COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has signed into law a bill that forces death row inmates for now to choose between the electric chair or a newly formed firing squad in hopes the state can restart executions after an involuntary 10-year pause.
South Carolina had been one of the most prolific states of its size in putting inmates to death. But a lack of lethal injection drugs brought executions to a halt.
McMaster signed the bill Friday with no ceremony or fanfare, according to the state Legislature’s website. It’s the first bill the governor decided to deal with after nearly 50 hit his desk Thursday.
Last week state lawmakers gave their final sign offs to the bill, which retains lethal injection as the primary method of execution if the state has the drugs, but requires prison officials to use the electric chair or firing squad if it doesn’t.
Prosecutors said three inmates have exhausted all their normal appeals, but can’t be killed because under the previous law, inmates who don’t choose the state’s 109-year-old electric chair automatically are scheduled to die by lethal injection. They have all chosen the method that can’t be carried out.
How soon executions can begin is up in the air. The electric chair is ready to use. Prison officials have been doing preliminary research into how firing squads carry out executions in other states, but are not sure how long it will take to have one in place in South Carolina. The other three states that allow a firing squad are Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Three inmates, all in Utah, have been killed by firing squad since the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Nineteen inmates have died in the electric chair this century, and South Carolina is one of eight states that can still electrocute inmates, according to the center.
Lawyers for the men with potentially imminent death dates are considering suing over the new law, saying the state is going backward.
“These are execution methods that previously were replaced by lethal injection, which is considered more humane, and it makes South Carolina the only state going back to the less humane execution methods,” said Lindsey Vann of Justice 360, a nonprofit that represents many of the men on South Carolina’s death row.
From 1996 to 2009, South Carolina executed close to an average of three inmates a year. But a lull in death row inmates reaching the end of their appeals coincided a few years later with pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell states the drugs needed to sedate inmates, relax their muscles and stop their hearts.
South Carolina’s last execution took place in May 2010, and its batch of lethal injection drugs expired in 2013.