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Virginia House OKs electric chair as backup in executions

(AP) A bill that would allow Virginia prison officials to execute inmates in the electric chair if lethal-injection drugs are unavailable sailed through the state’s Republican-dominated House of Delegates on Feb. 10.

The measure will now face its real test in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim majority and a similar measure got tied up two years ago.

Supporters have been using the impending execution of death row inmate Ricky Gray to make their case. The state says it doesn’t have enough pentobarbital — the first in a three-drug sequence used in Virginia — to carry out Gray’s execution on March 16. Gray was convicted of murder.

In an emotional speech on the House floor, Del. Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, the bill’s sponsor, walked through the gruesome details of the slayings that put Gray on death row: the 2006 New Year’s Day 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.

“The case I just told you about is exactly why we have this punishment on our books,” said Miller, a Republican. “This condemned inmate went through our court system with our judges and was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt. … It is our job as this legislature to do what we can in working with our judicial system to finish his task of justice.”

Gray’s attorney has not returned multiple requests for comment by phone and email.

Drug companies’ resistance to their products’ use for lethal injections has forced officials nationwide to turn to other methods or to halt executions while they hunt for a limited supply.

Tennessee recently approved a similar bill to the one being considered in Virginia. Utah last year approved the use of firing squads for executions if drugs aren’t available. Neither state has carried out executions under those methods since the laws were passed.

No lawmakers spoke against the bill in the House on Feb. 10. But death penalty opponents have decried the legislation, saying it would give the head of the Department of Corrections virtually unfettered discretion to decide which method of execution to use.

“This is the same Department of Corrections that advocated for secrecy last year,” said Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, noting the department’s support for a bill that would have blocked the disclosure of public information about lethal injections. “Is this the body that we really want to be giving such discretion to?”

Virginia’s death-row inmates currently get to choose between lethal injection and the electric chair and get the injection if they don’t make a choice. Virginia — one of at least eight states that permit electrocutions — hasn’t used the electric chair since 2013 when it executed Robert Gleason Jr., who remarked that he didn’t want to go lying down.

It’s unclear why Virginia officials say they don’t have enough drugs to execute Gray. The state has two vials of pentobarbital it received from Texas last year and used only one vial in the last execution. Officials have refused to explain.

The bill now under consideration would not go into effect in time for Gray’s scheduled execution, but his execution could be delayed if the state can’t find the drugs.

— ALANNA DURKIN RICHER, Associated Press

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