Firing squad still on table as SC House panel advances electric chair execution bill
Firing squads have not been used in the U.S. for more than a decade
COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina is poised to make significant changes this year to the way it executes death row inmates, giving the state an avenue to use electrocution and adding firing squads as an option.
A state House panel opted Wednesday to keep death by firing squad as an option for executions when it took up a Senate proposal that cleared the upper chamber last month. The Senate measure, sponsored by former solicitor and state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, would make the electric chair the state's new default method of execution but give death row inmates whose appeals have been exhausted the option to die by firing squad.
Right now, death row inmates have the choice between death by lethal injection or electrocution. However, the state cannot currently carry out lethal injection deaths because it doesn't have and cannot obtain the necessary chemicals. At the same time, the state cannot force someone to die by electrocution.
"I've come before you and the Senate for several years now, five or six years, saying that we could not carry out execution by lethal injection because we could not obtain the drugs," Bryan Stirling, head of the state Department of Corrections, testified Wednesday.
The legislation does not spell out how death by firing squad would work.
Only three states — Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah — allow death by firing squad, with lethal injection as the primary execution method, according to nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. But firing squads have not been used in the country in more than a decade. The last reported use was in Utah in 2010.
"We can carry out death by firing squad if the law is passed," Stirling said.
The state has been unable to carry out executions by lethal injections because of a nationwide shortage in the required drugs, a dilemma that was raised in 2017 when the state lacked the necessary chemical cocktail to carry out its first execution in six years.
South Carolina has not carried out an execution by lethal injection since 2011 and an execution by electrocution since 2008.
As of Wednesday, South Carolina has 37 people listed as death row inmates who have been sentenced to death.
Three of those inmates have exhausted their court appeals, the third as recent as this week, Stirling testified.
"This is not an oddity," testified Melody Brown, senior assistant deputy attorney general with the state Attorney General's Office. "And this isn't going to be the only three coming up."
State Rep. Russell Fry, R-Horry, said Wednesday the legislation will give the state and the prisons system more flexibility.
"Certainly, I think all three of those methods have not been successfully challenged at this point, so if any one of them was successfully challenged and it was a result of a U.S. Supreme Court case that considered cruel and unusual in any which way, which we don't anticipate at this point, but if it happened, you've still got the other things in place," Fry said.
The Senate added the firing squad option after an hourslong debate that included two former solicitors — Senate Education Committee Chairman Hembree and state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, both of whom have tried capital cases — joining together.
On one hand, Hembree argued that a firing squad is more humane than the electric chair, though ultimately, he said, the lethal injection method is more humane. Harpootlian, who is against the death penalty in general but has tried and won capital cases against inmates that included notorious South Carolina serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins, said the death penalty should be reserved for the worst.
But most Democrats have argued the legislation is racially unfair, targeting more Black inmates than white, pointing to one of the more egregious examples of when South Carolina carried out the 1944 execution on George Stinney, a 14-year-old Black teenager.
Of the state's current death row population, 19 are Black and 18 are white. And of the 282 executions carried out by the state since August 1912, almost three out of four, or 208, were Black people, according to the state Department of Corrections.
By focusing simply on race, critics of the death penalty changes are overlooking the crime committed and that the victims are many times the same race as the inmate, said 11th Circuit Court Solicitor Rick Hubbard.
"What concerns me sometimes when we focus on the race of the defendant, we forget the victim. And it concerns me that if you happen to be an African American victim and you have been brutally murdered by a Black male, an African American male, somehow the justice that should be afforded you should be less than that of a white victim because you have the misfortune of being murdered by somebody of your own race," testified Hubbard, whose work covers Edgefield, Lexington, McCormick and Saluda counties.
The state's death row cases, in general, Hubbard said stand out.
"These leave you haunted at night," Hubbard said. "You close your eyes, you still see the images. You can almost hear the sounds of the incidents. These cases are different."
Gov. Henry McMaster has signaled support for the legislation.
"I think it's a good bill," McMaster said Monday when asked his opinion on the firing squad option. "I will sign it."
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