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South Carolina House votes to approve firing squad and electric chair executions

South Carolina House members voted Wednesday to approve a bill designed to restart executions in the state by adding firing squad or electrocution as options if lethal injection drugs are not available. The news comes after a nearly 10-year pause in executions in the state.

While the death penalty is legal in South Carolina, which has 37 people on death row, the state has been unable to purchase drugs needed to carry out executions by lethal injection. This bill would force people sentenced to death to choose between the electric chair and a firing squad if lethal injection drugs were unavailable.

The state Senate had approved the bill in March, and it will move next to the governor's desk for approval. In a statement to CBS News, a spokesperson for Governor Henry McMaster said he would "proudly" sign this legislation into law.

The bill, first introduced by Republican lawmakers in the state Senate, was first written to require the electric chair as the only option if lethal injection was unavailable, but a Democrat, Senator Dick Harpootlian, helped introduce an amendment that would also allow inmates to choose death by firing squad, which some see as more humane than the electric chair.

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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/AP

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."

Senator Karl Allen, a Democrat who opposed the bill, cautioned against resuming executions, citing racial disparities among those sentenced to death. Of the 282 people who have been executed in South Carolina since 1912, 208 were Black, according to the South Carolina Department of Corrections.

"Unfortunately, we have ignored the statistics which indicate that our implementation of the death penalty and electrocution is having a disparate impact among poor people and African Americans," he said. Allen pointed to the 1944 execution of 14-year-old George Stinney, whose conviction was vacated 70 years after his death.

Allen also called firing squads "inhumane" and said, "it does not meet the 2021 societal norms."

In November, South Carolina postponed the execution of death row inmate Richard Moore after the state could not obtain the drugs to carry out lethal injection. Moore was given the option but declined the alternative execution method: electrocution. Moore was found guilty of the 1999 murder of a convenience store clerk during a robbery. In an email, Moore's lawyer declined to comment on the bill.

Senator Shane Martin, the Republican chairman of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, said the bill wasn't about whether the state has a death penalty, but rather, about making the death penalty law functional. "There's no need to have a law if we can't enforce the law," he said.

South Carolina, like many other states which still carry out the death penalty, has faced difficulty buying lethal injection drugs because pharmaceutical companies refuse to sell drugs they know will be used for executions, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that does not take a position on the death penalty but is critical of its application.

As execution drugs remain difficult to purchase, states across the country have pursued alternate execution methods, Dunham said. Oklahoma has begun efforts to use lethal gas, and in Tennessee, some inmates opted to be killed by electrocution after a spate of lethal injection executions went wrong.

Allen said he was concerned that the bill did not define what made lethal injection drugs "unavailable," and he feared inmates could be sent to the electric chair if drugs were simply deemed too expensive. "They're putting a price on life and dignity and humanity," he said.

Dunham said that while public opinion on execution varies from state to state, Americans view methods like a firing squad or electric chair as far crueler than lethal injection.

Senator Katrina Shealy, one of the Republicans who helped introduce the bill, acknowledged that many execution methods pose risks. "There have been, you know, botched (lethal injection) executions where the person, it took them longer to die. But that's the same thing with the electric chair. You know, you could take two jolts instead of one jolt. So, there's always a possibility. That's not something you want to happen." 

Shealy cited the case of a man who was sentenced to death after he was convicted of murdering his five children. "As it is right now we have no way to put them to death," she said. "I don't think it should be used lightly. I think it should be used, you know, when it's called for."

Senator Greg Hembree, another co-author on the Senate bill, is a former prosecutor who said he's witnessed two executions by lethal injection. "They're awful," he said, "There's nothing to be happy about when this sort of a sentence is carried out, but you want— the government should be as humane in doing it as possible if we're going to do it."

The last time South Carolina executed a prisoner was in 2011, using lethal injection. The last time the state executed someone by electrocution was 2008.

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