South Carolina high court blocks two electric chair executions

Inmates must have choice of death by firing squad, court rules, as US states seek alternatives to lethal injection amid drug shortage.

Members of South Carolinians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty speak to reporters at the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia, on June 16, 2021 [Michelle Liu/AP Photo]
Members of South Carolinians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty speak to reporters at the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia, on June 16, 2021 [Michelle Liu/AP Photo]

The top court in the US state of South Carolina has blocked two executions by electric chair set for this month under the state’s recently revised capital punishment law, as US states scramble to find alternatives to lethal injections amid a drug shortage.

South Carolina had planned to execute Brad Sigmon, who was convicted of two murders in 2002, with the electric chair on Friday, the first use of capital punishment in the state in a decade. Freddie Owen’s electric chair execution, for murder during an armed robbery, was set for June 25.

But the state’s supreme court on Wednesday ruled the men cannot be put to death until they have the choice of death by firing squad, as set out in the state’s revised law, which compels the condemned to choose between electrocution or firing squad if lethal injection drugs are not available.

The statute is aimed at restarting executions after an involuntary 10-year pause that the state attributed to an inability to procure the drugs.

South Carolina’s electric chair in Columbia is pictured in this photo from 2019 [File: Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP Photo]

A South Carolina Department of Corrections spokesperson told local outlet The Greenville News that the “department is moving ahead with creating policies and procedures for a firing squad. We are looking to other states for guidance through this process.”

“We will notify the court when a firing squad becomes an option for executions.”

Lawyers for the two men had argued that death by electrocution is cruel and unusual. They also said the men have the right to die by lethal injection and that the state has not exhausted all methods to procure lethal injection drugs.

Richard Moore, another condemned inmate, was scheduled to be put to death in December 2020, but the Supreme Court of South Carolina previously delayed his execution due to a lack of lethal injection drugs.

Moore has petitioned the state’s high court to vacate his death sentence and is awaiting a response. The last person to be executed by electric chair was convicted murderer Lynda Lyon Block in 2002 in Alabama.

Gas chambers

Alongside the electric chair and firing squads, some states plan to use gas chambers for capital punishment.

Arizona began refurbishing its gas chamber, last used 22 years ago, to execute inmates late last year. The state also bought hydrogen cyanide gas, which the Nazis used to kill 865,000 Jews at the Auschwitz concentration camp alone.

Alabama, too, could be planning to begin executions by gas chamber, but with nitrogen hypoxia.

The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reported that the Alabama Department of Corrections “is nearing completion of the initial physical build for the nitrogen hypoxia system and its safety measures”, citing court filings.

“Once the build is completed … a safety expert will make a site visit to evaluate the system and look for any points of concern that need to be addressed.”

The filings did not explicitly state whether the state planned to use the gas chamber for a specific execution.

It is difficult to tell what points of concern there may be, according to DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham, who told Newsweek that execution by nitrogen hypoxia “has never been done before and no one has any idea whether it is going to work the way its proponents say it will.”

“And there is no way to test it because it is completely unethical to experimentally kill someone against their will,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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