South Carolina Places Finishing Touches on Firing-Squad Executions
On March 18, 2022, the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) released a statement declaring that they had completed the necessary preparations to conduct executions by firing squad, making them the fourth state to permit this method.
In the announcement made by the SCDC, the department stated that they had finished renovations on the official death chamber and had assembled a firing squad.
A law was passed to approve executions by firing squad in May of 2021, after a shortage in lethal injection medication in South Carolina left the state searching for viable alternatives. South Carolina has not carried out an execution (of any kind) since 2011. Their lethal injection medication supply ran out in 2013.
That piece of legislation specified the application of electrocution as the default measure of execution but included the provision that the inmate may choose between electrocution and either firing squad or lethal injection (assuming that it is available).
Mississippi Democratic State Senator Dick Harpootlian proposed the idea to reintroduce firing squad executions, arguing that death by firing squad is the “least painful” way to be killed.
Harpootlian admitted that “It’s tragic that a civilized society should eliminate anybody, …but if you’ve got to do it, this is a better way.”
The $53,600 death chamber features a metal chair facing a wall with a rectangular opening 15 feet away. Three professional volunteer shooters will fire at the inmate’s heart from the opening with live ammunition. The inmate will be wearing a hood, and they have the option to make a final statement as well.
Shortly after the law was passed, two death row inmates in South Carolina had their executions blocked because they weren’t given the option to choose their method of execution. Since there was no lethal injection medication available, and the state had yet to furnish a death chamber nor hire an actual firing squad, going through with this action would have violated state law.
Since then, the state has stayed a handful of attempted executions by electrocution due to the lack of an alternative method, which has led to intense legal battles.
Currently, there are 37 men on South Carolina’s death row, including Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens, the two men whose executions were stayed after the state failed to provide an alternative to the electric chair in 2021.
Sigmon has spent roughly two decades on death row after being convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend’s parents. Owens has been intermittently served on death row for over twenty years after being convicted of murdering a convenience store clerk. Even though the futures of the two men appear to be more certain, there are still obstacles to their executions.
Despite the statement released by the SCDC, attorneys representing Sigmon and Owens have asked the court not to move forward with executions of the men, arguing that both death by electrocution and firing squad violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause written into the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
One of the attorneys stated gruesomely: “Firing-squad mutilates the body by exploding the chest with high-powered rifles, leaving holes in the corpse, exposing internal tissue, destroying internal organs, and soaking the prisoner’s clothing, the sandbags that surround it, and the ground with blood.”
So far, there has been no clear external opposition, but once preparations to resume executions in South Carolina are finalized in the near future, activist organizations are likely to become more outspoken.
This decision will likely also renew arguments over the sustainability and viability of the death penalty in the United States. Critics often claim that not only is the practice cruel and draconian, but it can also be extremely expensive.
At the same time, lethal injection medication has become more difficult to acquire. This could pose problems for more and more states down the road as supplies dwindle.
South Carolina will now join Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah as the only states that provide the firing squad as a method of execution. Since 1976, there have been three executions conducted by firing squad, all of them occurring in Utah. The most recent application of the method was used in 2010.
It will be interesting to witness how public opinion responds to the first firing-squad execution in over a decade as South Carolina mobilizes to compensate for the delay in capital punishment caused by a shortage in lethal injection medication.
It is unclear yet if firing-squad executions are re-entering the realm of acceptability or whether South Carolina represents an anomalous case. Regardless, the absence of lethal injection medication poses serious questions for the future of the death penalty in America and may open the door to more arcane policies.