Inside the Debate Over South Carolina’s Use of Firing Squads

OThe South Carolina Department of Corrections declared that its $53,600 death chamber renovation was completed on March 18.

A metal chair was installed by the state for prisoners in death row that want to be faced with the firing squad. It has restraints on the legs, feet, head and chest. According to new protocols, the prisoner will have a hood covering his head and a small point of aim placed above his heart. A three-person execution group will stand fifteen feet behind the wall, point their rifles through a rectangle opening and aim with live ammunition. The order will be read by the warden. Firearms will be fired by the team. You can view the grueling proceedings through bullet-resistant glass. Once the guard declares the prisoner deceased, they will be taken out.

Roughly a year ago, Republican Governor Henry McMaster signed a law requiring condemned prisoners to choose how they’d like to die. Because the state cannot obtain lethal injection drugs, their options include firing squad and electric chair. Richard Moore, aged 57, was given the macabre option earlier in this month. Moore chose to be executed by firing squad while insisting on the constitutionality of both options. He was scheduled to die on April 29, but his legal has team asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to delay his execution until a state court can rule on whether either method violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. They’ve also asked for a delay so the U.S. Supreme Court can review whether Moore’s sentence is disproportionate compared to similar crimes.

On April 20, the South Carolina Supreme Court temporarily halted Moore’s execution—without providing its reasoning—and two days later did the same for another prisoner, Brad Keith Sigmon, who had not yet chosen his mode of execution.

The fate of both men—and of South Carolina’s new firing squad—remains uncertain. However, the uncertainty reflects the longer history of death penalty usage in America. It raises difficult ethical and legal issues about whether an execution by the government of a citizen is humane. After a series of publicly botched executions by lethal injection in the 2010s—and amid the broader climate of decreasing public support for capital punishment—most companies have refused to sell lethal injection drugs. Since then, many states have stopped executions of prisoners. Only 14 states have executed one prisoner within the last ten years.

As an alternative, some states resort to using older methods. Last year Arizona made headlines when it “refurbished” its gas chamber from 1949 and gave prisoners the choice between the gas or lethal drugs. South Carolina plans to bring back the firing squad. “It is a paradox,” says Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. “The reemergence of more visceral and primitive methods of execution is a byproduct of the erosion of capital punishment.”

Ironically, in state-sanctioned executions’ grisly taxonomy, shooting prisoners in the heart is a quicker death than injecting lethal chemicals into their bodies. Death penalty experts agree that firing squads may be a safer option than lethal injection. There is less chance of an inhumane execution. In a 2017 dissent to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of a prisoner’s request to die by firing squad, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that death by firing squad could cause less suffering than lethal injection, which she said “may turn out to be our most cruel experiment yet” in the country’s search for a merciful way to kill its prisoners. Dick Harpootlian from South Carolina, a Democratic state senator, said that firing squad was an option that prisoners could choose. This is in contrast to the standard 110-year-old electric chairs.

Corinna Barrett, University of Richmond law professor, said that when the state executes a prisoner for the sake of justice, it tries to differentiate itself from the condemned person to death.. The government’s goal has long been to make executions appear restrained, even clinical, hence the reliance since the 1990s on lethal injection.“Maintaining the death penalty today comes with a critical proviso,” Lain says. “Executions cannot offend the sensibilities of the people in whose name they’re being conducted.”

As Moore and Sigmon head towards possible executions by firing squad, the public reaction—and the response of the American legal system—could have urgent implications for the future of the U.S. death penalty.

‘The impact on the team was horrific’

Moore was just nine days from his death when the State Supreme Court stopped Moore’s execution. He has now been in prison for over 20 years.

Some criminal justice reform advocates argue he shouldn’t be on South Carolina’s death row in the first place, much less be the first man facing the firing squad. He was incarcerated for a 1999 robbery and killing in Spartanburg, S.C. Moore wasn’t armed when the robbery began; the convenience store clerk, James Mahoney, had a pistol, and Moore maintains the men struggled over the weapon. Mahoney was a white man who died from a gunshot wound. Moore (Black) was found guilty of murder by eleven white jurors, one Hispanic jury, and sentenced for his death.

Sigmon, who was scheduled to be executed May 13 before the temporary stay, was convicted of murdering his girlfriend’s parents in 2001.

South Carolina has not had an execution in over a decade. Officials from the state claim that they are unable to procure lethal injection drug drugs from any pharmaceutical company, which is why there has been a delay in executions. In an attempt to restart executions, the state legislature proposed legislation last year that made the electric chair the standard method. TIME spoke to Harpootlian, a state senator. He was concerned by this proposal after he had worked as a prosecutor for many years and knows what executions are like. As he puts it: “It’s frying someone to death.” So he proposed offering the firing squad as well, and Governor McMaster signed the amendment legislation in May 2021. “The families and loved ones of victims are owed closure and justice by law. Now, we can provide it,” McMaster said at the time.

Moore, Sigmon, and two other death row prisoners have challenged South Carolina’s new law, arguing that both electrocution and firing squad violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. The prisoners’ legal team has also challenged the state’s argument that it was forced to turn to these methods because it cannot procure lethal injection drugs, pointing out that since South Carolina said it lost access to the necessary compounds in 2013, 13 other states and the federal government have carried out 222 lethal injection executions. South Carolina argues that it doesn’t have a shield law hiding the names of companies that sell them the drugs, which 14 other states have in place, so companies are less willing to sell to them.

The Attorney General’s office and the Governor’s office declined to comment on pending litigation.

South Carolina’s firing squad will include three South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) employees carrying rifles. Their names cannot be revealed under the law. If the executions are allowed to go ahead, the state is preparing to provide counseling to both the firing squad and the victims’ families. Karin Ho, the director of the SCDC’s Division of Victim Services, has seen how traumatizing executions can be for corrections officers. She was involved in 52 executions while working in Ohio’s prison system, and now runs SCDC’s Critical Incident Stress Management program (CISM), which includes a peer support network that will be available for employees before, during, and after the execution. Each member of the execution group will have to participate in a CISM briefing several days later.

Ho states that Ho’s goal is for employees to be resilient. She shares the story of an execution in another state that did not go as planned, and the officers who carried it out didn’t have a peer network available to support them. “The impact on the team was horrific,” she says.

Modern death penalty

Only three firing squads have been used since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty. This was over a decade ago.

All three were carried out in Utah, which has long offered the method in part due to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ belief in “blood atonement” at the time, says Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham School of Law. South Carolina has never executed a firing squad in the modern age.

Lain of University of Richmond says that nearly every American method of execution has been considered a better option to the existing method. But that hasn’t always proven to be the case. States began searching for an alternative to the electric chair in the 1970s. This was a method that had been used as a way of quick death, but it proved horrifying to others. Since 1976, 1,364 executions by lethal injection have taken place in the United States.

However, lethal injection has been a problem for decades. States in turn had a harder time accessing the drugs, and began experimenting with new compounds—which critics say increased the amount of botched executions. A particularly brutal execution led to increased scrutiny of the practice in 2014. Clayton Lockett from Oklahoma, who was being held in solitary confinement, succumbed to his injuries 43 minutes after receiving an injection. Times. He eventually died due to a cardiac attack. Officials at Oklahoma prison claimed that he was conscious.

In the subsequent eight years, support for the death penalty reached record lows, in part as Americans became more informed about the ways systemic racism and poverty can influence death sentences—and learned of the at least 187 wrongful convictions of people on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Joe Biden, the President of the United States was the first to vote against the death penalty. “The death penalty is not the political issue it was 10, 15, 20 years ago,” says John H. Blume, a professor at Cornell Law School and the Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project.

It remains to be seen whether South Carolina’s newly-formed firing squad will actually execute anyone. A state court could conclude the choice before Moore and Sigmon violates the Constitution, and rule they’ll have to wait to die until the state finds lethal injection drugs. The U.S. Supreme Court could agree to hear Moore’s petition and decide he shouldn’t be on death row in the first place. Regardless of how the legal fight unfolds, the resurgence of the firing squad in the state widens the holes in the argument that the modern death penalty is markedly different—or more humane—than the executions of the past.

“No one should relish the death of any other human being. If we do that, then we’re no better than the people we seek to execute,” says state senator Harpootlian. “And we may be worse.”

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