Faced with a shortage of lethal injection drugs, Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday suggested maintaining the death penalty in Virginia by allowing the state to acquire drugs in secret from unidentified pharmacies rather than relying on the electric chair as a fallback.
At a Capitol news conference, McAuliffe said he will not sign Republican-backed legislation that would make the electric chair the default execution method if the state lacks the necessary drugs to perform a lethal injection.
The Democratic governor said his recommendation to give the Department of Corrections the power to work with hidden contractors to compound drugs is a reasonable solution to a "very difficult" issue. He said he will veto the electric-chair bill if it comes back to him in its original form, and he expects lawmakers to consider his proposed changes carefully.
"If they pass up that opportunity, they will bring the death penalty to an end here in Virginia," McAuliffe said.
Virginia gives death-row inmates a choice between lethal injection and the electric chair, with lethal injection serving as the default if no choice is made. Since 1995, when prisoners were first given the choice, 80 inmates have been executed by injection. Seven picked the chair.
The original legislation, House Bill 815, was pitched as a way to avoid a crisis in which the state is unable to honor a prisoner's choice for lethal injection due to a lack of drugs. Virginia is one of 31 states that have capital punishment.
Del. Jackson H. Miller, R-Manassas, the bill's sponsor, said he prefers his version to the governor's substitute, but he welcomed McAuliffe's changes as an acknowledgement that the death penalty is necessary for heinous crimes. He said he'll ask colleagues to support the amendments.
Miller also agreed with the governor about the need for secrecy.
"Because death penalty advocates would just absolutely harass anyone that works with the Department of Corrections to no end," Miller said. "That's why we can't get the pharmaceuticals now."
McAuliffe said he will not seek to end the death penalty, but called the electric chair a "terrible form of punishment."
"I personally find it reprehensible," McAuliffe said. "We take human beings, we strap them into a chair and then we flood their bodies with 1,800 volts of electricity, subjecting them to unspeakable pain until they die."
Under the governor's recommendation, the identity of any pharmacy working with the state to produce lethal drugs would be exempt from public-records laws, a provision similar to a bill that failed in the General Assembly last year after opposition from an unlikely coalition including tea party activists, the ACLU and death penalty opponents.
Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, a death penalty opponent who has pushed for more transparency in executions, said McAuliffe's amendment "replaces one bad idea with another bad idea."
"I don't know how a court is supposed to evaluate whether we're complying with the constitution if we're going to kill somebody using a secret drug," Surovell said.
McAuliffe said the secrecy provision - which he called controversial but necessary - was included in laws passed in other states facing the same problem.
"These manufacturers will not do business in Virginia if their identities are to be revealed," McAuliffe said.
Contractors providing drugs would also have protection against being outed in civil lawsuits.
Surovell said the proposal would mean more transparency in buying toilet paper than in "extinguishing a human life."
"The more significant and important an act that the government takes is, the more transparency it ought to have," Surovell said.
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the execution secrecy bill last year, said he saw little reason why the public needs to know the origins of drugs used to put "the worst of the worst" to death.
"Can you tell me who makes the electric chair? Probably not," Saslaw said. "What difference does it make where we get the chemicals from?"
The electric-chair legislation was one of the most controversial issues left undecided ahead of the governor's Sunday deadline to act on bills passed in the 2016 session. The legislature will reconvene on April 20 to take up the governor's vetoes and recommendations.
Questions over the state's drug stockpile have loomed over the pending execution of Ricky Javon Gray, who was scheduled to die March 16 for his role in the brutal murders of Richmond's Harvey family on New Year's Day in 2006. Gray's execution was stayed in late February as he continues to appeal his case. The delay means the pending legislation could affect the death sentence for Gray, whose victims included the Harvey family's two young daughters.
Religious leaders and other activists had urged McAuliffe to veto the bill, suggesting it would be a return to inhumane practices of a bygone era.
Virginia's Catholic bishops released a statement Monday slamming McAuliffe, who is Catholic, over previous actions upholding gay rights and access to abortion and his decision on the execution bill.
"We argued against similar legislation last year because it would hide from the public details about how the state exacts the ultimate punishment," Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of Richmond and Bishop Paul S. Loverde of Arlington said in a joint statement. "This action by the governor - and the General Assembly - ignores a very public plea Pope Francis made earlier this year that government leaders carry out no executions in this Year of Mercy and abolish the death penalty throughout the world."
McAuliffe said his recommendation offers a "valid path forward to continue Virginia's policy of capital punishment."
"If my amendments to this bill are judged fairly, I do believe that a majority of Virginians will conclude that I have found a reasonable middle ground on an issue that sometimes defies honest conversation," McAuliffe said.