Electric Chair, Firing Squad Executions Ruled Unconstitutional In South Carolina

Electric Chair, Firing Squad Executions Ruled Unconstitutional In South Carolina

Death by firing squad and electric chair execution violate the South Carolina Constitution, a state judge ruled Tuesday.

Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman ruled that the style of executions inflicted cruel and unusual punishment, which nullified a state law passed last year that forced death row inmates to pick one of the two methods, with electrocution as the default procedure.

“In 2021, South Carolina turned back the clock and became the only state in the country in which a person may be forced into the electric chair if he refuses to elect how he will die,” Newman wrote. “In doing so, the General Assembly ignored advances in scientific research and evolving standards of humanity and decency.”

The 39-page opinion comes after four death row inmates sued the South Carolina Department of Corrections, the department’s director Bryan Stirling, and Governor Henry McMaster over the execution methods. The plaintiffs, all convicted of at least one murder and sentenced to death between 1997 and 2002, claim that the state’s procedures for terminating death row inmates are unconstitutional.

Inmates further noted that the state law officials restarted last year was “retroactive” and violated their due process rights, which rendered their right to decide between the execution methods.

Newman concluded her opinion after listening to medical experts during a four-day trial last month at the Richland County courthouse. The judge noted that such execution methods don’t provide enough scientific evidence to result in instant death or cause an inmate to experience pain for up to 15 seconds if the methods are botched.

The judge called high-voltage deaths unconstitutional due to the lack of evidence that it terminates a life instantly.

During electrocution, inmates are first shocked with 2,000 volts using copper electrodes attached to the right leg and head, which allows the current to run through the inmate for 4.5 seconds. Then, authorities pump another two electric currents of 1,000 volts for eight seconds and 120 volts for two minutes into the inmate’s body.

Newman said the experience could cause “intolerable pain and suffering from electrical burns, thermal heating, oxygen deprivation, muscle tetany, and the experience of high-voltage electrocution.”

South Carolina has used the same wooden chair with leather straps to execute 284 inmates since 1912. The state began using lethal injection in 1995.

Concerning firing squads, Newman said that the method reverts the state to a “historic method of execution that has never been used” in South Carolina or most other states in the Union. Newman detailed in her opinion why the firing squad style of execution poses an unusual punishment.

Authorities strap hooded inmates to a backless metal chair until they are completely restrained. Then, a physician places an “aiming point” over the inmate’s heart where a three-member team armed with rifles containing .308 Winchester 110-grain TAP urban ammunition fires up to three volleys of bullets from 15 feet away.

The Washington Post reports that electrocution is allowed as an alternative in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee; inmates can select it in Florida and Kentucky. While Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah are the only other states that allow execution by firing squad.

While attorneys for the death row inmates applauded the results and would further review the court order, Newman said the defendants would likely appeal the decision.

The State reports that Chrysti Shain, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, said Tuesday they would “assess the order and determine the next step.”

Governor Henry McMaster told reporters Wednesday his office plans to appeal Newman’s ruling.

“There have been a lot of cases in the U.S. Supreme Court as well — it’s been explained by the justices a number of times,” McMaster said. “The question is not the method but the procedure to get to the method.”

“Our Legislature and others have done a good job in fashioning the best we can do for these sentences,” he added. “I think that our South Carolina law is constitutional.”

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