Oklahoma House passes bill ending electric chair executions
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OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma House approved legislation Thursday to eliminate the electric chair as a method of execution, although it's been more than 50 years since the state's last electrocution.
The bill lists which execution methods are still allowed, including lethal injection, firing squad, nitrogen hypoxia — which causes death by using nitrogen gas to deplete oxygen in the blood — and any other method not prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.
Electrocution has not been used to execute an Oklahoma inmate since 1966. A firing squad has never been used in the state, and nitrogen gas has never been used to execute inmates in the U.S.
Oklahoma is looking to get rid of electrocution because of the costs associated with building a new chair, said the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Harold Wright. The state's electric chair — originally built in 1915 — is in storage and does not operate, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terri Watkins said.
Watkins noted the chair hasn't been used since 1966.
"Even the electrical attachments to it are at least 50 years old," she said. "It took an entire generator back then to power it."
Watkins said she has no idea how much it would cost to get a functional electric chair ready to use for executions. She said the department hasn't considered or even looked into it.
Electrocutions are still authorized in seven other states, though those states' primary method of execution is lethal injection, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. An electric chair was last used in an execution in 2013 in Virginia, after an inmate requested it.
Oklahoma's current execution protocols only deal with lethal injection, though the legislation would give the Department of Corrections' director the choice of which method to use. House members voted 74-22 in support of the bill and sent it to the Senate.
Oklahoma has executed 112 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the highest per-capita rate in the nation. The overall tally is second only to Texas, where 537 inmates have been put to death over the last 40 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
But executions have been on hold in Oklahoma since 2015, following the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014 and drug mix-ups the next year during the last two scheduled lethal injections. Charles Warner was executed in 2015, but it was discovered later that prison officials used the wrong drug. A third inmate was just moments away from his scheduled execution in September 2015 when prison officials realized they were delivered the same wrong drug on the day of his execution.
Oklahoma was the first state to authorize lethal injection as a method of execution, and capital punishment has strong and bipartisan support in the Oklahoma Legislature.
Lawmakers approved the use of nitrogen gas as an alternative method of execution after Lockett writhed on the gurney during his lethal injection that prison officials tried unsuccessfully to halt.
Last year, voters overwhelmingly approved a statewide referendum that enshrined the death penalty in the Oklahoma Constitution, making it more difficult for future legislators or the courts to end it.
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