Without drug supplier, S.C. faces execution moratorium

The gurney in Huntsville, Texas, where Texas’ condemned are strapped down to receive a lethal dose of drugs is shown in this 2008 file photo. South Carolina has been having trouble obtaining one of the drugs used for executions.

COLUMBIA — Trying to overcome pharmaceutical companies’ reluctance to be associated with capital punishment, S.C. lawmakers are considering a law guaranteeing secrecy to manufacturers that provide drugs needed to execute death-row inmates.

Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told the House Judiciary Constitutional Laws Subcommittee on Thursday that the last set of drugs the state had expired in September 2013. Since then, the state has had no way of executing death-row inmates, he said, until it can obtain more through a different provider or the inmate chooses South Carolina’s only other option — death by electrocution.

“I’ll just put everybody on notice that we could have someone come in tomorrow and say, ‘I choose to waive my appeals and I want to die,’ said Stirling.

If that happened, he said, the state would be unable to carry out the death penalty.

“They could still choose the electric chair,” Stirling said. “However, if they came to us and said ‘I want lethal injection,’ we could not carry out that sentence.”

Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Little Mountain, called the conversation “gory” and “macabre” but said the state had to look into how other states have handled the nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs.

In March, Utah became the only state to allow firing squads for executions when no lethal injection drugs are available. Tennessee brought back the electric chair last year for when the drugs run out but suspended the practice last week amid legal challenges.

The House panel adjourned without a vote. The Senate’s version died in committee on a tie vote in March.

An attempt to revive it Thursday failed when senators balked at attaching it to the budget instead of voting on changing state law.

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 versions 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.

South Carolina has 44 inmates on death row but doesn’t have an execution set for at least another five years, said Emily Paavola, executive director of the Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center. Two inmates were sentenced to death last year, and the last execution performed in the state was in 2011.

Paavola and attorney Heath Taylor argued against the cloak of privacy, citing past botched executions after the drugs were changed.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on whether Oklahoma’s three-drug method of lethal injection is constitutional, after the botched execution of an inmate who writhed and moaned before dying 43 minutes after being injected.

“The temptation to cut corners is always greater when no one is looking,” Paavola said.

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