Tennessee’s Electric Chair

Thursday night, May 22, Governor Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that would make the electric chair the execution method in Tennessee  if lethal injection drugs were not available.

A new poll from Vanderbilt reveals that the majority of registered voters in Tennessee support the use of the electric chair for executions.  Not surprising given that the electric chair bill breezed through the legislature with very little opposition. However, it’s the margin by which citizens support the electric chair that is noteworthy. When asked “Do you support or oppose using the electric chair for state executions?” thirty-eight percent opposed, while 56 percent supported (six percent answered “don’t know”/no answer). These figures are strikingly similar to the national numbers demonstrating slipping support for the death penalty, shown by Gallup (60 percent) and Pew Forum (55 percent).

One could assume that the overall support for the death penalty in Tennessee exceeds fifty-six percent, but by how much? If these recent poll numbers also reflect, at least to some degree, how Tennesseans feel about the death penalty generally, then 56% is far lower than what one might expect–a sign that the public is turning on the death penalty.

The reality is that the death penalty’s popularity is in decline,  particularly among younger Christians according to a poll by the Barna Group. Furthermore, as extreme methods are employed, or as executions are botched, the more average citizens are compelled to engage the issue.

Though the specter of returning to the electric chair should deeply trouble Tennesseans, we should also be deeply troubled by the possibility that one of 25 people who received death sentences over the last thirty years is innocent, as recently reported in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. We should be troubled that the vast majority of inmates on Tennessee death row were too poor to hire their own attorneys at trial and that a person is three times more likely to get a death sentence in Tennessee if the victim is white.  We should be troubled that our state is spending millions to maintain this system, and now will spend even more to litigate yet another controversial method of execution–money we are not spending on victims’ services, or to support Tennesseans with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or to educate our children.  We should be troubled that the signing of this bill will only further complicate the process and tangle up victims’ families in more legal wrangling.

But as troubled as we are, we are also even more motivated to educate Tennesseans about these problems and to watch support of  this system continue to falter.  Though we must be prepared as some ardent supporters of the death penalty engage in drastic tactics to shore the system up–like bringing back the electric chair–the truth is the system itself is dying and will not ultimately survive.  We can do better than this in Tennessee, and together, we will.

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