SC senator to propose legislation that could allow lethal injection executions to resume

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Published: Sep. 13, 2022 at 8:46 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - More than 30 inmates sit on death row in South Carolina, but for the time being, the state has no way to legally carry out their executions.

The state hasn’t carried out a single execution in more than a decade, and just last week, a circuit court judge ruled its two current methods of execution are unconstitutional.

That ruling could be overturned, allowing executions by firing squad and electric chair to happen.

But action at the State House could be what restarts executions again for the first time since 2011 in South Carolina.

“The death penalty’s a gruesome thing, any way you slice it. It’s just gruesome. I guess there’s maybe some level of dignity for the defendant, for the killer, in that he or she can select A, B, or C,” Sen. Greg Hembree, R – Horry, said.

Hembree, a former prosecutor and solicitor, plans to introduce a bill when the General Assembly begins its next regular legislative session in January that would enact what’s known as a shield law in South Carolina.

If passed, the legislation would protect the identities of pharmaceutical manufacturers from being publicly disclosed through a subpoena or Freedom of Information Act request, if they sell South Carolina the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections.

The state’s most recent supply of lethal injection drugs expired in 2013, according to the South Carolina Department of Corrections.

Director Bryan Stirling has repeatedly said the department has tried and failed to obtain new drugs, saying drugmakers told him they will not sell to South Carolina for the purpose of lethal injections if their identities could be revealed.

A shield law might allow the state to procure those drugs and resume lethal injections.

“I know other states have used that, so we’re kind of following their pattern,” Hembree said.

While the state’s stock expired two years after South Carolina’s most recent execution, which was carried out by lethal injection, the Department of Corrections did not receive another death warrant until around the end of the decade.

Both Stirling and Gov. Henry McMaster have voiced their support for a shield law in the past, appearing together in 2017 in a call for the legislature to pass one.

Past pushes to enact a shield law have failed at the State House, which Hembree said was due to opposition from anti-death penalty lawmakers.

“We were stuck in South Carolina,” he said. “We couldn’t carry out the death penalty, so if you were opposed to the death penalty, we were right where you want to be.”

McMaster again challenged lawmakers to pass a shield law in his 2021 State of the State Address.

“We have no means to carry out a death sentence in South Carolina, and the murderers know it,” he said during the January 2021 speech. “Fourteen states have enacted such a shield law. Director Bryan Stirling and I have been asking the General Assembly to fix this for years. Legislation was almost approved on the final day last year. I ask the General Assembly: fix this. Give these grieving families and loved ones the justice and closure they are owed by law.”

In the months that followed that address, the General Assembly did make a change intended to resume executions, but not the one McMaster had previously requested.

Last year, the legislature passed a bill, introduced by Hembree, that revived the firing squad and made the electric chair the default method of execution if an inmate refuses to choose. McMaster signed it into law in May.

The Department of Corrections announced in March of this year that it had finished renovating the state death chamber, where the electric chair is located, to equip it to carry out executions by firing squad as well. In total, SCDC reported it had spent around $53,600 on supplies and materials to make the changes and add safety precautions.

However, no executions have happened since then amid legal challenges.

Last week, Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman ruled deaths by both the electric chair and firing squad violate the South Carolina constitution, as cruel, unusual, and corporal punishment, and cannot be carried out.

“In 2021, 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,” Newman wrote in her ruling. “In doing so, the General Assembly ignored advances in scientific research and evolving standards of humanity and decency.”

The state is expected to appeal that ruling to the South Carolina Supreme Court, so Newman’s order could be overturned.

“If the Supreme Court rules that the firing squad and the electric chair are unconstitutional, then I think there’s a lot more incentive to push the shield law because that’s our only option really that’s left,” Hembree said, adding he believes a ruling upholding the constitutionality of one or both the two methods could also benefit his shield law push because “the reason to fight the shield law sort of goes away,” as the state would still be able to carry out executions by electric chair, firing squad, or both.

The nonprofit Justice 360 brought about that lawsuit on behalf of a group of death-row inmates.

The organization has said in the past it opposes a shield law, telling The State newspaper in 2016 that the measure would cloud the “transparency and accountability” the state should have when carrying out executions.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections said it has looked into producing lethal injection drugs on its own but that it would be too expensive, especially compared to the prices at which drugmakers are selling them — if they would sell to South Carolina.

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