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SC court halts executions by firing squad, electric chair

Death penalty room (copy)

The state’s death chamber in Columbia has the electric chair (right) and a firing squad chair (left).

COLUMBIA — Even with state prison cupboards bare of the drug cocktail previously used to legally execute death row inmates in South Carolina, a Richland County judge ruled Sept. 6 the use of a firing squad or electrocution is unconstitutional.

Those options, the only ones currently available under state law, violate the S.C. Constitution’s provisions against “cruel and unusual punishment,” said Fifth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman. 

“In 2021, South Carolina turned back the clock and became the only state in the country in which a person may be forced into the electric chair if he refuses to elect how he will die,” Newman wrote. “In doing so, the General Assembly ignored advances in scientific research and evolving standards of humanity and decency."

An appeal to the state Supreme Court was expected no matter how she ruled.

Following issues with supply for the three drugs needed for death by lethal injection, Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill in May 2021 that made electrocution the default execution method and added the firing squad as an alternative. Lethal injection is still an option, if the drugs become available again.  

In an August trial, attorneys from the nonprofit Justice 360, a group against the death penalty and which was representing four death-row inmates, argued that the condemned inmates are being forced to choose between two methods of cruel and unusual punishment.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit against McMaster, the S.C. Department of Correction and its director, Bryan Stirling. A spokesman representing McMaster said the governor plans to appeal. 

"The governor agrees with the circuit court's previous decision declining to issue an injunction...," spokesman Brian Symmes wrote in a statement.

In June 2021, Newman decided to allow planned executions for two condemned inmates — Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens — who argued that death by the electric chair is unconstitutional.

Both had been scheduled to die earlier in 2021, but the state Supreme Court had postponed their executions because the state lacked the ability to execute by lethal injection. Following Newman's decision, the state's high court again delayed their executions until the Department of Corrections made firing squad an option. The prisons agency said in March it could proceed.

The justices asked Newman to rule on the updated constitutionality question within 30 days of the trial, which concluded Aug. 4.

During the trial, Newman listened to details on the execution methods — from the lack of changes over the last century to the electric chair to the type of ammunition that would be used for the new firing squad.

She also heard about the conditions of the inmates' bodies after they died. One expert witness had described the effects of electrocution as “cooking.”

Photos from the last person executed by firing squad in Utah were also shown in trial.

“Those photos depict multiple entrance wounds in the inmate’s chest and large volumes of blood poured out over his body and clothing,” Newman’s order reads. “The inmate’s body has been, by any objective measure, mutilated.”

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who also is a former prosecutor, advocated for the legalization of execution by firing squad, saying it was a more humane form of punishment than the electric chair.

The Columbia Democrat said he disagrees with Newman’s ruling, adding that he expects the higher courts to reverse her decision.

In last month's hearing, state attorneys countered with their own experts who said death by firing squad — which has yet to be used — or the rarely used electric chair would be instantaneous and the condemned would not feel any pain, The Associated Press reported.

From 1995 to 2011, when the state’s last execution was performed, South Carolina carried out the death penalty with lethal injections on 36 prisoners. But, as the state’s supply of lethal injection drugs expired in 2013, an involuntary pause in executions resulted from pharmaceutical companies' refusal to sell the state more, the AP said.

Caitlin Ashworth is a crime reporter for The Post and Courier in Columbia. She spent several years in Thailand before moving to South Carolina.

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