South Carolina may mandate electric chair for death row inmates as early as next week

A bill that would condemn death row inmates to death by electric chair moves into its final stages. 

A bill that would condemn death row inmates to be killed by electric chair passed the South Carolina state Senate on Tuesday by a 26-12 margin, mostly divided along party lines. The bill goes back to the state House of Representatives where it will likely pass as early as this coming Tuesday. Only nine states, all located in the old South, allow death by electrocution in any capacity.

Since 1995, death row inmates in South Carolina have theoretically had a choice between electrocution or lethal injection as their method of execution. But under this new bill, the electric chair would be mandatory if lethal injection is not available. 

In the Senate, objections came from Democrats who were opposed to the death penalty in general — although one Democrat, Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg, proposed an amendment to include death by firing squad as an option

Republican state Sen. William Timmons, the bill’s sponsor, said that death penalty gives families of victims a “certain type of justice” that otherwise cannot be delivered due to “a loophole in the system.”

The “loophole” is that if inmates choose to be killed by lethal injection and the state lacks the required drugs, the state cannot kill them — effectively delaying their execution. Timmons says that this is an affront to the families of murder victims. “It is totally unacceptable to put somebody through this additional turmoil, this additional hardship,” he said. 

South Carolina’s Department of Corrections has not killed anyone since Jeffrey Motts was executed in March 2011. But 35 people still sit on death row, and South Carolina’s lethal injection chemicals expired in 2013.

Lethal injection drugs are harder for South Carolina and other states to come by these days for a simple reason: many of the pharmaceutical companies that produce them are now refusing to allow the drugs to be used in executionsMany states have tried to source the drugs from overseas, but have had difficulty bringing them into the country legally. Others have tried subterfuge; Buzzfeed News reported on the state of Missouri’s clandestine scheme to get pentobarbital, and its lengthy attempts to protect Foundation Care in St. Louis as its source.  

It’s understandable that drug companies don’t want their products used in this way. As it turns out, the drugs in question haven’t actually been tested or validated for the purposes of execution, and executioners often lack medical training and are following inconsistent instructions. About seven percent of executions by lethal injections carried out between 1980 and 2010 were botched, often causing excruciating pain.

Despite this, many still assume that lethal injection is one of the more humane ways to be killed. Out of the 208 people killed by the state of South Carolina, only three have opted for the electric chair since 1995.

Timmons contends that the companies’ refusal to sell the drugs is “because of their beliefs and the beliefs of the shareholders,” but says that some companies constrained by lawsuits. “They just do not because people filed lawsuits against them and [the lawsuits are] frivolous… it’s not worth their time.”

Death penalty opponents often point out that roughly 4 percent of death row inmates are estimated to be innocent, and that the death penalty is racially biased in its application. More than half of current death row inmates are people of color, and while just 12 white people have been executed for murders involving black victims, 178 black people have been executed for murders involving white victims.

South Carolina Democrats like Sen. Vincent Sheheen point to the fact that lethal injection drugs are expensive and hard to obtain as a sign that capital punishment is morally wrong. “There is an attempt by our civilization to be more humane when meting out the ultimate punishment,” Sheheen said during Senate debates. “What I regret seeing is us moving backward.”

During debates, senators mentioned that several prosecutors in South Carolina have declined to pursue the death penalty because the state’s inability to kill people by lethal injection.

In an interesting exchange, Democratic Sen. Mia McLeod, who has strongly defended reproductive rights in the South Carolina legislature, asked the bill’s sponsor to reconcile his “pro-life” stances on abortion and his “pro-death” stances on the death penalty.

“You are pro-life, are you not? Would you share your position as to why that is?”

Timmons responded, “Life is precious and must be protected.”

“How do you reconcile being both pro-life and pro-death?,” McLeod questioned. “Remind those of us on judiciary your response to [the axiom that] two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“An unborn child is innocent,” he said. “A murderer who has committed heinous crimes is guilty.”

Democrat Sen. Gerald Malloy later asked, “These are bad people who did some bad things, but who are you? Are you going to be a killer too?”

The debate can be seen here.