South Carolina makes death by firing squad an option for death row inmates


South Carolina senators Tuesday added a firing squad to the list of execution alternatives if the state can’t put condemned inmates to death by lethal injection.

The state senate approved the bill on a key 32-11 vote with several Democrats joining Republicans in the proposal that would allow South Carolina to restart executions after nearly 10 years.

The state can’t put anyone to death right now because its supply of lethal injection drugs expired and it has not been able to buy any more.

Currently, inmates on death row can choose between the electric chair and lethal injection, and since the drugs are not available, they pick the method that can’t be used.

Firing squad allowed in 3 other states

The senate bill keeps lethal injection as an option if the state has the drugs, but requires prison officials to use the electric chair if it is not. An inmate could choose a firing squad if they prefer.

The house is considering a similar bill without the firing squad option, but it could also consider the senate version after a procedural vote by senators finalizes the bill later this week.

South Carolina began to use the electric chair in 1912 after taking over the death penalty from counties, which usually used hanging.

It is just one of nine states that maintains an electric chair. It would become just the fourth state to allow a firing squad along with Utah, Oklahoma and Mississippi, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster asked lawmakers to give him any way to restart executions since a few inmates have exhausted their appeals but their death sentences can’t be carried out.

A Republican and a Democrat, both former prosecutors, proposed adding the firing squad.

South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, left, and Gov. Henry McMaster stand outside the state’s death row in November 2017, after announcing the state didn’t have lethal injection drugs needed to carry out executions. (Meg Kinnard/The Associated Press)

Executions should be ‘humane,’ says senator

The Democratic former prosecutor said it is evident in a Republican dominated state like South Carolina, where the Republicans gained extra seats in November, that the death penalty can’t be abolished as Virginia did last month.

“The death penalty is going to stay the law here for a while. If it is going to remain, it ought to be humane,” said state Sen. Dick Harpootlian. He said hanging is brutal and often leads to decapitation and in electrocution, the condemned “are burned to death.”

Since the last execution was carried out in May 2011, South Carolina’s death row has dropped from about 60 inmates to 37 as of now. This is due to natural deaths and prisoners winning appeals and being resentenced to life without parole. Prosecutors have sent just three new inmates to death row in the past decade.

The Republican former prosecutor, Sen. Greg Hembree, said Tuesday was not the time to debate whether the death penalty was right or wrong.

But several Democrats said the moral aspect of putting someone to death could not be removed from discussions over the method.

They also asked senators how they could justify having a debate about putting people to death this week when last month they passed a bill outlawing most abortions in South Carolina, which is now tied up in court.

Democratic Sen. Kevin Johnson brought up George Stinney, the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century.

Stinney was 14 when he was sent to the electric chair after a one-day trial in 1944 for killing two white girls. A judge threw out the Black teen’s conviction in 2014. Newspaper stories reported that witnesses said the straps to keep him in the electric chair didn’t fit around his small frame.

Johnson drives by a memorial to Stinney each time he comes to Columbia from Manning.

“You think it was bad to abort a baby? Think how much worse it is to kill a person who, when all is said and done, is innocent,” Johnson said.

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