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Tennessee Death Row Inmates Request Death By Firing Squad

The electric chair at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tenn., which was chosen by a prisoner last week. Like him, four other inmates have challenged the use of drug executions by opting for other methods.

Updated at 9 p.m. ET

Four Tennessee death row inmates challenging the constitutionality of capital punishment in their state are asking a federal judge to allow them to bypass lethal injections or the electric chair in favor of another method: death by firing squad.

The request came in a lawsuit filed Friday, following the execution of 63-year-old Edmund Zagorski, who died Thursday night in the electric chair, a method he had requested instead of death by lethal injection.

Zagorski's attorneys had argued that electrocution was quicker and less painful than the three-drug lethal injection protocol used by Tennessee and denounced by some experts as a form of torture. Zagorski was executed after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his appeal asking the high court to rule on the constitutionality of forcing him to choose between lethal injection and electrocution. It was one of several approaches Zagorski tried as he challenged his death sentence.

The four inmates include David Earl Miller, who is scheduled to be executed on Dec. 6 for the 1981 rape and murder of a 23-year-old mentally handicapped woman in Knoxville. Miller is Tennessee's longest-standing death row inmate.

Under state law, death row inmates may choose the method of their execution 30 days before the execution date. The suit seeks a postponement of Miller's execution until a federal judge can hear the case.

As the Nashville Tennessean reports,

"The suit says that the state possesses the firearms, ammunition and trained personnel necessary to carry out a firing squad execution. The suit says that Big Buck Shooting Range, on the grounds of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, can 'easily accommodate what little equipment is required for an execution by firing squad.'

"Trained professionals reduce error rates in firing-squad executions, the suit claims. Should there be human error, procedure for military executions have a back-up plan: the 'coup de grace,' which consists of holding the muzzle of a handgun 'just above the ear and one foot from the head' to complete the execution, according to the lawsuit filed late Friday."

According to the lawsuit, if the court rejects the firing squad request, the inmates may be executed by alternative means such as orally administered drugs.

Only three states — Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah — still allow the use of firing squads, although lethal injection remains their primary method of execution.

In unrelated events in California, state prison officials reported the deaths of two death row inmates — both multiple murderers — in what were apparently two suicides over the weekend. Andrew Urdiales, 54, was found unresponsive in his cell late Friday and Virendra Govin, 51, was found on a different death row housing unit late Sunday. Officials say they have no indication that the deaths are connected.

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