State Watch

South Carolina judge rules firing squad, electric chair unconstitutional

FILE – This March 2019, file photo, provided by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows the state’s electric chair in Columbia, S.C. (Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP, File)

A South Carolina judge this week ruled that authorizing the execution of inmates by firing squad or the electric chair is unconstitutional.

In a 39-page opinion issued Tuesday, 5th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman said South Carolina “turned back the clock and became the only state in the country in which a person may be forced into the electric chair if he refuses to elect how he will die.”

“In doing so, the General Assembly ignored advances in scientific research and evolving standards of humanity and decency,” Newman wrote, arguing that executing death row inmates by firing squad or electric chair violates the state’s constitution, which protects against cruel, corporal and unusual punishments.

The ruling means the state is barred from executing inmates by those methods, but Gov. Henry McMaster (R) said he plans to appeal the case to a higher court, according to The State.

South Carolina has not carried out an execution since 2011 because the state cannot procure the chemicals needed to execute inmates through lethal injection.

Pharmaceutical companies have shied away from providing the necessary materials for lethal injection amid pressure to not support executions. In South Carolina, laws to help procure the drugs have failed to pass in the state legislature.

Lawmakers passed legislation last year that codified death by firing squad into law, giving death row inmates the option to choose between lethal injection, firing squad or the electric chair.

With the state unable to procure the materials for lethal injection, that gives inmates two options, with the electric chair the default.

In March, South Carolina’s Department of Corrections said they were ready to carry out executions by firing squad after spending $53,000 renovating the death chamber of the Capital Punishment Facility at Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia.

Several civil rights organizations spoke out against the planned executions, including the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina and South Carolinians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Hillary Taylor, interim director for the anti-death penalty group, said in May that “we do not believe that death has a place — that execution has a place — in our criminal justice system.”

“One in nine sentences has to be overturned,” Taylor said in a statement. “If we had airplanes where one in nine planes crashed, there would be a problem, and we would stop that. Within the executions we have done, there have been at least six cases of botched executions with the electric chair.”

The state is looking to execute several death row inmates, including Richard Moore, who was convicted in 2001 for the murder of a convenience store clerk.

Moore and three other inmates filed a case in May 2021 to contest the execution methods by firing squad and electric chair.

The South Carolina Supreme Court granted a temporary stay in May of this year after the inmates filed amended complaints ahead of their execution dates in the spring.

The 5th Circuit Court heard arguments in August, with experts testifying that firing squads and the electric chair are not perfect methods and can result in excruciating pain for inmates when botched. Other experts called by the state testified that inmates would lose consciousness relatively quickly and thus avoid suffering.

Judge Newman agreed with the plaintiffs in her ruling this week, writing that in an execution by electric chair — a method only available in seven other states — inmates “continue to move, breathe, and even scream after the shock is administered,” while using a firing squad “constitutes torture” if fired ammunition does not fully incapacitate the heart.

“Because both methods are unconstitutional, the statute’s creation of an inmate’s right ‘to elect the manner of their execution’ is violated by the fact that an inmate does not have a choice between
two constitutional methods of execution,” the judge wrote.

Tags electric chair execution Firing squad henry mcmaster Jocelyn Newman Richard Moore South Carolina South Carolina Circuit Court
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