A few dozen United Methodist clergy stood across the street from the Capitol on Tuesday, their heads down in prayer.
“Help us to work tirelessly for the abolition of state-sanctioned death,” said Sara Tate, a pastor from Northwest Tennessee. “Amen.”
“Amen,” the crowd echoed.
The prayer vigil was a response to Tennessee’s new law making the electric chair the backup means of execution, which the governor approved last week. Its goal is for the governor to not only revoke his signature on the electric chair but also to outlaw the death penalty in general.
That’s a tall order for a state that has been executing people, on and off, during its entire history. But Tate says the new law, which seems to secure the death penalty in Tennessee, is renewing backlash against it.
“I think sparking the controversy and starting the difficult conversations is more of a positive thing than anything could be.”
It will also spark conversations in state legislatures around the country, says Vanderbilt law professor Chris Slobogin, who studies criminal justice. But that kind of broad debate over capital punishment will likely stay out of the courts, even if this law is challenged.
“The courts tend to focus on narrower issues, and so the issue in the courts will be whether electrocution is a cruel and unusual punishment or not,” he says.
So far, he says, very few courts around the country have ruled it unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Haslam is continuing to be pressured to explain why he signed the bill last week. On Tuesday morning, the questions came from participants at Girl’s State, a summer program for rising high school seniors interested in government.
The governor remained guarded but did allude to his own views on the death penalty.
“That sounds incredibly cruel and barbaric to decide that, as a human, you’re going to take another’s life, and that is a very valid, valid philosophical position to take,” he said. “But you do have to remember that a lot of the crimes — almost all of the crimes that people are on death row for — are horrific.”
No executions have been carried out during Haslam’s time in office. Two executions are scheduled for later this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.