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Tennessee bill raising questions on use of electric chair

BY SHEILA BURKEAssociated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Lawyers and others disagree on whether a bill that passed in the legislature could legally force death row inmates with older convictions to die by electric chair if lethal injection drugs aren't available.

The Tennessee Legislature passed a bill that would allow death by electrocution if drugs aren't available. It's not clear whether Gov. Bill Haslam will sign the bill into law.

A last-minute amendment on the bill said it would apply to all condemned prisoners, regardless of conviction date. Current law gives inmates who committed crimes before 1999 the choice on whether they want to die by electric chair or lethal injection.

Some lawyers say the government can't change the method of death for inmates who were already convicted.

"I don't think so because I think that if someone were sentenced under the lethal injection statute then they cannot change the sentence to execution by electrocution," Brad MacLean, an attorney who has represented a number of condemned prisoners, said.

Normally the rule is that a new law with harsher punishments can't be applied to someone who has already been sentenced, but could be applied going forward, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. He said that generally new laws can apply to someone who has already been sentenced when the laws provide some type of benefit.

"I think there will be a real question as to whether being electrocuted would be a benefit over lethal injection."

Still, Dieter said, some could make an argument that the inmate was sentenced to death either way.

States have found themselves running out of drugs used to execute prisoners after a European-led boycott of sales of the drugs to prisons.

"I had a real concern that we could find ourselves in a position that if the chemicals were unavailable to us that we would not be able to carry out the sentence, and therefore I wanted to make sure that we did carry out the law," said Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.

The state Attorney General's office was consulted and lawyers told lawmakers that they were comfortable with the amendment that allowed the law to be applied to all inmates, Yager said.

He said it's getting harder and harder to find drugs used in lethal injections and Tennessee could be faced with the real prospect of not having them for executions in the years to come.

The state Attorney General's office issued an opinion earlier this year that said the use of the electric chair under the bill would be constitutionally defensible.

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