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Tennessee death row inmates sue to stop electric chair

By Tim Ghianni

NASHVILLE Tenn. (Reuters) - Tennessee death row inmates whose execution dates have been set filed suit on Friday against the state to stop it from using the electric chair.

"It was filed because the state of Tennessee stands alone as the only jurisdiction in the entire world which now involuntarily subjects inmates to the electric chair," said federal public defender Kelly Henry, who represents five of the 11 condemned inmates named in the filing.

She said the filing - with four different attorneys involved - amended a suit filed in November that challenged the process of lethal injections in the state and also said executioners' names should be revealed.

The Tennessee General Assembly in its last session passed a law making the electric chair the backup plan for Tennessee executions if the drugs for lethal injection become unavailable or if lethal injection has been deemed unconstitutional.

Governor Bill Haslam signed that bill into law and it went into effect on July 1, according to Henry.

That law followed similar proposals from various U.S. states responding to increased difficulty in obtaining drugs for lethal injections because many pharmaceutical companies, primarily in Europe, object to the use of their products in executions.

"Prior to the new law, an inmate was only subject to the electric chair in Tennessee if they chose to be," Henry said.

Lethal injection is the primary execution method in all states that have capital punishment, but some states allow inmates the option of electrocution, hanging, firing squad, the gas chamber or other methods.

Tennessee's Department of Correction has said it is confident the appropriate lethal injection chemicals will be in place in time for the Oct. 7 execution of Billy Ray Irick, who was convicted of the rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl from Knoxville in 1985.

"Once we reviewed all the evidence about the electric chair, we are sure it's a torture device and violates the constitution," Henry said.

There will be a hearing for oral arguments in the lawsuit on Sept. 12 in Davidson County Chancery Court, after which the judge will decide whether this part of the lawsuit will go forward.

Sharon Curtis-Flair, spokeswoman for state Attorney General Robert Cooper, said on Friday afternoon "we just received the filing. We are reviewing it."

(Reporting by Tim Ghianni; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Eric Beech)

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