Death row inmates want S.C. to delay executions after firing squad, electric chair approved

The move is the latest legal entanglement as the state tries to restart executions after a more than 10-year hiatus


By Emily Bohatch
The State 

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Lawyers for two South Carolina inmates who face executions have asked the state's highest court to delay scheduling their deaths until a lower court can decide whether the electric chair and firing squad methods are constitutional.

The move is the latest legal entanglement as South Carolina tries to restart executions after a more than 10-year hiatus caused by a shortage of lethal injection drugs.

This undated photo provided on Thursday, July 11, 2019, by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows the new death row at Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C.
This undated photo provided on Thursday, July 11, 2019, by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows the new death row at Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C. (South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP)

Attorneys representing death row inmates Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens asked the state Supreme Court on Monday for the stay days after the South Carolina Department of Corrections announced it had finished the necessary renovations to carry out an execution by firing squad.

[MORE: Firing-squad executions get the greenlight in South Carolina]

While lethal injection drugs are unavailable, South Carolina lawmakers passed a law last year giving death row inmates the option of execution by firing squad, adding it to a list that includes the default method of the electric chair.

If an inmate chooses the firing squad, it will be the first time in state history an inmate is put to death using that method.

The lawyers, part of nonprofit organization Justice360, have asked for a stay of execution because state courts have yet to rule on whether the firing squad or the electric chair are constitutional, a question courts have been debating since last summer when Sigmon and Owens' executions were initially scheduled.

A hearing on their case is scheduled for April 4 in a Richland County court, according to a state Supreme Court document.

Court battle drags on for nearly a year

Lawyers originally filed their lawsuit in May last year in Richland County.

The court ultimately denied their request for an injunction to the new state law, and the attorneys made their request again in federal court. A federal judge then ruled against their challenge, deciding the electric chair is constitutional under the Eighth Amendment, which prevents cruel and unusual punishment.

In January, a U.S. District Court sent the case back down to the state courts, ruling "the questions being raised here are novel and/or complex issues of State law that have not been decided by the South Carolina Courts." While the federal court has held that the electric chair is constitutional, some state courts across the country, including Georgia's, have found otherwise.

With the question about the constitutionality of the firing squad and the electric chair still on the table, lawyers for the death row inmates asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to hold off on issuing execution orders, which provide a date for their death and set their executions in motion.

Last year, Sigmon's execution was scheduled within days of state Department of Corrections officials notifying the court that the electric chair was ready. Owens' execution was scheduled the following week.

Both executions were halted after the state Supreme Court ruled that death row inmates in South Carolina must be given a choice between at least two methods of execution.

At the time, only the electric chair was available, and corrections officials were told they must ready the firing squad for executions to go forward.

Firing squad new to SC

The Department of Corrections laid out Friday what an execution by firing squad in the state agency's upgraded death chamber at Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia would look like.

During an execution, the firing squad of volunteers will stand behind a wall with their rifles. The guns will not be visible from the witness room, which is separated from the chamber by bullet-resistant glass.

Witnesses will only be able to see the right side of the inmate's body.

The inmate, dressed in a prison-issued uniform, will be given the opportunity to make a last statement. Then, a small marker will be placed over their heart and a hood will be placed over their head.

The prison warden will read the execution order and the firing squad team will fire.

In all, the agency said renovations to the death chamber cost about $53,600.
    
(c)2022 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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