Virginia governor has hours to decide on return of compulsory electric chair

As state faces drug shortage, Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe has until midnight to decide whether chair should again be compulsory method of execution – while first inmate who could face it, Ivan Teleguz, has strong claim to innocence

The governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, has until midnight on Sunday to decide whether to bring back the electric chair as a compulsory method of execution.

Should the Democratic governor sign the bill currently sitting on his desk, the Virginia department of corrections would be empowered to kill condemned prisoners using a contraption known macabrely in the state as “Old Sparky”.

Should McAuliffe abstain tonight from doing anything, the law will come into effect on 1 July – only his active veto would stop it.

As a final twist in the governor’s decision, the first inmate who might be killed by electrocution under the new law is a man, Ivan Teleguz, with a highly credible claim to innocence.

The decision confronting the governor is a fraught one, given the dark track record of the electric chair in Virginia’s racially skewed history. The chair was first used in 1908 to kill a black man convicted of the rape of a white woman. Since then, 217 of the 267 people who have died by electrocution have been African American.

The dilemma is further intensified by McAuliffe’s close ties to Hillary Clinton, and the likelihood that any decision to facilitate the return of the electric chair will reverberate on the presidential campaign trail. McAuliffe was chairman of Clinton’s last presidential campaign, in 2008, and before that helped Bill Clinton earn a second term in the White House in 1996.

Hillary Clinton’s views on capital punishment have already impinged on her race for the presidency. In October she declared she was in favor of executions in “very limited and rare” cases. That sets her apart from her rival Bernie Sanders, who is adamantly opposed to the practice.

The issue welled up again in March, when Clinton was confronted at a presidential town hall debate by a former death row prisoner who was exonerated after his innocence was proved.

“I came perilously close to my own execution,” Ricky Jackson told her, so “I would like to know how you can still take your stance on the death penalty.”

So far, McAuliffe has given no indication of his thinking. Last week, 300 Virginia religious leaders wrote a joint letter urging the governor to veto the bill and prevent the compulsory return of a “barbarous relic” that kills with “unspeakable cruelty”.

On the other side of the argument, the department of corrections has long been calling for a change in procedures given that its stockpile of lethal injection drugs – the prevalent form of execution for 40 years – has run dry.

Like most death penalty states, Virginia has struggled in the face of a tight boycott imposed by the European Union and major drug companies that refuse to send medical drugs used in executions to the US on ethical grounds.

Virginia has indicated that it has only two vials left of compounded pentobarbital, a sedative often used in the triple lethal injection, and its own protocols require it to have three vials available for any execution.

On 10 March, the department of corrections changed its death protocols, but did so in secret without revealing to the public what the change involved.

As the law currently stands, the state’s hands are tied because the only permitted form of execution other than lethal injection is the electric chair. But “Old Sparky” can only be used where a condemned inmate chooses it – hence the bill sitting on McAuliffe’s desk that would allow the state to impose electrocution compulsorily.

Ivan Teleguz was sentenced to death in 2006 for a “hit job” – he was accused of hiring other men to murder his former girlfriend.

Since then, two of the three main witnesses in the state’s case against him have issued affidavits in which they recanted their testimony. Edwin Gilkes wrote that most of his testimony was fabricated under duress from prosecutors who threatened to put him on death row himself if he failed to cooperate.

The second witness, Aleksey Saronov, said he made up testimony on a promise from prosecutors that they would help him with immigration papers.

Transcripts of an interview with the shooter in the case, Michael Hetrick, reveal that he was put under intense pressure by investigators to implicate Teleguz.

“Ivan is the guy that I want. I’m going to get Ivan,” the investigator said, adding: “If you cooperate, no death penalty. If you don’t cooperate, [the district attorney] will go after the death penalty.”

A death warrant ordering the execution of Teleguz was set for 13 April but it has been postponed by the courts to give time for his lawyers to petition the US supreme court.

Michael Williams, a litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP who is part of the legal team representing Teleguz, said that the trial had been “so littered with constitutional errors that of all the cases in the US where the government plans to reenact a barbaric method of execution like the electric chair, this should inspire the governor to think twice”.

Teleguz’s co-counsel Elizabeth Peiffer, a staff attorney with the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, said a return to the electric chair would be “an incredible step backwards” and a “very embarrassing legacy” for the governor who enacted it.


Ed Pilkington in New York

The GuardianTramp

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