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Virginia's grim choice: lethal injection or electrocution?

Josh White

A reader who commented on the story about Larry Bill Elliott's execution by electrocution this week wrote that they were unaware that condemned inmates "had a choice between injection or electrocution" as their means of death in Virginia.

The reader, AlbyVA, isn't alone: Several people have mentioned to me in recent days that they, too, were unaware this choice was available. Here's some history.

The Virginia Department of Corrections has executed people as the result of capital murder convictions since 1908. Prior to that, condemned inmates were executed by local sheriffs in Virginia, usually by public hangings on courthouse grounds.

According to the Department of Corrections, the Virginia General Assembly determined that hangings would be conducted in private beginning in 1879. The Code of Virginia was changed in 1908, mandating that the electric chair in the state penitentiary in Richmond be used for all executions.

The first electrocution in Virginia was on Oct. 13, 1908, in what is believed to be the same electric chair still used today. Though records are unclear, officials believe inmates constructed the homemade oak armchair, as they did all such work at the prison at that time.

Virginia used the electric chair continuously until 1962, when a 20-year hiatus began. During that break, the U.S. Supreme Court halted executions in 1972. They were reinstated in 1976, but Virginia did not execute another inmate until 1982. Since the death penalty was reinstated, there have been 105 executions in Virginia, second only to the 444 that have taken place in Texas through Nov. 10.

The electric chair was moved to the Greensville Correctional Center in May 1991, when the chair was equipped with a more modern electrical system. Lethal injection became an alternative to the electric chair in January 1995. It was at that point that inmates were given a choice of which method they would prefer.

David Bass, eastern regional manager for the Department of Corrections, said inmates are provided a paper form to indicate their choice about 15 days prior to their execution date. Bass said most inmates opt not to pick either method, at which point the state defaults to lethal injection.

Including Elliott this week, only five inmates have chosen the electric chair since 1995. The most recent electrocution before Elliott was the July 20, 2006 execution of Brandon Wayne Hedrick.

There have been 76 lethal injections in Virginia.

Another reader who commented on the story, mqpham, asked why Virginia spends money to maintain two modes of execution.

According to the Department of Corrections, there is a minimal expense associated with maintaining each method. The chair is permanently fixed to the floor in the death chamber, and a total of 3 minutes of electricity is used during an electrocution. For lethal injections, a gurney is wheeled into the same room and a blue vinyl curtain is pulled to conceal the chair.

It is unclear why Elliott chose the electric chair. Paul Warner Powell, another death row inmate convicted of capital murder for killing Stacie Reed in 1999 after he tried to rape her in Prince William County, also chose the electric chair in advance of his scheduled July execution. That execution was stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court in order for them to examine legal issues that might affect the outcome of his case.

In speaking to numerous defense attorneys and death penalty opponents, some say that there is a concern that lethal injection could be far more painful for the inmate than electrocution because it could take longer for the person to die after the first chemicals are introduced. It is, of course, impossible to know for sure because those people do not live to tell about it.

However one feels about the death penalty, this is one choice surely no one wants to have to make.

For my personal account of witnessing Elliott's electrocution, including details about how the procedure works, please see the post I wrote earlier.

-- Josh White

By Josh White  |  November 19, 2009; 1:45 PM ET
Categories:  Josh White , Virginia  
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I've had the opportunity to witness some executions by lethal injection at Greensville. You're right, there is no discernible added cost from maintaining both methods.

Of the inmates who have chosen electrocution, one did so because he objected to dying in the crucifix like position of the gurney (arms outstretched, but not standing upright). Another opted for it because he felt he needed "punishment" for his crime of gunning down four people in a Virginia Beach bar. I believe in this case, with Larry Elliott, he chose it because it was fast. You don't have anyone probing your arms with needles, you're just brought in, strapped down and gone in 90 seconds or so from the time you enter the room.

Neither method is cruel to me. A current of high voltage and amperage electricity directly to the cranial area knocks your neurons into oblivion in fractions of a second, lethal injection, properly done - is like a hospital surgery visit, without the recovery room afterwards.

Posted by: vuac | November 19, 2009 7:57 PM | Report abuse

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