COLUMBIA, SC (AP) – South Carolina House voted Wednesday to add a firing squad to state execution methods amid a lack of lethal injection drugs – a move meant to revive executions in a State that once had one of the busiest. chambers of death in the nation.
The bill, approved by 66 to 43 votes, will require sentenced inmates to choose to be shot or electrocuted if lethal injection drugs are not available. The state is one of nine to still use the electric chair and will only become the fourth to authorize a firing squad.
South Carolina last executed a death row inmate 10 years ago on Thursday.
The Senate had already approved the bill in March, by 32 votes to 11. The House made only minor technical changes to this version, meaning that after a routine final House vote and approval through the Senate, it will go to Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who said he would sign it.
There are several prisoners in line to be executed. Corrections officials said three of South Carolina’s 37 death row inmates were not on appeal. But lawsuits against the new death penalty rules are also likely.
“Three living, breathing human beings with a heartbeat that this bill aims to kill,” said Democratic Representative Justin Bamberg, rhythmically banging the microphone in front of him. “If you hit the green button at the end of the day and vote to get this bill passed out of this body, you might as well flip the switch yourself.”
South Carolina began using the electric chair in 1912 after taking the death penalty in some counties, which typically hung prisoners. The other three states that allow 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 United States reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Nineteen inmates have died in electric chairs this century.
South Carolina cannot kill anyone now because its supply of lethal injection drugs has expired and it has not been able to purchase more. Currently, inmates can choose between the electric chair and lethal injection. Since the drugs are not available, they choose the injection.
The bill retains lethal injection as the primary method of execution if the state has drugs, but requires prison officials to use the electric chair or firing squad if it does not .
“The families of the victims of these capital crimes are unable to secure a closure because we are caught in this phase of limbo where all potential appeals have been exhausted and the sentences imposed by law cannot be carried out,” said Republican Weston Newton.
Lack of drugs and decisions by prosecutors to seek a guilty plea with guaranteed life sentences for death penalty trials have nearly halved the number of state death row inmates – from 60 to 37 inmates – since the last execution in 2011. From 2000 to 2010, the State carried out on average just under two executions per year.
The reduction is also due to natural deaths and prisoners who got appeals and were sentenced to life without parole. Prosecutors have only sent three new detainees to the death row in the past decade.
Democrats in the House proposed several amendments, including not applying the new execution rules to current death row inmates; live performances on the Internet; the outright prohibition of the death penalty; and require lawmakers to attend executions. Everything has failed.
Seven Republicans voted against the bill, while one Democrat voted in favor.
Opponents of the bill have referred to George Stinney, the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century. He was 14 when he was sent to South Carolina’s electric chair after a one-day trial in 1944 for killing two white girls. A judge dismissed the black teen’s conviction in 2014. Newspaper reports reported that witnesses said the straps to hold him in the electric chair did not fit around his small frame.
“So not only did South Carolina give the electric chair to America’s youngest person, the boy was innocent,” Bamberg said.
Other opponents noted that his compatriot, the southern state of Virginia, had banned the death penalty earlier this year. They also pointed out that the three executions carried out so far this year in the United States are the fewest since 2008, when the United States Supreme Court was considering the lethal injection.
Newton said the bill was not the place to debate the morality of executions.
“This bill does not deal with the merits or the desirability of whether we should have a death penalty in South Carolina,” Newton said.
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