Death row inmates contest Tenn. electric chair law

Already challenging Tennessee's lethal injection protocol

By Travis Loller
Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ten death row inmates already challenging Tennessee's lethal injection protocol were permitted by a judge Thursday to amend their lawsuit to include objections to the use of the electric chair.

The General Assembly passed a law earlier this year allowing prisoners to be electrocuted if Tennessee Department of Correction officials were unable to obtain the drug used for lethal injection.

Prior to that, prisoners could not be forced to die by the electric chair, although they were allowed to choose that method under some circumstances.

The death row plaintiffs claim the new law violates both the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions. Among other things, they claim it violates evolving standards of decency. They also claim that the law is too vague. And they question whether the state's electric chair actually operates as it is supposed to.

Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled on Wednesday that the inmates could amend their lawsuit to include the new claims. The original lawsuit challenged the state's new lethal injection protocol, adopted in September 2013. It switched execution from the use of three drugs to just one, pentobarbital.

The switch was a response to legal challenges over the effectiveness of the three-drug mixture and a nationwide shortage of one of them, sodium thiopental. Those issues have effectively prevented any executions in Tennessee for nearly five years.

Billy Ray Irick (EYE'-rik) is scheduled to be executed on Oct. 7 for the 1985 rape and murder of a 7-year-old Knoxville girl he was babysitting. Asked whether the state has enough pentobarbital to execute Irick as scheduled, Department of Correction spokeswoman Neysa Taylor said in an email, "We are confident that we will have the necessary chemicals when needed."

Irick is asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to postpone his execution date pending the outcome of the Chancery Court lawsuit.

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