WIS Investigates: Is the death penalty on hold in South Carolina?

Published: Feb. 16, 2015 at 4:33 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 12, 2015 at 8:52 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It was September 1991. A crowd cheered as the body of the most notorious serial killer in modern South Carolina history, Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins, was taken from Columbia's Broad River Correctional Institution. On that day, Gaskins became the fourth death row inmate to be executed since the reauthorization of capital punishment in the Palmetto State.

During the next two decades, 39 more men would follow Gaskins sometimes in rapid succession. There were 19 over four years beginning in 1996, but scenes like this are now rare.

In the last nearly six years, just one inmate has entered the death chamber at Broad River Correctional Institution. S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling is not expecting that number to change anytime soon.

"There are no current orders for execution," Stirling said. "Everything is under appeal at this time."

Experts say it's not that prosecutors here or elsewhere have become reluctant to seek death sentences.

"We have found that generally on average the state across the country seeks death in approximately 17 cases a year," said Emily Paavola, of the S.C. Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center. "And we have not found that to decline in recent years."

Even opponents of capital punishment say they don't see that public opinion has turned against it in this state.

"I think our state is still predominantly in favor of capital punishment," said Charles Grose, of the S.C. Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center.

But several factors have combined to virtually shut down the death house.

Among them are advances in DNA technology, legal rulings protecting inmates with severe mental disorders, and most recently, the inability of states executing by lethal injection to get one or more of the drugs they use. That is a problem in South Carolina.

"Right now, what we're doing is we are looking and reaching out to pharmacies and suppliers et cetera to try to find pentobarbital," Stirling said. "We have thus far not been successful at that."

Pentobarbital is an anesthetic - the first component of a three-drug series that also includes a paralyzer, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. South Carolina had been using a different anesthetic, such as sodium thiopental, until the Drug Enforcement Administration cracked down on the use of that foreign-made ingredient in 2011.

"The opponents of the death penalty have been very good at stopping states from obtaining the necessary drugs to carry out an execution," Stirling said.

But it's not a drug shortage that's kept Tommy Sease and his family frustrated for more than 30 years.

"We think about how she suffered. And we just don't feel like the justice system has worked here," Sease said.

Sease is the nephew of Newberry County schoolteacher Elizabeth Sease Lominack, who was robbed, raped, and murdered in her Pomaria home in 1982. Her killer is Fred Singleton, who went to death row a year later. He is still there, and his sentence blocked by a 1991 court ruling that determined Singleton was mentally incapacitated.

"We feel like -- I mean our family's been violated," Sease said.

Sease said his family and many in the Newberry area believe capital punishment is a deterrent to others who would commit serious crimes, if it is carried out after appeals are exhausted within a reasonable amount of time.

While Singleton is the longest serving death row inmate, there are others among the 42 residents with sentences dating back to the 80's. They include Jamie Wilson, who shocked the nation in 1988 by gunning down 11 people, killing two in a Greenwood elementary school. He pleaded guilty, but mentally ill - the first in South Carolina to be sentenced under that statute.

"The way we do capital punishment is absurd," said Bob McAlister, opponent of the death penalty.

McAlister said seemingly endless delays in the capital punishment system are troubling. He says that from the perspective of a counselor, who opposes the death penalty and has dealt closely with inmates, like spree killer Ronald "Rusty" Woomer.

Woomer was executed in the electric chair in 1990, with the former chief of staff to Gov. Carroll Campbell as a witness.

"If a society decides that's the right thing to do, then there should be a mechanism whereby the case can be vetted through the court system in something less than 20 or 30 years," McAlister said.

Paavola agrees.

"It should not take 30 years before you have some sort of closure in a criminal case, and I think that is the product of a system, which is broken," she explained. "And I think it's broken beyond repair. We cannot fix it in a way that will address those needs of quick closure and also provide for the kind of reliability that is necessary when we take another person's life."

South Carolina law allowed the condemned inmate a choice on whether they die by lethal injection or electrocution, if the inmate makes that choice in writing at least 14 days prior to the execution date.

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