South Carolina bringing back electric chair, firing squad

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

We recently looked at a story about a convicted murderer in Nevada who is fighting to avoid being executed by lethal injection, preferring instead to have a firing squad end his life. That case is still in legal limbo, but it appears that South Carolina is looking to avoid having similar issues crop up. The legislature there just passed a bill that will bring back the firing squad as an option for executions when drugs aren’t available for the lethal injection process. South Carolina already has the electric chair as a third option. The state senate had already passed a similar bill so a final version should soon be heading to the Governor’s desk for approval. (Associated Press)

The South Carolina House voted Wednesday to add a firing squad to the state’s execution methods amid a lack of lethal-injection drugs — a measure meant to jump-start executions in a state that once had one of the busiest death chambers in the nation.

The bill, approved by a 66-43 vote, will require condemned inmates to choose either being shot or electrocuted if lethal injection drugs aren’t available. The state is one of only nine to still use the electric chair and will become only the fourth to allow a firing squad.

South Carolina last executed a death row inmate 10 years ago Thursday.

The pharmaceutical industry is the primary driver of this plan, though they would be loath to admit it. Starting around 2015, more than twenty pharmaceutical companies in the United States and Europe, including Pfizer, began restricting who could purchase the drugs used in the lethal injection process. The management in these companies apparently thought that they could somehow end capital punishment by doing this. But since these companies have no say in how the laws in the country are structured, the plan seems to have backfired.

Rather than ending capital punishment entirely, without lethal injection as an option, some states are clearly making the move to go back to older, proven methods of ending the lives of the nation’s most notorious killers. The electric chair has long been criticized for delivering an exceptionally painful and sometimes prolonged death. Florida and Louisiana were both infamous for botched executions of this sort. A firing squad can be quicker and more effective but you’re relying on the marksmanship of multiple people to be flawless. Botched firing squad executions were generally rare, but they have happened.

While I understand and accept the position of people who are opposed to the death penalty in any form for moral or religious reasons, I’ve never really figured out what the opposition to lethal injection is for those who accept capital punishment. Except for the worst cases of inept administration, most inmates who are put to death in this fashion literally die in their sleep. I can’t imagine that being worse than standing in front of a dozen people with rifles, but perhaps that’s just me.

As a side note, there has been an urban legend making the rounds for decades saying that if a convict survives an attempt at executing him the state has to let him go free. That’s a popular story, but it really is just an urban legend. If you are sentenced to die and survive the first attempt, the state will simply try again. This has happened any number of times over the history of America. During a 1984 electric chair execution in Georgia, the condemned man survived the first jolt of electricity and then reportedly sat in the chair alive, though probably unconscious, for six minutes until it was determined that they would have to try again. The second jolt finished the job.

Since South Carolina is moving toward bringing back the firing squad, there’s one other unusual fact about this method that is not a myth or urban legend. One of the members of the firing squad is almost always given a rifle holding a blank round. This means that none of the members know for sure if they fired a lethal shot.