South Carolina Might Face Lawsuit Over New Law Allowing Death by Firing Squad

Attorneys for several men on death row in South Carolina are considering suing the state for its new death penalty law, which would require inmates scheduled for execution to choose between firing squad and the electric chair in the absence of lethal injection drugs.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster's signing of the bill into law Friday drew little fanfare. South Carolina is one of the leading states of its size in putting inmates to death, but a lack of injection drugs has slowed executions for a decade.

Inmates are now faced with dying via the state's 109-year-old electric chair or by firing squad, options advocates are calling inhumane.

"These are execution methods that previously were replaced by lethal injection, which is considered more humane, and it makes South Carolina the only state going back to the less humane execution methods," Lindsey Vann of Justice 360, a nonprofit that represents many of the men on South Carolina's death row, told the Associated Press.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Electric Chair
South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster signed a bill into law on May 14, 2021, that would let condemned inmates choose death by being shot in the heart by several sharpshooters. Above, this March 2019 photo, provided by the South Carolina Department of Corrections, shows the state's electric chair in Columbia. Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections/AP, File

It's the first bill the governor decided to deal with after nearly 50 hit his desk Thursday.

Last week state lawmakers gave their final sign-offs to the bill, which retains lethal injection as the primary method of execution if the state has the drugs, but requires prison officials to use the electric chair or firing squad if it doesn't.

Prosecutors said three inmates have exhausted all their normal appeals, but can't be killed because under the previous law, inmates who don't choose the state's 109-year-old electric chair automatically are scheduled to die by lethal injection. They have all chosen the method that can't be carried out.

How soon executions can begin is up in the air. The electric chair is ready to use. Prison officials have been doing preliminary research into how firing squads carry out executions in other states, but are not sure how long it will take to have one in place in South Carolina. The other three states that allow a firing squad are Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Three inmates, all in Utah, have been killed by firing squad since the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Nineteen inmates have died in the electric chair this century, and South Carolina is one of eight states that can still electrocute inmates, according to the center.

Lawyers for the men with potentially imminent death dates are considering suing over the new law, saying the state is going backward.

From 1996 to 2009, South Carolina executed close to an average of three inmates a year. But a lull in death row inmates reaching the end of their appeals coincided a few years later with pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell states the drugs needed to sedate inmates, relax their muscles and stop their hearts.

South Carolina's last execution took place in May 2010, and its batch of lethal injection drugs expired in 2013.

Supporters of the bill said the death penalty remains legal in South Carolina, and the state owes it to the family of the victims to find a way to carry out the punishment.

Democrats in the House suggested several changes to the bill that were not approved, including livestreaming executions on the internet and requiring lawmakers to attend executions.

"We must be willing to look at the faces of the individuals we are voting on today to kill," said Representative Jermaine Johnson, a Democrat from Hopkins.

Opponents also brought up the case of 14-year-old George Stinney, who was sent to the electric chair by South Carolina in 1944 after a one-day trial in the deaths of two white girls. He was the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. A judge threw out the Black teen's conviction in 2014.

Seven Republicans in the House voted against the bill, most of them saying it did not make moral sense to approve sending people to their deaths, when three months ago, many of those same lawmakers approved a bill outlawing almost all abortions, saying all life is sacred.

"If you're cool with the electric chair, you might as well be cool with burning at the stake," said Representative Jonathon Hill, a Republican from Townville.

McMaster
South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster speaks to a crowd during an election night party for Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on November 3, 2020, in Columbia, South Carolina. Sean Rayford/Getty Images