution, potentially opening lethal injection to further legal vulnerabilities in the future.