COLUMBIA — South Carolina corrections officials deny intentionally breaking federal law when they obtained a lethal injection drug from an overseas supplier several years ago, a drug that was never used for an execution and has since been turned over to authorities.
In a segment Sunday on the CBS news show “60 Minutes,” South Carolina was named as one of six states that “have skirted federal law and turned to black-market dealers to get their hands” on drugs to execute death-row inmates.
During former Gov. Mark Sanford’s administration, South Carolina purchased one of three drugs needed to carry out executions from overseas in November 2010, said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stephanie Givens. But unlike Arizona — whose officials claimed the drug would be used on animals — South Carolina was up front with its supplier that the drug would be used for executions.
“No, we did not intentionally try to skirt the law because we were so forthcoming with our intentions to use the drug,” Givens said. “If we were trying to be secretive, we wouldn’t have done that.”
When corrections staff realized in 2011 that they had run afoul of the law, they turned the drug in to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Givens said.
Arizona and South Carolina are among more than two dozen states struggling to find an alternative to the lethal concoction they used previously to carry out the death penalty. The Palmetto State’s supply of lethal injection drugs expired in 2013, and, since then, the state has had no way of executing death-row inmates unless they agree to be electrocuted.
Prison officials across the U.S. have turned to compounding pharmacies after manufacturers refused to sell drugs to prisons for executions. But pharmacists have also become reluctant to expose themselves to possible harassment.
Earlier this year, the American Pharmacists Association also 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.
In response to the shortage, many states — including South Carolina — have pushed for secrecy laws that would shield the identity of the drugs’ manufacturers, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization that opposes capital punishment.
Instead of protecting the identity of drug manufacturers, secrecy laws have been used by states to prevent the public and the drug manufacturers themselves from learning that the states have obtained the drugs for lethal injection purposes, Dunham said.
“The states that want to carry out executions have become increasingly desperate in trying to obtain the drugs,” he said.
South Carolina is still working to find alternative ways to execute prisoners as well as trying to find the drugs, Givens said. There are 42 inmates on death row, and none are scheduled to be executed for at least five years. Two inmates were sentenced to death last year, and the last execution in the state was in 2011.
An Upstate lawmaker introduced a bill earlier this year that would give condemned inmates the option to face a firing squad. The bill would also amend state law to allow for the execution of death-row inmates by electrocution without the inmates’ consent if lethal injection drugs aren’t available. The bill is pending in the upcoming 2016 legislative session.
Staff writer Christina Elmore contributed to this report. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 843-577-7111.