A choice between two methods for a barbaric death isn't much choice at all.
Yet Virginia's House of Delegates wants to ensure that the commonwealth continues state-sanctioned killing, known as the death penalty, by mandating use of the electric chair if drugs used for lethal injections are not available.
For the past 20 years, the commonwealth has given the condemned a choice between electrocution and lethal injection, but few have chosen the electric chair. Virginia's former executioner, who administered 25 executions using the electric chair before retiring in 1999, explained why during testimony last week before a Senate committee.
Electrocution leaves bodies burned and blistered, Jerry Givens said. "If you've got a fire in the execution room and the witnesses have to witness this, this is something that will live with them forever," he said.
But Virginia, one of 32 states that continues to use the death penalty, now faces a shortage of lethal injection drugs, and proponents of the death penalty are rallying around the electric chair as an acceptable alternative.
Rather than reverting to that torturous, cruel device, Virginia should tack toward a more humane, sensible criminal justice system, one that replaces the ultimate punishment with life in prison without parole.
Execution fails to serve justice on many fronts: It is overwhelmed by racial disparity, more costly than a sentence of life in prison without parole, and harbors no possibility, once applied, to correct an error.
Last week, the House of Delegates passed the electric chair bill and sent it to the Senate for consideration, though its companion bill failed in a Senate committee after members heard Givens' testimony.
Shortages of lethal injection drugs have become commonplace in the United States, in large part because pharmaceutical companies that manufacture one of the drugs in the killing cocktail, the sedative pentobarbital, have restricted its sale for use in capital punishment. Other death penalty states, lacking portions of the drug mixture used for lethal injections, proceeded with executions using untested drug combinations.
This month, Ohio's execution of a man convicted of rape and murder, Dennis McGuire, served as a vivid example in the crusade against the death penalty. The two-drug combination coursing through McGuire's body left him choking and gasping for 25 minutes, much longer than a typical execution.
The electric chair is no better. Del. Scott Surovell, a Fairfax County Democrat, described its function in graphic terms.
"Electrocution cannot do what it does without mutilating a person," Surovell said. "It causes burns. It causes organs to cook.... There are documented cases of people smoking, of blood coming out of people, of people catching on fire. The rest of the country is moving on. We are increasingly isolated."
In the past five years, four states, including Maryland, abolished the death penalty. Virginia is one of only eight states to allow that sentence to be carried out through use of the electric chair.
Virginia's solution, requiring use of the electric chair should the lethal injection drugs remain unavailable, means the state steps back rather than forward.
Life in prison without the possibility of release keeps dangerous people locked up. It allows for correction in the event an inmate is found innocent. It makes us a more civil society.