SC senators resurrect bill to bring back the electric chair

The bill is an attempt to address inabilities to carry out lethal injections because of the lack of chemicals needed

Tom Barton
The State (Columbia, S.C.)

COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina senators revived a proposal Wednesday to bring back the electric chair for the state’s death row executions, as well as add firing squads as an execution option.

The bill passed the state Senate by a 26-13 vote, split mostly along party lines. It now heads to the South Carolina House, where a similar proposal died last year.

Backed by Senate Republicans, the bill is an attempt to address the South Carolina Corrections Department’s inability to carry out executions because it does not have the chemicals needed for lethal injections.

Drug companies won’t sell the state the chemicals, fearing legal challenges and bad publicity, said state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, a supporter of the electrocution proposal.

Currently, the state’s 35 death row inmates can insist on lethal injection, effectively blocking their executions.

The bill would allow the Department of Corrections to electrocute death row inmates. But death row inmates could choose lethal injection, if available, or a firing squad, a proposal previously shot down by lawmakers.

“Inmates would have the absolute right to choose their method of execution among the two (electrocution or a firing squad), if lethal injection is not available,” Hembree said.

State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, suggested adding firing squads, saying he wanted to give inmates more choices.

“It should be effective and fast and do the job, and that’s the problem with the electric chair,” Hutto said.

Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah allow the use of a firing squad if lethal-injection drugs are unavailable or held to be unconstitutional. Nine states, which have lethal injection as their primary execution method, also allow for electrocution.

Lethal injection is widely thought to be a more humane method of execution.

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, who prosecuted serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins and other death penalty cases, described in graphic detail the procedures taken when Gaskins was electrocuted.

“Looking back on it 30 years later, I must admit I’m somewhat hesitant to go forward with that barbaric process,” Harpootlian said.

Wednesday’s debate also touched on the cost and effectiveness of the death penalty, and racial disparities in South Carolina’s criminal justice system.

Of the 282 South Carolina inmates executed since 1912, 208 were African-American, The State previously reported. More than half of the state’s death row inmates now — 19 of 35 — are black. African Americans make up about a third of the state’s population.

“I am not against the death penalty in all instances,” said state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton. “I am against electrocution as a means of administering the death penalty because I believe it is ... a cruel and unusual way.”


©2019 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

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