In recent decades, the inability of state corrections departments to procure the necessary drugs to carry out lethal injections and kill people has led to a gradual decline in the number of executions in America. Many states have put a moratorium on death sentences as a result, with some states abolishing executions altogether. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 22 states have stricken some of the more inhumane punishment from their books. The US Supreme Court has never found a means of execution to be unconstitutional.
Recently, Virginia became the first Southern state to eliminate the death penalty [See PLN Jul. 2021, pg. 46]. One state, though, is seeking to expand the methods of executions in order to end its ten-year moratorium. In March 2021, South Carolina’s state senators passed a bill, by a vote of 32 to 11, to include a firing squad as an option for executing prisoners on death row.
According to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, pharmaceutical companies have taken a moral stance against state-sanctioned murder. Over the years, the companies have refused to sell the drugs that states use to execute people. This has caused states like South Carolina to find alternative methods to carry out the death penalty. In Oklahoma, efforts are under way to use lethal gas, while Tennessee is offering condemned prisoners the option to die by electrocution.
Currently, under South Carolina law, prisoners who choose lethal injection cannot be forced to die by the electric chair if injection drugs are unavailable. The new senate bill would allow prisoners to choose the electric chair, lethal injection, or a firing squad. The catch is that if a prisoner chooses lethal injection and no drugs are available, then the bill mandates the prisoner must choose one of the other two methods instead.
Critics of the bill point out that it does not define “unavailable.” Senator Karl Allen (D) fears that prisoners will be forced to choose a firing squad or electrocution if the lethal injection drugs are simply deemed too expensive to purchase. “They’re putting a price on life and dignity and humanity,” Sen. Allen lamented.
Sen. Greg Hembree (R), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, disagrees. He argues that the bill would merely allow South Carolina to resume executions, which had been put on hold due to the lack of access to lethal injection drugs. Knowing that lethal injection drugs were unavailable, condemned prisoners were deliberately opting for lethal injection in order to delay their executions indefinitely. But Sen. Hembree insists that “Families are waiting, victims are waiting, the state is waiting.”
The Republican chairman of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, Sen. Shane Moore, supports passage of the bill on the grounds that it does not address the issue of the state’s death penalty law. Rather, the bill concerns making the law functional.“There’s no need to have a law if we can’t enforce the law,” he notes.
The bill’s proponents also argue that a firing squad is more humane than the electric chair or lethal injection. “Carrying out justice is important,” Sen. Hembree urges, “but you don’t want to torture anybody needlessly.” The senator did not address the implication that torture is acceptable if there is an appropriate need.
Not surprisingly, several Democrats in the Senate agree with their Republican colleague. In fact, Democratic Senator Dick Harpootlian introduced the amendment to the bill that allows prisoners to choose death by firing squad. The senator shares Sen. Hembree’s idea that a firing squad would inflict the least amount of pain and suffering. “They’re dead instantly,” Sen. Harpootlian said. Which puts greater faith in the marksmanship skills of prison guards than is likely warranted.
Democratic Senator Gerald Malloy offered several amendments to the bill which would prohibit drowning, dismemberment and keelhauling (the practice of throwing people overboard and dragging them under a ship until they drown). That this is the level of discourse in what purports to be a civilized nation shows how thin and hypocritical that veneer really is.
Both senators echo a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court dissenting opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The Justice pointed to evidence suggesting that death by firing squad causes near-instant death and said that “death by shooting may also be comparatively painless.”
Other Democratic Senators, however, dismiss the bill on the grounds that the death penalty itself is fundamentally flawed. The irreversibility of capital punishment is a major concern. There have been several instances in South Carolina, as well as in other states, where innocent people have been put to death. Exoneration is mooted if the individual is executed before their conviction is vacated.
Opponents of the bill also point out the racial disparities in the system. Of the 282 individuals executed in South Carolina since 1912, 208 were African American. Currently, there are 37 people on death row and almost half of them are Black, despite African Americans representing only 27% of South Carolina’s population. Which is well below the 68% of Black people arrested for murder.
On May 17, 2021 South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster signed the bill into law. South Carolina now joins Utah, Oklahoma and Mississippi in allowing the use of firing squads to kill prisoners.
Sources: CBS, washingtonpost.com
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login