Inmate asks for electric chair death in Thursday execution

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This booking photo released by the Tennessee Department of Corrections shows Stephen West. The Tennessee death row inmate is asking Gov. Bill Lee to spare his life, maintaining that he didn’t actually kill a mother or her daughter three decades ago. West’s clemency application says his co-defendant, then-17-year-old Ronnie Martin, stabbed both people to death. His execution is slated for Aug. 15. Martin is serving a life sentence and is eligible for parole in 2030. (Tennessee Department of Corrections via AP)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee inmate has made a last-minute request to be put to death in the electric chair, an option his lawyer described as “also unconstitutional, yet still less painful” than the state’s preference of a three-drug lethal injection.

The state Department of Correction on Wednesday confirmed 56-year-old Stephen West made the request and said the Thursday execution will be carried out by electrocution.

West previously opted against selecting a preference, which would have resulted in lethal injection. West’s attorney described both options as unconstitutional in his still-active U.S. Supreme Court challenge, as he seeks a stay in the execution.

“Seeking to avoid the constitutionally-impermissible pain and suffering created by Tennessee’s three-drug midazolam-based protocol, Mr. West has, as have two other Tennessee inmates before him, agreed to be executed by the also-unconstitutional, yet still less painful, method of execution, Tennessee’s electric chair,” his attorney wrote in the court filing.

Two Tennessee inmates, David Miller and Edmund Zagorski, chose to die by electric chair in 2018 because of concerns about pain associated with the state’s lethal injection procedure. Both unsuccessfully argued to courts that Tennessee’s procedure, which uses the drug midazolam, results in a prolonged and torturous death. Before this year, the last time a state used the electric chair to execute an inmate was 2013.

Zagorski, similar to West, made a last minute to request the electric chair after previously being set to use lethal injection which resulted in a brief delay in his execution to allow the state time to prepare for using the alternative method.

Tennessee has also put two inmates to death by injection since August 2018.

West’s attorney has argued that some “feasible and readily implemented alternative methods of execution exist that significantly reduce the substantial risk of severe pain and suffering” compared with the state’s three-drug protocol or electrocution: a single bullet to the back of the head, a firing squad, a “euthanasia oral cocktail” or one-drug pentobarbital, according to a February court filing.

West was one of four death row inmates who sued last year, asking a federal court’s permission to use a firing squad as an execution method. Currently, just three states — Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah — continue to allow the use of firing squads. However, the last time that method was used was in 2010.

In Tennessee, condemned inmates whose crimes occurred before 1999 can opt for the electric chair. Tennessee is one of six states that allow such a choice, according to a database from the Death Penalty Information Center.

Three others allow the electric chair as a backup method.

The last state other than Tennessee to carry out an execution by electrocution was Virginia in 2013, according to Death Penalty Information Center data.

No state now uses electrocution as its main execution method, according to the center, which doesn’t take a stand on the death penalty but has been critical of its application.

Georgia and Nebraska courts have ruled the electric chair unconstitutional. About two decades ago it looked as if the U.S. Supreme Court would weigh in on the issue. It agreed to hear a Florida case after a series of botched executions there. But Florida adopted lethal injection, and the case was dropped.

West was convicted of the 1986 kidnapping and stabbing deaths of a mother and her 15-year-old daughter, and of raping the teen. West has said his then-17-year-old accomplice killed both victims. The co-defendant received a life sentence, with parole possible in 2030.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee has denied West’s clemency application, which also said West takes powerful medication to treat mental illness.

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