Virginia's Republican-controlled General Assembly approved a proposal backed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Wednesday that will allow the state to obtain execution drugs from pharmacies whose identities will remain secret.
The contentious proposal reflects growing concern in states across the country about the ability to maintain a steady supply of lethal injection drugs. It became a referendum on the death penalty after McAuliffe warned that capital punishment will disappear in Virginia if the state doesn't act.
"Pass this bill and allow these sentences to be carried out," Republican Del. Rob Bell said after reading the names of the victims of the seven men who currently sit on Virginia's death row.
The measure was fiercely opposed by religious groups and other death penalty opponents, who said the state should not take a human life under a veil of secrecy.
"If this becomes law... our citizens would be more certain about the chemical composition of the asphalt that (the Virginia Department of Transportation) buys to put on our road than we would about the drugs that we put in the veins of someone we want to execute," said Republican Del. Jim LeMunyon.
Virginia will join several states with laws that allow officials to keep secret the identities of lethal injection suppliers. Inmates and media organizations have challenged the laws in Georgia, Ohio, Missouri and Arkansas with mixed results so far.
In Missouri, a judge ruled last month that the state must disclose the source of its execution drugs after several media organizations, including The Associated Press, challenged the policy. But courts in Georgia and Texas have upheld the constitutionality of execution secrecy laws.
McAuliffe, a Roman Catholic who says he personally opposes the death penalty, introduced the proposal as a replacement to a bill that sought to allow prison officials to force condemned inmates to die in the electric chair when drugs are unavailable. McAuliffe said he found the electric chair "reprehensible" and vowed to veto that bill if lawmakers don't approve his changes.
When a similar lethal injection secrecy proposal was being considered in 2014, the head of the Virginia Board of Pharmacy questioned whether federal law allows pharmacies to compound drugs only when presented a valid prescription, The Washington Post reported based on emails last week.
But Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said Tuesday in an opinion requested by lawmakers that its "settled law" that lethal injection drugs don't constitute a practice of medicine, "rendering a prescription unnecessary and unavailable."
The governor's amendment initially failed in the Republican-led House, drawing praise from opponents. But GOP leaders pushed to reconsider the measure and 11 Republicans flipped their votes to support it.
Lawmakers faced pressure from religious leaders, who earlier this week called on the General Assembly to put an end to capital punishment. They rejected McAuliffe's claim that lethal injection provides a more humane way to carry out death sentences than the electric chair.
But supporters of capital punishment said those on death row will only get what they deserve.
"When you kill seven people, when you shoot a cop three times in the back of a head, when you hired somebody to slit your girlfriends' throat in front of your children, I really could care less how damn long you suffer," Democratic Sen. Dick Saslaw said.