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SC House approves bill making electric chair default execution method, adds firing squad option

Updated: May. 5, 2021 at 8:28 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - State lawmakers voted 66-43 Wednesday for a bill that will change the default method of execution from lethal injection to the electric chair. The legislation also includes an option for death row inmates to be executed by a firing squad.

After another procedural vote and Senate approval of some technical changes, the bill will go to Gov. Henry McMaster for approval.

“We are one step closer to providing victims’ families and loved ones with the justice and closure they are owed by law. I will sign this legislation as soon as it gets to my desk,” McMaster wrote in a tweet after the bill’s passage.

Lawmakers say this bill can end South Carolina’s 10-year pause on executions. Under current law, inmates on death row are sentenced to die by lethal injection unless they choose the electric chair. But there is a nationwide shortage of the drugs required for lethal injection.

Getting the death penalty back on the track will be positive for the criminal justice system, I know it will be for the victims in those cases, unfortunately, I have victims in those cases that I’ve helped that are waiting too,” said Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, who is also a prosecutor.

Of the inmates currently on death row, two have had their executions stayed, one recently received their death order, according to the Department of Corrections.

When asked if the stays of the executions of three inmates made him reluctant to vote in favor of the bill, Pope said because of his personal experience it did not.

“I’ve seen the victims and the years they wait…they go through appeal, after appeal, after appeal, so I feel very comfortable that the three that could be affected first, and obviously be many more on death row, are that much closer to justice,” Pope said.

During hours of debate, Democrats said they were concerned the law would lead to the death of potentially innocent people.

“It would not sit well on my conscience,” said Rep. Jermaine Johnson, D-Richland, about the vote. “Especially in a state where we claim to be pro-life, and we claim to believe in individuals and their rights to live and survive, but we are literally talking about a bill today that if this stuff passes we are literally signing their death certificates.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there have been two notable exonerations of people on death row in South Carolina.

Pope said he does not believe there are any innocent inmates currently on death row in South Carolina.

“I’m not as hardcore pro-death penalty as the other side is against, so I’m not bloodthirsty but I’m thirsty for justice,” he said.

Sen. Dick Harpootlian introduced the amendment adding the firing squad option said it is a more humane option than the electric chair, which he said is the equivalent of burning someone to death.

Harpootlian says he will leave it up to the Department of Corrections and the agency’s director Bryan Stirling to decide how the firing squad would be carried out in South Carolina.

“I don’t think we need to micromanage it,” Harpootlian said. “It’s a tough process but I have faith Bryan Stirling will get it done…he’s a compassionate guy, he’s a bright guy, he’ll find something that works both for the person to be executed and his personal who have to participate.”

Utah, Mississippi, and Oklahoma are the only other states currently allowing the use of a firing squad for executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

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