Frustrated by the lack of drugs available to carry out lethal injections in their state, South Carolina lawmakers are on the cusp of a controversial solution: forcing death row inmates to face the electric chair or firing squad when lethal injection is not possible.
A bill proposing that change, approved by the State House this week, appears almost certain to become law in the next few days, and is being lauded by Republicans, including Gov. Henry McMaster, who have been vexed by pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to sell states the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections. The lack of drugs, they say, is a key reason South Carolina has not executed anyone in 10 years.
Opponents are appalled by the bill, which would make South Carolina the fourth state — along with Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah — in which death by firing squad is an option for the condemned.
“Why would South Carolina move toward the firing squad when they also do that in North Korea?” State Representative Justin Bamberg, a Democrat, said in an interview on Thursday.
The firing squad measure was proposed by State Senator Richard A. Harpootlian, a Democrat and former prosecutor, who argued that it was more humane than the electric chair. “It’s an extraordinarily gruesome, horrendous process,” Mr. Harpootlian said of electrocution, “where they essentially catch on fire and don’t die immediately.”
Three inmates in the United States have been executed by firing squad since the 1970s, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The most recent, in 2010, was Ronnie Lee Gardner, a convicted murderer who requested that Utah officials carry out the execution by firing squad, calling the method “so much easier” than lethal injection, and one in which “there’s no mistakes.”
On the day of Mr. Gardner’s execution, officials placed a black hood over his head and affixed a small circular target over his heart.
Internationally, the use of firing squads is uncommon. In the United Arab Emirates, a convicted murderer was executed by firing squad in 2014. Defectors from North Korea have reported on the use of firing squads for a range of offenses. China used firing squads for many years but more recently has relied on lethal injection.
South Carolina’s proposal, and the passionate debate that has followed, comes at a complicated juncture for capital punishment in the United States. The nation has seen a general move away from the practice in recent years, but there has also been a vigorous effort to turn that tide, one headed most conspicuously by former President Donald J. Trump.
South Carolina is among 24 states where the death penalty remains law. In the past 16 years, 11 states have rescinded capital punishment, Mr. Dunham said, including Virginia, which in March became the first Southern state to do so. Governors have also imposed death penalty moratoriums in California, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
At the courthouse level, prosecutors have been increasingly reluctant to seek the death penalty, and juries increasingly unwilling to impose it. The decline in death sentences has been dramatic: Fewer than 50 have been imposed in the United States in each of the last six years, Mr. Dunham said, a marked difference from the mid-1990s, when the total number of yearly sentences sometimes exceeded 300.
Gallup polling from late last year showed that public support for the death penalty was at its lowest level since the early 1970s, although still popular with a majority of Americans, with 55 percent of respondents saying they approved of capital punishment for convicted murderers.
After years without a federal execution, Mr. Trump’s administration oversaw 13, more than a fifth of the prisoners who the Bureau of Prisons says were on death row. President Biden, by contrast, campaigned on a promise to end the death penalty for federal inmates and encourage states to follow suit.
In articulating his support for ending capital punishment, Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat, noted the vast racial disparity in how it was imposed in his state: Roughly 79 percent of the inmates who were executed were Black. “Ending the death penalty comes down to one fundamental question, one question: Is it fair?” Mr. Northam said.
A similar imbalance exists across the country, including in South Carolina; in the 284 executions carried out by the state since 1912, almost three-quarters of the inmates were Black.
The state now has 37 men on death row, with three who have exhausted all appeals, officials said.
“Those families of victims to these capital crimes are unable to get any closure because we’re caught in this limbo stage,” William Weston J. Newton, a Republican state lawmaker, said during the House debate.
But critics said that lawmakers arrived at a solution that was retrograde and inhumane. “When we should be moving forward, we like to move backward,” Mr. Bamberg told colleagues during the House debate on Wednesday.
Mr. Bamberg cited the botched and sometimes gruesome executions using the electric chair and the fate of George Stinney, a 14-year-old African-American convicted of murdering two white girls by an all-white jury in 1944. He was sent to the electric chair, then posthumously exonerated in 2014.
Many states had gravitated over the years toward lethal injection, seeing it as more humane than the electric chair.
But that impression has been undermined in recent years, as problematic executions, including one in which an inmate regained consciousness, drew widespread attention. Medical experts have also argued that while lethal injection gives the appearance of a more peaceful death, the paralytic component of the common three-drug cocktail masks an excruciating demise that can stretch on for 15 minutes or longer.
In Tennessee, a rare state that uses the electric chair, death row inmates have repeatedly opted in recent years to die from the two cycles of 1,750 volts of electricity instead of lethal injection. In 2018, four inmates, in an unsuccessful effort, asked a judge if they could be killed by a firing squad, arguing that, compared with other methods, “the firing squad significantly reduces a substantial risk of unnecessary and severe pain.”
The use of the death penalty has slowed as the drugs used in lethal injections have become scarce; pharmaceutical companies, not wanting their product associated with ending lives, have made them more difficult for states to acquire.
Still, those complications have not dimmed the resolve of states that continue to embrace the death penalty. Last year, Oklahoma moved to resume executions through lethal injection after a five-year pause that began after a string of botched executions, including one where an inmate appeared to moan and struggle during a 43-minute ordeal and another in which the wrong drug was used to stop an inmate’s heart.
In South Carolina, corrections officials had previously contemplated producing their own execution drugs, but the proposal was scrapped because of the cost.
A version of the current South Carolina bill previously passed in the State Senate. After a few procedural steps, it will most likely head to the governor, who pledged this week to immediately sign it into law.
“We are one step closer to providing victims’ families and loved ones with the justice and closure they are owed by law,” Mr. McMaster wrote on Twitter.