Death by firing squad in South Carolina is the wrong answer to the wrong question

Death by firing squad in South Carolina is the wrong answer to the wrong question
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The South Carolina House of Representatives voted this week by a margin of 66 to 43 to add a firing squad to the state’s execution methods. If death by lethal injection is not available because of a shortage of the necessary drugs, the law requires a condemned inmate to choose between being shot or electrocuted. If South Carolina’s governor signs the bill, as he is expected to, the state will join Oklahoma, Mississippi and Utah in utilizing death by firing squad as a form of execution.

South Carolina last executed a death row inmate a decade ago. The bill, supporters say, is designed to “speed up” executions and gives victims’ families “a sense of closure.”

The idea of a state government convening a firing squad probably makes many people cringe, as it conjures up images of military executions. The idea of “requiring” someone to choose death by electrocution versus a firing squad because the state is running short of drugs for lethal injection almost certainly makes other people think that the whole discussion is so bizarre as to strain credulity. 


In order to get good answers, you have to pose good questions. The essence of the problem in the South Carolina legislature is that they think the most important question is “How can executions be sped up?” rather than asking the question, “Should the state be executing anyone?” 

Let’s look at some facts. About 13 percent of the U.S. population is Black. About 41 percent of the people on death row in the U.S. are Black. Studies have repeatedly shown that the chance of a Black person being condemned to death by the judicial system is far higher than for a White person. The chance of a Black person being condemned for the death of a White person is vastly higher than that of a White person who is convicted of killing a Black person. The death penalty is, obviously, irreversible, yet an average of 3.9 death row inmates are exonerated and released from prison each year in the U.S.

The long shadow of racial prejudice continues to fall across the discussion of the death penalty in the U.S. During the Civil War, there were 11 states in the Confederacy. Ten of the 11 (91 percent) maintain the death penalty. There were 21 states on the Union side. Five (21 percent) still have the death penalty; the other 16 have either outlawed it or placed a moratorium on its use. If, however, you remove the three states in the union (Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland) that were slave states in 1860 from the calculation, then only three of the remaining 18 states (17 percent) have the death penalty. When you compare free states (17 percent) versus Confederate slave states (91 percent) with the death penalty and Black people on death row at a rate over three times higher than their percentage in the population, it sure seems like there’s a pattern, doesn’t it? 

As it concerns lethal injections, physicians have an obligation to care for their patients, not an obligation to serve the interests of the state. They have no business aiding and abetting the execution of people. Pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors have rightly begun to recoil from selling their products to individuals who intend to use them for human executions. That’s why there is a shortage of drugs for executions — people who make and prescribe drugs for the purpose of saving lives don’t want them used to end lives.

John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), U.S. senator from South Carolina and U.S. vice president, devoted his career to defending institutional racism and chattel slavery and destroying the union. He said, “There is no instance of any civilized colored race of any shade being found equal to the establishment and maintenance of free government.”  

The judicial system cannot bring back to life those killed by criminals. Some measure of closure may be rendered to the survivors of the victims of crime by imprisoning the criminals and requiring them to make restitution. The death penalty is disappearing from most of the civilized world, because it is not a deterrent to crime, and it is applied unfairly. It is the sad and unenviable legacy of John C. Calhoun and South Carolina to continue the state’s assault upon human life by defending a death penalty that falls disproportionately on people of color and by adding firing squads to its tools for execution.

Edward C. Halperin, M.D. M.A., teaches history of medicine at New York Medical College, where he is also chancellor and chief executive officer. This essay represents his views and not those of the College.