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Nancy  Madsen
By Nancy Madsen February 3, 2014

Surovell says 85 percent of states have stopped using their electric chairs

The possibility that Virginia will return to its electric chair to execute all condemned prisoners is shocking to Del. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.

Since 1995, Virginia has given such prisoners a choice in their manner of death: lethal injection or electrocution. Seventy-nine inmates have died by injection; seven chose the chair.

Drug manufacturers have stopped producing the products used to put people to death by lethal injection. Virginia’s supply ran out on Nov. 30. The House of Delegates, on a largely party-line vote on Jan. 22, passed a bill saying if drugs for the lethal injections are unavailable, electrocution will be used instead.

Surovell led the Democratic debate against the bill, saying Virginia should seek a more humane form of capital punishment rather than return to the electric chair. "Eighty-five percent of the states in the United States that had electrocution have now abolished it," he said.

We wondered if that statistic is accurate. Surovell sent us two articles to back his statement.

One was a 1994 study by Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University, which said  that 26 states have used electrocution dating to the 19th century.

Surovell also sent us a December 2012 article in Virginia Lawyer that cited Denno’s number of 26 states once allowing electrocutions, but added that all but four "have now moved away from it  -- either by legislative abandonment or judicial ruling." That translates to an 85 percent drop in states.

The four states that still allow electrocutions, the article said, are Virginia, Alabama, South Carolina and Florida. Two more -- Kentucky and Tennessee -- permit prisoners convicted only before 1998 and 1999, respectively, to select electrocution.

The U.S. Department of Justice has different numbers, but they’re misleading. The department issued a report last July saying that as of 2011, the 36 states with capital punishment all allowed lethal injections. Eight of those states, DOJ said, also allowed for the possibility of electrocutions.

Two of the states really don’t belong on the list, however, because their laws do not currently permit use of electric chairs. Arkansas allows any inmate convicted of a capital offense on or before July 4, 1983 to request death by electrocution. But there are no prisoners left on the state’s death row that qualify for the option. Oklahoma’s law "authorizes electrocution if lethal injection is held to be unconstitutional." That hasn’t happened.

Our Ruling

Surovell said, "85 percent of the states in the United States that had electrocution have now abolished it."

Academic research shows 26 states have allowed electrocutions since the 19th century. A review of laws today shows that six states may still use their electric chairs at a condemned prisoner’s request.

That means 77 percent of the states that had electrocutions have ended the practice.

Surovell is right that states are shutting down their electric chairs, but his percentage is slightly off. We rate his statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

Legislative Information System, HB 1052, accessed Jan. 27, 2014.

Del. Joe Morrissey on YouTube, "Delegate Morrissey speaking against HB 1052," (Surovell’s comments at about 4:30), Jan. 21, 2014.

Virginia Lawyer, "State of Electrocution," December 2012.

Ohio State Law Journal, "When Legislatures Delegate Death: The Troubling Paradox Behind State Uses of Electrocution and Lethal Injection and What it Says About Us," Aug. 22, 2002.

Iowa Law Review, "Getting to Death: Are Executions Constitutional?" 1997.

U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Capital Punishment, 2011 -- Statistical Tables," July 2013.

Emails from Tracy Snell, statistician at U.S. Department of Justice, Jan. 28, 2014.

"Capital Punishment in America" by Raymond Paternoster, Lexington Books, 1991.

Death Penalty Information Center, "Authorized Methods," accessed Jan. 28, 2014.

Arkansas Department of Correction, "Death Row," accessed Jan. 31, 2014.

Tennessee Department of Correction, "Death Row Facts," accessed Jan. 31, 2014.

Kentucky Department of Corrections, "Death Row Inmates,"  assessed Jan. 31, 2014.

Email from Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, Jan. 31. 2014.


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