US & Canada

Voices from the Tennessee death penalty debate

Electric chair Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The arm of a decommissioned electric chair

The practice of execution in the US is growing increasingly complicated, as are the attitudes Americans have about the death penalty. Five people engaged in the death penalty debate in Tennessee, which recently voted to use the electric chair in executions should lethal injection drugs become unavailable, offer their thoughts.

Arizona inmate Joseph Wood died this week by lethal injection, in a process that took almost two hours. His death came after he and his legal team tried to stop the execution because they didn't know the provenance of the drugs to be used to kill him.

A shortage of the drugs used for lethal injections and the uncertainty about the efficacy of the drugs that are available have forced many states across the US to consider alternative means of execution. Earlier this month, Tennessee passed a law that said inmates would be put to death in the electric chair should drugs not be readily available.

The BBC travelled to Tennessee and found different perspectives on the death penalty and the possible return of the electric chair.

The grieving father

Image caption Hugh Newsom and his wife Mary

Christopher Newsom was travelling with his girlfriend when the couple were kidnapped and murdered. His father Hugh Newsom supports the death penalty.

"There are a lot of people that are parading across the United States and the world against the death penalty. This is the first time that anyone has asked the Newsom family what they think.

"We lost a very great kid by murder. His girlfriend was murdered. There are a lot of people that throw us their opinion and they've never been affected by crimes like this.

"We're not animals, we're humans and we all have feelings. If the choice was there, I would want a person put to death with the least suffering, but if that's unavailable then, whatever means the state has at their disposable is acceptable."

The witness to an electrocution

Lawyer David Raybin drafted Tennessee's death penalty legislation four decades ago. He also witnessed the execution of convicted child killer Darryl Holton, the last man to be electrocuted in Tennessee, on 12 September 2007.

"He sat in the chair with his water dripping down his face. I had this vision of the electric chair crying for its victim; it was just so bizarre.

"Then he started to hyperventilate and then they put this mask over him - it was like a welder's mask, so you could barely see any of his face now and hardly any skin - and they had a shroud over his head. And then this fan came on and it was really loud. It couldn't have been more than five seconds later and you heard this tremendous bang and that was the electrocution. The lights didn't dim or anything. It was just a tremendous bang.

"I'm not adverse to the death penalty per se. I think in extreme situations perhaps it's appropriate, but I think if you're going to have a death penalty, the means of execution are just as important as the decision to have a death penalty.

"There has to be different alternatives to the lethal injections that can be found to accomplish this. I've seen this electrocution. It's horrible."

The man who walked free

Ndume Olatushani was released from prison in 2012 after serving 19 years on death row. He now campaigns against the death penalty.

"The first ten years when I was in prison I chose not to have a TV in my cell because I didn't want to get lost in this little small space. Over the period of time that I was in prison, I read thousands of books and I just tried to spend my time trying to figure out how to get up each day and put my best foot forward.

"The hardest moments on death row are the hours before an execution, when you know a fellow inmate won't be returning.

"It's sombre. You don't want to see someone who is full of life that you know in a matter of hours will be no longer existing. I think everybody is just kind of sad and kind of in this moment of realising that if you sit there long enough, eventually you will be that person that you see put to death."

The politician who voted to bring back the electric chair

Republican State Representative Ryan Haynes supported the bill to bring back electrocution in Tennessee.

"Families and victims of crime deserve to have justice. People who are convicted of heinous and disgusting crimes that are so unspeakable, deserve the death penalty.

"Still, the odds of Tennessee bringing back the electric chair are truly slim to none. I do think that bill was probably more political [than practical]."

The conservative campaigning against the death penalty

Marc Hyden runs Concerned Conservatives Against the Death Penalty

"In the '80s and '90s and coming from a conservative Christian family, it seem liked a foregone conclusion that we support the death penalty, but that mindset is changing. We are sceptical of government power. Many conservatives don't trust the government to deliver a piece of mail or to run healthcare, so why on Earth would you trust them to administer a programme that kills you as citizens?

"I think you have to give any policy what I call the conservative litmus test: you have to ask whether it is constitutional, pro-life, whether it is fiscally responsible and whether it is limited government. And the death penalty is inconsistent with at least three of those."

Listen to Rajini Vaidyanathan's BBC Radio 4 documentary, At the End of Death Row.

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