After years without the drugs to do lethal injections, the South Carolina Senate has agreed to require condemned inmates go to the electric chair instead.
South Carolina law has empowered residents of death row to make a choice between lethal injection and the electric chair since 1995, so the lack of drugs enabled them to stay alive by choosing injections. Capital punishment essentially ended in 2011 in South Carolina, a state that had been averaging close to two executions a year.
“He picks out the option that can’t be carried out, extending his life indefinitely,” complained a sponsor of the bill, state Sen. William Timmons.
The proposal passed 26-12 on Tuesday and was given a final procedural vote Wednesday. It now goes to the House, where it is expected to face even less opposition.
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South Carolina is one of only nine states that allow electrocutions, and just 14 of the 871 inmates executed in the United States since 2000 have been killed in the electric chair, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The last electrocution in the U.S. took place in Virginia in January 2013.
The electric chair’s legal position is also less clear. State Supreme Courts in Georgia and Nebraska have ruled that electrocution is unconstitutionally cruel. The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t taken up the issue.
South Carolina has electrocuted more than 200 inmates since first installing the electric chair in 1912, according to the Death Penalty Information Center , including 14-year-old George Stinney in 1944, who remained the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century. A judge finally vacated the black teen’s conviction in 2014, saying he didn’t get a fair trial in the deaths of two white girls.
The drugs South Carolina uses to perform lethal injections expired a few years ago, and pharmacies have refused to sell the state new drugs, either because they are ethically against their use in executions, or because they don’t want their names made public if they do sell them.
Another execution bill that would shield the names of drug companies from the public has been introduced in the Legislature but isn’t as far along.
Some opponents said South Carolina could use the lack of execution drugs to show that the state truly cherishes life, by protecting fetuses in their mothers’ wombs as well as inmates on death row.
“An unborn child is innocent,” responded Timmons, a Republican from Greenville. A murderer who has committed heinous crimes is guilty.”
State Sen. Gerald Malloy said he opposed the bill both on moral grounds and for practical reasons. The Hartsville Democrat said he expects lawsuits from inmates who were sentenced to death when the execution method was up to them. He also predicted a higher taxpayer burden for public defenders as prosecutors become more likely to seek the death penalty, knowing it can be carried out.
“I think we are going to spend a lot of money proving a point,” Malloy said.
The Senate rejected an amendment from Democratic state Sen. Brad Hutto from Orangeburg, who proposed bringing back the firing squad. He said it’s a more humane execution method, and South Carolina will never run out of guns or bullets.
Currently, 35 inmates are on South Carolina’s death row. The state has executed 39 inmates since lethal injection became an option 23 years ago, and only three of them chose the electric chair.