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New death penalty law makes inmates pick electric chair or firing squad in South Carolina

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster has signed into law a bill that forces death row inmates for now to choose between the electric chair or a newly formed firing squad in hopes the state can restart executions after an involuntary 10-year pause. South Carolina had been one of the most prolific states of its size in putting inmates to death, but a lack of lethal injection drugs brought executions to a halt.

McMaster signed the bill Friday with no ceremony or fanfare, according to the state Legislature's website. It's the first bill the governor decided to deal with after nearly 50 hit his desk Thursday.

"The families and loved ones of victims are owed closure and justice by law. Now, we can provide it," McMaster said on Twitter on Monday.

Last week state lawmakers gave their final signoffs to the bill, which retains lethal injection as the primary method of execution if the state has the drugs but requires prison officials to use the electric chair or firing squad if it doesn't.

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This 2019 photo shows the electric chair previously used by the South Carolina Department of Corrections. Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP

Prosecutors said three inmates have exhausted all their normal appeals but can't be killed because under the previous law, inmates who don't choose the state's 109-year-old electric chair automatically are scheduled to die by lethal injection. They have all chosen the method that can't be carried out.

How soon executions can begin is up in the air. The electric chair is ready to use. Prison officials have been doing preliminary research into how firing squads carry out executions in other states but are not sure how long it will take to have one in place in South Carolina. The other three states that allow a firing squad are Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Three inmates, all in Utah, have been killed by firing squad since the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Nineteen inmates have died in the electric chair this century, and South Carolina is one of eight states that can still electrocute inmates, according to the center.

Lawyers for the men with potentially imminent death dates are considering suing over the new law, saying the state is going backward.

"These are execution methods that previously were replaced by lethal injection, which is considered more humane, and it makes South Carolina the only state going back to the less humane execution methods," said Lindsey Vann of Justice 360, a nonprofit that represents many of the men on South Carolina's death row.

In a 2017 Supreme Court dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that while some may find death by firing squad to be regressive, evidence suggests that it may cause nearly instant death, and has yielded fewer botched executions than lethal injection. She wrote, "In addition to being near-instant, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless."

From 1996 to 2009, South Carolina executed close to an average of three inmates a year. But a lull in death row inmates reaching the end of their appeals coincided a few years later with pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell states the drugs needed to sedate inmates, relax their muscles and stop their hearts.

South Carolina's last execution took place in May 2011, and its batch of lethal injection drugs expired in 2013.

Supporters of the bill said the death penalty remains legal in South Carolina, and the state owes it to the family of the victims to find a way to carry out the punishment.

Democrats in the House suggested several changes to the bill that were not approved, including livestreaming executions on the internet and requiring lawmakers to attend executions.

"We must be willing to look at the faces of the individuals we are voting on today to kill," said Representative Jermaine Johnson, a Democrat from Hopkins.

Opponents brought up the case of 14-year-old George Stinney, who South Carolina sent to the electric chair in 1944 after a one-day trial in the deaths of two White girls. He was the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. A judge threw out the Black teen's conviction in 2014.

Stinney's case is a reminder the death penalty in South Carolina has always been "racist, arbitrary, and error-prone" and continues to be, said Frank Knaack, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"In the midst of a national reckoning around systemic racism, our Governor ensured that South Carolina's death penalty — a system rooted in racial terror and lynchings — is maintained," Knaack said in a statement.

Nineteen of the 37 inmates currently on the state's death row are Black.

Seven Republicans in the House voted against the bill, most of them saying it did not make moral sense to approve sending people to their deaths when three months ago, many of those same lawmakers approved a bill outlawing almost all abortions, saying all life is sacred.

"If you're cool with the electric chair, you might as well be cool with burning at the stake," said Representative Jonathon Hill, a Republican from Townville.

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