The ultimate punishment Matter of life and death The faces of South Carolina's death row

Death Row at Lieber Correctional Institution in Dorchester County, near Ridgeville. File/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawmakers are considering a proposal that would allow the state to execute death row inmates using the electric chair — something that hasn't been done since 2008 — if lethal injection drugs are not available.

Under current law, criminals sentenced to the death penalty in South Carolina can choose to die by lethal injection or electrocution.

Like other states, South Carolina has not had access to the necessary drugs to attempt a lethal injection since the last of its stock expired in 2013. That has left the state unable to carry out the ultimate punishment. 

Due to legal challenges, no death row inmate has been executed here in six years.

Part of the problem is a nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that is part of the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections. Companies internationally have stopped producing it, partially fearful of legal ramifications and ethical concerns.

A bill proposed by state Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, discussed in subcommittee Wednesday, would allow the state to electrocute death row inmates if those drugs remain unavailable, even if they elect for lethal injection.

Timmons emphasized that this debate is not over whether the death penalty should continue to exist in South Carolina, but rather how to ensure that laws on the books remain effective.

“I’m not changing any options, I’m just changing the way we’re operating within the legal structure,” he said.

The panel adjourned without reaching a conclusion on the legislation because it is waiting on further information from Attorney General Alan Wilson's office about how many inmates have already made their choice.

There are 35 people currently on death row in South Carolina. One execution scheduled as recently as December was stayed by federal judge. 

Gov. Henry McMaster has also called on the Legislature to pass a "shield law," which would allow companies to sell the drugs to the state confidentially in order to avoid public scrutiny. Lawmakers are considering that measure, too.

The last use of the electric chair in South Carolina came in the June 2008 execution of James Earl Reed, who was convicted in 1996 for murdering his ex-girlfriend's parents. Reed chose the electric chair, a move that no inmates have made since.

There is evidence that the shortage of the needed drugs is affecting the court system. Eighth Circuit Solicitor David Stumbo told the panel Wednesday that uncertainty has complicated the jobs of prosecutors because they cannot assure families the death penalty will actually get carried out if sentenced.

"If we're going to have it, it needs to be effective," Stumbo said.

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Tom Lucas, whose son Brian was killed by Todd Kohlhepp in 2003, said the extensive delays in execution and repeated appeals cause ongoing stress for families of victims.

Kohlhepp's crimes were discovered after a woman was found chained inside a shipping container on his property near Spartanburg last year. He eventually admitted to multiple killings.

"Sometimes we feel as victims that the inmate has more rights than we have, and I think that's really, really ridiculous and it has to change," Lucas said. "We feel like we don't have a voice."

Seventh Circuit Solicitor Barry Barnette ultimately decided not to pursue the death penalty after Kohlhepp pleaded guilty last year to seven South Carolina murders, citing concerns from families that the case would get repeatedly re-litigated and drawn out.

The last execution in South Carolina was carried out in 2011. Jeffrey Motts, 36, was convicted of murdering his cellmate in 2005 at Perry Correctional Institution. Motts had been serving two life sentences for the murders of two of his family members at the time.

In 1995, Sylvester Adams became the first inmate to die by lethal injection in South Carolina. The 39-year-old was convicted in the 1979 killing of a teenage neighbor. According to media reports at the time, state officials intentionally set his execution for 1 a.m., to discourage death penalty opponents and supporters from showing up.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he expects the group to resume discussions soon.

"I think some of the attention over the last couple of months has educated a lot of legislators about just how big of an issue it is," Massey said. "So I'm hopeful something is going to pass because I think people more so now than before recognize the immediacy of the problem."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.