South Carolina hasn’t killed anyone on death row in six years. Not because the state wouldn’t like to kill people, but simply because drug companies won’t sell them the lethal injection drugs to do it. In response, frustrated lawmakers in South Carolina held hearings today about bringing back the electric chair for when lethal injection isn’t available.
As South Carolina’s Post and Courier newspaper reports, the state allows inmates on death row to choose between two options when they’re sentenced to die: lethal injection or the electric chair. But it has been almost 10 years since a prisoner elected to die by electrocution in South Carolina, and after the European Union banned the export of drugs for executions in 2011, drugmakers have been reluctant to supply states with lethal injection agents over legal, ethical, and political concerns.
Lawmakers in South Carolina met today with the hopes of putting forward legislation that would strip inmates of the choice, and allow the state to simply execute people by electric chair when the drugs needed aren’t available.
Republican state senator Willam Timmons has sponsored the legislation and says that he doesn’t have a strong opinion about the best method for executing people. He simply wants to make sure that people on death row are executed because the families of victims were promised precisely that.
“This is a technical issue, it’s not a methods issue,” Timmons told Gizmodo by phone. “The families of victims on death row, we made them a promise and they’re being denied justice.”
Of the 29 people executed in South Carolina in the past twenty years, just two have opted for electrocution. The remaining 27 were put to death by lethal injection. South Carolina’s current stock of execution drugs expired in 2011.
Timmons noted that six different people testified today in front of South Carolina senators, one of whom was a family member who lost their loved one to a serial killer. Todd Kohlhepp has killed at least seven people and claims to have more victims who have yet to be discovered. The state chose not to pursue the death penalty last year because it doesn’t have the drugs to execute him. He’s now serving several life sentences.
“I think there are a lot of other methods that would be better,” Timmons told Gizmodo, referring to the electric chair. “If I was going to be executed I’d prefer it through morphine, but that’s not an option. I’m doing my best to fix what is currently an absurd situation.”
To Timmons, that “absurd situation” is having 36 people currently sitting on death row in South Carolina and no possible way to kill them.
The electric chair fell out of favor in the 1970s in the United States after it was deemed more barbaric than other forms of death, though there’s significant debate in the medical community about how much pain people experience during lethal injection. The last time someone in the US was executed by electric chair was in 2013, when the inmate himself opted for it in Virginia.
Aside from making the electric chair mandatory, others in South Carolina would like to see the flow of lethal injection drugs come back. The governor of South Carolina, Henry McMaster, would like to pass a controversial law that would allow drug companies to sell the state lethal injection drugs in secret.
“They are afraid that their names will be made known, and they don’t want to have anything to do with it for fear of retribution, or exposure of themselves, their families, their businesses,” McMaster said at a press conference in November. “All perfectly good reasons.”
Drugs for lethal injections like pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride are now difficult to acquire because major drug companies don’t want to be associated with state-sponsored death. Foreign distributors of the drugs in places like Italy and the UK have dried up because most of the developed world has abolished the death penalty and has laws against exporting drugs for death.
The hearings today adjourned without a formal recommendation from the committee because the state senators are waiting on more information from Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling. The committee is expected to meet again soon.
When I asked Timmons if he believes that the electric chair is cruel and unusual punishment, which is forbidden by the 8th Amendment and the biggest constitutional point of debate around the death penalty, he again says that the broader discussion about the state executing prisoners isn’t the point.
“This isn’t a conversation about whether South Carolina is going to have the death penalty,” he told Gizmodo.
But as we saw in the case of Todd Kohlhepp it really is precisely that. Without a legal means of executing people at its disposal, prosecutors in South Carolina won’t even pursue the death penalty anymore. And whether you believe in capital punishment or not will obviously determine whether you think that’s a good thing.