Why The Electric Chair Remains An Option On Tennessee's Death Row

Oct 10, 2018
Originally published on October 10, 2018 5:04 am

Since 1960, Tennessee has put to death only one person by electrocution. And now a prisoner who is scheduled to die Thursday has opted for the electric chair.

Edmund Zagorski has a choice only because he was convicted of a double murder before 1999, the electric chair was prescribed for death sentences. Since then, death by intravenous drugs became the preferred method, but prisoners convicted under the old law have a choice.

Attorney David Raybin, who helped write Tennessee's capital punishment laws, represented the state's last prisoner to die by the electric chair in 2007. Daryl Holton had killed his children in a quadruple murder and turned himself into authorities.

"In the abstract, I suppose the person dies instantaneously," he says, recalling the process of watching executioners strap Holton to the chair and electrocute him. "But it is a medieval process. It's bizarre."

More: Two Jurors In Zagorski Case Argue For Life Without Parole Ahead Of Execution

Raybin acknowledges problems with lethal injection, like the possibility of "lingering death," but he hoped Holton's death would be the last time Tennessee's electric chair would be fired up.

Because of attorney-client privilege, Raybin can't divulge why his client chose to die that way.

Zagorski's attorneys say he considers it to be more humane than the state's current three-drug protocol for lethal injection, which the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld Monday. A handful of prisoners in Virginia and South Carolina have also been put to death by electrocution in the last years.

At 34 years on Tennessee's death row, Zagorski has outlasted almost everyone else, so fewer and fewer will have the same option about how their life ends.

But the electric chair may not go away entirely. In 2014, the Tennessee legislature made it a backup plan if the state wasn't able to obtain the necessary drugs for a lethal injection.

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