South Carolina once had one of the county’s highest rates of execution, even putting two prisoners to death in one night.
But now the state hasn’t executed a prisoner in nine years and currently lacks the drugs to carry out lethal injections for any of the 37 inmates on the state’s death row.
Some lawmakers are pushing to give the state an option to start executing prisoners again by giving them no choice but to go to the electric chair.
“We have to have a method in which to carry out the sentences of the court,” said Republican Rep. Eddie Tallon, a retired state agent from Spartanburg who was the lead investigator in the case that sent South Carolina serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins to the electric chair in 1991 after he killed at least 14 people.
Currently, condemned South Carolina prisoners have a choice between lethal injection or electrocution, with lethal injection as the default if they do not pick.
The bill being considered by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday forces inmates to be electrocuted if lethal injection is not available, like the current situation where South Carolina’s supply of lethal injection drugs expired and no pharmaceutical companies will sell them any more without a guarantee they won’t be publicly identified.
Opponents of the bill said electrocution is barbaric and South Carolina acknowledged that when it allowed lethal injection in 1995.
Democratic Rep. Justin Bamberg asked the committee at a meeting last week if any members ever watched an execution, either in the electric chair or by lethal injection. No one raised their hands.
“I’ve done legal work where lineman have been electrocuted and you don’t forget seeing that,” the Democratic lawyer from Bamberg said.
At least one Republican with an intimate knowledge of the legal issues involved in capital punishment isn’t sure South Carolina needs to go back to the electric chair.
“Death by electrocution, like Rep. Bamberg said, is just a very cruel way to die,” said Republican Rep. Gary Clary of Pickens, a retired judge who presided over the trials of two current death row inmates and one who has been executed.
Several lawmakers also asked if the state was inviting lawsuits and several more years of appeals from death row inmates over whether violated their rights to change the method of execution while they awaited punishment.
The Senate has already passed the bill, but included an option allowing death by firing squad that supporters of the proposal said was put in to derail the legislation. House members plan to remove the firing squad option, but that means the bill would have to pass the Senate again.
There is at least one other bill to help restart executions by allowing any company providing the lethal injection drugs to remain secret. That proposal hasn’t been considered.
From 1995 to 2005, South Carolina executed 31 inmates. In the 15 years since, the state has carried out just six executions and none since 2011. Since lethal injection was introduced in 1995, only three inmates have picked the electric chair instead.
The lack of execution drugs is clearing out death row in a different way. There was once close to 70 inmates awaiting a death sentence. But as some inmates win appeals and new, lesser sentences prosecutors aren’t seeking death as much.
In 2019, the state got its first two new death row inmates in five years. Prosecutors in recent years have accepted plea deals to life without parole for a man who admitted killing seven people and in deaths of police officers, which used to be almost unquestioned death penalty cases, citing the state’s failure to carry out executions.