COLUMBIA — Death row inmates in South Carolina would be forced to die by electrocution or firing squad unless lethal injection drugs become available again under legislation approved May 5 in the S.C. House of Representatives.
The 66-43 vote puts the measure steps from becoming law eight years after South Carolina’s supply of the three drugs used to carry out lethal injection began expiring.
State law has given condemned inmates the option to die by injection since 1995. But with all drugs expired and pharmaceutical companies unwilling to sell any more for executions, the state prisons agency can't carry out an execution order unless the prisoner chooses to die strapped in the chair nicknamed "Old Sparky."
That hasn't happened since 2008, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Three inmates on South Carolina's death row have had their lives spared — at least temporarily — because of Corrections' inability to execute them.
The measure that Gov. Henry McMaster has asked legislators to send him would make electrocution the default method for execution while adding the option to die by firing squad.
State Rep. Justin Bamberg told his colleagues their vote is truly a life-or-death decision.
"It's not some hypothetical thing," said the Democrat from Bamberg. "There are three living, breathing human beings with a heartbeat that this bill is aimed at killing."
For those who vote "yes," he said, "you may as well be throwing the switch yourself. That's how real this is."
South Carolina hasn't executed an inmate since 2011.
The lack of drugs, for the first time, prevented an execution in December when the state Supreme Court delayed the death of Richard Moore, 56, who was convicted of killing a convenience store clerk in Spartanburg County in a 1999 robbery.
In February, the high court stayed the execution of Brad Sigmon, 63, who was sentenced to death for a 2001 double murder in Greenville.
The third delay came May 4, a day before the House vote, for Freddie Owens. The 43-year-old was sentenced to death three times for fatally shooting a single mother of three in the head in 1997 at a Greenville County convenience store when the clerk was unable to open the safe.
A fourth inmate, 53-year-old Gary Terry, is one legal step from exhausting his appeals, according to the state attorney general's office.
On May 5, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence for Terry, who was convicted of raping and beating a woman to death in her Lexington County home in 1994.
They are among 36 inmates housed on death row at Broad River Correctional in Columbia. Another man sentenced to death in South Carolina is currently in a California prison.
The state has executed 284 people since 1912. Before that, county officials carried out executions by hanging. Only three of the 39 people executed since lethal injection became an option have elected to die by electrocution, according to Corrections.
"Those families of victims to capital crimes are unable to get any closure because we’re caught in a limbo stage because these lawfully imposed sentences can’t be carried out," said state Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, chairman of the House Judiciary panel that advanced the bill.
He argued the bill is not about whether the death penalty itself should be legal.
But that was central to the hours-long debate, with opponents calling it unacceptable for the government to kill anyone and for lawmakers to play God in deciding who's beyond grace and redemption.
The vote was not strictly along party lines. Seven Republicans opposed the measure, and one Democrat voted for it.
State Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Townville, said no one should be put to death by an imperfect justice system that wrongly convicts some people.
"Doesn't the death penalty make injustice permanent?" asked Hill, who also argued death by electrocution and firing squad violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
"If you’re cool with the electric chair, you might as well be cool with burning at the stake," he said.
Every amendment Democrats put up failed, including proposals to apply the measure only to future convictions and to open up executions for public viewing, both in person and live streamed.
If a death sentence is supposed to deter future violent crime, "let's let people watch," said Bamberg, who put photos on the overhead screen of botched injections and electrocutions. "You can't be afraid of what the reality is. You can't vote for electrocution and death and be afraid to face it in front of your very eyes."
An attempt to abolish the death penalty altogether in South Carolina failed on a 15-60 vote.
Ultimately, the only amendment to pass removed the requirement that the condemned sign and date his own death decision and get the signatures of two non-inmate witnesses.
Another perfunctory vote Thursday will send the amended bill back to the Senate, which passed it 32-11 in March.
If the Senate agrees with the House's changes, the bill would go to McMaster's desk.
If the inmate refuses to make a choice, then electrocution becomes the default pick, under the legislation.