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South Carolina could force death row inmates to choose between electric chair, firing squad

The last death by electrocution in South Carolina took place in 2008. (Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections/AP)

Jeffrey Motts was pronounced dead on May 6, 2011, nearly 15 minutes after receiving a lethal injection for murdering his cellmate — the last inmate to die by lethal injection in South Carolina.

Nearly a decade later, state senators moved closer on Tuesday to ending a moratorium forced by a lack of access to lethal injection drugs by voting to add the firing squad as an execution method.

The bill would force death row inmates to choose between lethal injections, the electric chair, or the firing squad — but if the drugs aren’t available for an injection, it would mandate one of the other two options instead.

The measure’s supporters argued the change would bring closure to the families of victims who have waited years for death sentences to be carried out in South Carolina, one of 28 states where the death penalty remains legal.

“For several years, as most of you know, South Carolina has not been able to carry out executions,” state Sen. Greg Hembree (R), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said on the Senate floor. “Families are waiting, victims are waiting, the state is waiting.”

Democratic lawmakers, though, cited racial disparities in the death penalty, noting that of the 37 death row inmates in South Carolina, nearly half are Black. Meanwhile, 27 percent of the state’s residents identify as Black.

“My question is if we adopt this, do we have that same kind of pattern where African Americans that are on death row receive it more often than others?” Sen. Karl Allen (D) said.

The debate in South Carolina comes as other states move away from the death penalty, which the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated in 1976. Last month, Virginia lawmakers voted in favor of abolishing the punishment, making the state — which had executed the second-most inmates after Texas — the first Southern state to eliminate capital punishment.

It also arrives after a flurry of federal executions during the last days of President Donald Trump’s administration. The Justice Department again paused federal executions when Biden, who campaigned on abolishing the death penalty, took office.

Lawmakers vote to make Virginia first Southern state to abolish death penalty

Under South Carolina’s current law, death row inmates choose between lethal injections and the electric chair. But if an inmate chooses lethal injections, the state cannot force them to die by electrocution — a fact that has delayed at least two executions, as the state hasn’t been able to obtain lethal injection drugs since around 2016.

South Carolina, which has 37 inmates on death row, has executed 282 people since 1912, when the use of the electric chair began. In 1995, the state became the 25th state to authorize lethal injections. The last death by electrocution in the state took place in 2008.

Despite recent federal flurry, number of U.S. executions is lowest since 1991

On Tuesday, Hembree argued that firing squads are a more humane punishment than the electric chair.

“Carrying out justice is important, Hembree said. “But you don’t want to torture anybody needlessly. That’s not the government’s place.”

The idea found support among some Democrats who oppose the death penalty, including Sen. Dick Harpootlian. “They’re dead instantly,” said Harpootlian, who voted in favor of the amendment, speaking of firing squad executions. “The actual pain and suffering of death, it’s actually the least painful and the least suffering of any manner of death.”

He said that the electric chair was a “horrible, horrible thing to do to another human being,” adding that “they are burned to death.”

Other Democrats, though, argued that the penalty itself was flawed given racial disparities in the system. Sen. Mia McLeod noted that South Carolina has executed inmates who were later exonerated, including George Stinney Jr., who was executed by the electric chair in 1944 at the age of 14. His conviction was vacated in 2014.

“My primary concern is with the irreversibility of the death penalty,” McLeod said.

Senators voted 32-11 in favor of adding the firing squad to the bill, which is expected to pass the Senate this week. House members moved a similar bill forward earlier this year, although without the provision for a firing squad.

A spokesperson for Gov. Henry McMaster (R) told the State that the governor is in favor of changing the law to allow executions to be performed using any “reasonable” and constitutional method, including firing squads.

In the past, McMaster has asked lawmakers to pass a bill allowing the state to move forward with scheduled executions.

“I ask the General Assembly: fix this,” McMaster said during his State of the State address in January. “Give these grieving families and loved ones the justice and closure they are owed by law.”