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2 SC death row inmates ask federal judge to halt executions after state judge refuses

Florence court

Attorneys representing death row inmates argued their scheduled executions by electric chair would be unconstitutional in a hearing at the federal courthouse in Florence on June 9, 2021. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

FLORENCE — A day after a state judge denied their request to halt a pair of scheduled death penalty executions, attorneys representing two South Carolina inmates took their case to federal court, arguing the planned electrocutions would represent unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

South Carolina's U.S. District Court Chief Judge R. Bryan Harwell said he would "take it under advisement" but did not indicate when he would issue a ruling. The first execution is scheduled for June 18.

"Believe me," Harwell said June 9, "I understand the gravity of the matter."

In a hearing that lasted over an hour and a half, federal public defender Gerald King argued in graphic terms the electric chair would lead to the inmates suffocating while their brains are "cooking" and ultimately risk painfully burning them to death.

Harwell noted those concerns had not prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down electrocution in the past.

"Electrocution certainly has been held to be constitutional," Harwell said.

King responded that the issue has not arisen in a long time as nobody in the U.S. has been forced to die in the electric chair in almost two decades, though several have chosen that method. The new cases could present an opportunity to revisit whether electrocution violates the 8th Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, he said.

The last time an inmate chose to die by electrocution in South Carolina was 2008. 

King also contended the state may not have exhausted every avenue in obtaining lethal injection drugs, noting that other states have been able to get them.

Attorneys representing Gov. Henry McMaster and the state's Department of Corrections countered that they tried repeatedly for years to get the drugs, even unsuccessfully asking the federal government for help.

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Daniel Plyler, representing the corrections agency, noted that some of the same legal organizations backing the latest effort to block the electrocutions had also lobbied against a "shield law" that could have allowed the state to get the drugs without revealing the pharmaceutical company's identity.

Ultimately, Plyler argued, the case would require the U.S. Supreme Court to change its view of an execution method that it has allowed in the past, a development he said is unlikely to happen.

Unless a court intervenes, Brad Sigmon is scheduled to die June 18, and Freddie Owens’ execution is set for a week later.

Sigmon, 63, was convicted in 2002 of beating his ex-girlfriend’s parents to death with a baseball bat a year earlier after she ended their three-year relationship and moved back home.

Owens, 43, has been sentenced to death three times since his initial conviction for shooting a convenience store clerk in the head during a 1997 robbery spree because the clerk couldn’t open the safe.

Brad Sigmon (copy)

The state Supreme Court has scheduled the execution of death row inmate Brad Sigmon. S.C. Department of Corrections/Provided

The federal hearing came just hours after a state judge had rejected a similar appeal, ruling June 8 that the death row inmates "have little likelihood of success on the merits of their claim."

The flurry of legal proceedings come after state legislators approved a change to the death penalty law this year in response to the state's long-running failure to obtain lethal injection drugs.

The new law would let prison officials use the 109-year-old electric chair, nicknamed "Old Sparky," as the default method. Inmates would soon also be able to opt to die by firing squad, but not until the state has figured out the protocol for carrying that out, which has yet to happen.

If Harwell does not block the executions, the last hope for Sigmon and Owens will be a stay from either the S.C. Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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