Tennessee Uses Electric Chair Despite Sotomayor Dissent

In this Oct. 13, 1999, file photo, Ricky Bell, then the warden at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tenn., gives a tour of the prison’s execution chamber. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) — Tennessee used its electric chair Thursday evening for the first time in 11 years to execute Edmund Zagorski, who murdered two men, after he preferred electrocution to the state’s lethal injection protocol.

Zagorski argued in motions filed Thursday morning at the U.S. Supreme Court that both methods were unconstitutional and he was coerced into choosing electrocution, but Associate Justice Elena Kagan denied his petition.

For a second time, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a dissent.

“His eleventh-hour decision to accept the electric chair as a marginally less excruciating alternative does not undermine, as a matter of logic, his contention that both Tennessee’s lethal-injection protocol and the electric chair are cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment,” Sotomayor wrote in her 2-page dissent.

She noted a “troubling doctrinal shift” due to the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross, which requires inmates challenging the constitutionality of an execution protocol to demonstrate to the court that they found a better way to be killed.

Glossip, Sotomayor continued, made cruel and unusual punishments immune from judicial review.

Zagorski, who was convicted in 1984 of killing John Dale Dotson and Jimmy Porter when they sought to buy drugs from him, died on Thursday at 7:26 p.m. at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.

Early this year Tennessee added a second lethal injection protocol, using midazolam as a sedative, the first drug administered. Zagorski and other inmates challenged the decision, saying midazolam did little to pain during the 10- to 18-minute procedure.

But the Tennessee Supreme Court rejected the prisoners’ petition on Oct. 8 because, it said, they did not present a viable execution alternative. The inmates’ preferred method was Tennessee’s original lethal injection protocol: one lethal dose of pentobarbital. But the state said it was unable to acquire the drug. Many drug manufacturers refuse to provide lethal drugs to states for executions.

The state scheduled Zagorski’s execution for Oct. 11, but Gov. Bill Haslam granted a 10-day reprieve.

After Tennessee executed Billy Ray Irick with the three-drug protocol and there were signs that he was sentient during the application of the second and third drug, Zagorski sued in federal court, saying he had the right to die by electric chair.

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger agreed and prevented the state from using lethal injection to kill Zagorski.

The original maker of the chair told Courthouse News this week that the state’s modifications to his system could lead to complications during the execution process.

Zagorski had his last meal of pickled pig knuckles and pig tails at 4:10 p.m.

Speaking to reporters after the execution, Zagorski’s federal public defender Kelley Henry said the last words her client said were: “Let’s rock.”

Viewing the electrocution, Henry said, she believed Zagorski’s pinky fingers were dislocated and broken and his stomach continued to rise and fall between the first and second jolts of electricity.

Henry said Zagorski spent 34 years on death row as a model inmate and once saved the life of a guard. She said he should not have had to choose between the state’s newest lethal injection protocol and the electric chair.

“Nobody in law school ever thinks that they’re going to stand in front a federal court and ask to have their client electrocuted,” Henry said. “They don’t prepare you for that.”

In a statement, the Tennessee Department of Correction said it carried out the execution according to the state’s laws.

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