Bill proposes firing squad executions

File/AP/Trent Nelson, Pool In this 2010 file photo, the firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah, is shown. With lethal-injection drugs in short supply and new questions looming about their effectiveness, lawmakers in some death penalty states are considering bringing back a relic of a more gruesome past, a firing squad.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina could become the third state in which condemned inmates could opt to face a firing squad, under a proposal by an Upstate lawmaker.

The bill, filed Wednesday by Rep. Joshua Putnam, R-Piedmont, would also allow the execution of death-row inmates by electrocution if lethal injection drugs aren’t available.

Putnam said he’s trying to find a solution that all states with the death penalty are facing — the inability to obtain drugs for executions by lethal injection, a method of capital punishment that has been criticized as inhumane after some have been botched in recent years. That has led pharmaceutical companies reluctant to be associated with capital punishments to discontinue supplying the drugs.

South Carolina’s supply of the drugs expired in 2013, and, since then, the state has had no way of executing death-row inmates unless they agreed to be electrocuted.

“I’m trying to fix a problem that the state is facing currently with how we administer that, but doing so in the most humane way that I possibly know,” Putnam said. “I’ve not found any evidence a firing squad has caused any pain.”

Putnam said he researched what other states have done and concluded that creating a five-member firing squad to carry out an execution would be better than electrocution or a badly concocted lethal injection.

Tyler Jones, spokesman for House Democrats, criticized the proposal, sarcastically suggesting that Putnam should consider “adding a guillotine option, as well. At least that would be cheaper and more humane. ... This one just makes South Carolina look medieval.”

If approved, South Carolina would follow Utah and Oklahoma in allowing executions by firing squad.

Unless any of the 44 inmates on South Carolina’s death row asks the state to carry out their sentence, none is scheduled to be executed for at least five years. The head of the state’s prison system told lawmakers last week there would be no way to carry out a death sentence unless the state could find a new supply of lethal injection drugs.

Two inmates were sentenced to death last year, and the last execution in the state was in 2011.

No one has ever been executed by being shot to death in South Carolina, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, whose database of 684 executions in South Carolina goes back to 1718.

The state mainly hanged criminals until introducing the electric chair in 1911. The electric chair was used until lethal injection was introduced in 1995.

Burning was the only other execution method routinely used in the state, with the last of 13 criminals burned to death in 1825, according to the center.

But states across the country have been struggling to find a method of execution that will stand up to legal challenges. And obtaining lethal injection drugs has been getting harder.

As manufacturers have refused to sell drugs to prisons for executions, prison officials across the U.S. have turned to compounding pharmacies, which make drugs specifically for individual clients. But those have also become difficult to come by because pharmacists are reluctant to expose themselves to possible harassment.

Last month, the American Pharmacists Association adopted a policy discouraging its members from providing drugs for lethal injections, saying that runs contrary to the role of pharmacists as health care providers.

And that’s the real issue, said Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Little Mountain; as pharmaceutical companies back off from making the drugs, states with capital punishment are scrambling to come up with other methods.

McLeod added he doesn’t know if he’ll vote for Putnam’s bill, but it would force a discussion about what the state can do.

“It’s sort of a macabre conversation, but it’s very important in terms of the state law enforcement agencies, courts and the Department of Corrections being able to fulfill their required duties,” McLeod said. “We need to actually review in earnest what is available to perform executions, and that’s going to take some time.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.