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South Carolina bill could require inmates on death row to choose between firing squad and electric chair

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Emily Bohatch

The State (Columbia, S.C.)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A bill that would require South Carolina death row inmates to choose between death by electrocution or firing squad if lethal injection drugs remain unavailable cleared the state Senate on Wednesday and is headed to the state House for consideration.

A bipartisan coalition of senators gave the bill its final, largely formal vote of support Wednesday, sending it to the lower chamber. Gov. Henry McMaster has said he will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.

The state has been unable to purchase lethal injection drugs since about 2016, according to Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling. South Carolina’s situation is not unique; several states have been affected by a nationwide shortage of the drugs since drug companies decided to clamp down on their use.

Due to the drug shortage, South Carolina has been unable to perform executions, postponing two. Under current state law, death row inmates are given the choice between lethal injection and the electric chair. If the drugs to perform a lethal injection are not available, and that’s what the inmate selected, the state cannot force the inmate to choose death by electrocution.

Both the Senate and the House held hearings on bills that would allow the state to resume executions. Both bills originally would give inmates a choice between lethal injection and electric chair, but if the drugs are unavailable, they would allow the state to execute the inmate by way of electrocution. The Senate added an amendment to its bill to give inmates the choice between electric chair and firing squad if lethal injection is not available.

McMaster supports changing the law to allow executions to be performed using any “reasonable” and constitutional method, including the firing squad, Governor’s Office spokesman Brian Symmes said. McMaster has called for passage of similar bills for the last three years as the state struggled to carry out scheduled executions.

Proponents of the bill argue that if someone is sentenced to death, the state must have a method of carrying out that sentence. While some prominent Republicans acknowledged that the lethal injection is likely more humane than the electric chair, they said it was essential for the state to have some way to carry out death sentences.

“For several years, as most of you know, South Carolina has not been able to carry out executions,” South Carolina state Sen. Greg Hembree, a co-sponsor of the bill, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Families are waiting. Victims are waiting. … The state is waiting.”

During Tuesday’s debate over whether to add the firing squad as a method of execution, proponents, including Democratic state Rep. Dick Harpootlian, of Richland, argued that method was more humane than the electric chair.

“They’re dead instantly,” Harpootlian said Tuesday. “The actual pain and suffering of death, it’s actually the least painful and the least suffering of any manner of death.”

Democrats have fought against the bill, mostly on the grounds that they don’t believe the state should have a death penalty. They argued the death penalty can be applied unequally because individual solicitors decide which cases to apply it to. Some point to racial inequities in the make up of South Carolina’s death row; of the 37 inmates on death row, 19 are Black and 18 are white, while African Americans make up only about 27% of South Carolina residents.

They also said it isn’t unheard of for someone on death row to be later exonerated. State Sen. Mia McLeod, a Richland Democrat, pointed to the case of George Stinney, one of the youngest people to be executed by the state in South Carolina history. Stinney was found guilty of and executed in 1944 for killing two white girls, but after his death, Stinney was exonerated 70 years later.

Opponents of the bill lamented its passage Wednesday.

Maria Aselage, the spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, said members were “extremely disappointed” in the bill.

“It is long past time to abolish the death penalty in South Carolina, not to find new ways to execute our brothers and sisters, including by firing squad,” Aselage said in a statement. “Every person is created in the likeness of God; their lives should be protected from the time of conception until natural death.”

The diocese urged members of the House to vote against the bill. The chamber is considering similar legislation. The initiative is very likely to pass this session as Republicans widened their majority in both the House and Senate in November.

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