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Bills that could bring back electric chair in SC headed to House, Senate floors

Emily Bohatch
·5 min read

A pair of bills in the South Carolina House and Senate that would make the electric chair the default mode of execution in the state are heading to the floor for debate in their respective chambers.

The House Judiciary Committee met Tuesday to advance the lower chamber’s bill on executions, voting 14-7. Four members did not vote.

The Senate bill is currently on the chamber’s calendar, but has not been discussed on the floor as lawmakers are currently busy debating a $500 million bond bill to improve Charleston’s port. Once senators finish discussing the bond bill, the execution bill could come up within the next few legislative days.

The bills are aimed at combating a nationwide shortage in lethal injection drugs, which has stopped South Carolina from carrying out two scheduled executions to date. The drug shortage was caused by manufacturers that sought to clamp down on how their products were being used. Companies have even gone to court to block the usage of their products in executions.

Under current South Carolina law, lethal injection is the default mode of execution, but inmates can choose death by electrocution instead. If inmates choose lethal injection, the state cannot force them to die by means of electrocution.

Under the bills, offenders would still be given the choice between lethal injection or electrocution, but if the drugs needed to perform a lethal injection were not available, the death penalty would be carried out by electrocution. The electric chair would very likely come back into use, if the bill becomes law.

Proponents of the bill argued that without it, South Carolina will not be able to carry out executions even though offenders are still being sentenced to death.

“This bill is not about the merits about whether we should or shouldn’t have capital punishment,” S.C. Rep. Weston Newton, R-Beaufort, said. “It is about whether we can carry out lawful (sentence).”

S.C. Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington, reminded the committee that the death penalty is for the most severe offenders. Caskey recounted the trial of Tim Jones, a Lexington County man who was found guilty and sentenced to death for killing his five children.

“I raise that point not simply to put a dour note on today’s proceedings, but to remind us all that the death penalty exists for the guilty,” Caskey said.

Opponents of the bill stood against it largely because they are against the death penalty. They argued that people can be wrongfully convicted and the choice try to secure the death penalty is up to individual solicitors, who may not apply that choice evenly across the state.

Opponents of the bill also said it’s not unheard of for someone on death row to be later exonerated. S.C. Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, pointed to the case of George Stinney, one of the youngest people to be executed by the state in South Carolina history. Stinney was found guilty of and executed in 1944 for killing two white girls, but after his death, Stinney was exonerated 70 years later.

“It was said that the death penalty exists for the guilty, and in theory it’s true,” Bamberg said. “But we all know that the criminal justice system is far too imperfect for us to impute a death.”

Putting an innocent person to death can further traumatize the family of the victim of the crime committed in the first place, he said, asking how it would be for them to be told, “ ‘Hey, in your family’s name, we electrocuted an innocent person.’ ”

Also opposing the bill, S.C. Rep. Neal Collins, R-Pickens, pointed out the racial inequities of the people on death row. Of the 37 inmates on death row, 19 are Black and 18 are white. African Americans make up about 27% of South Carolina residents.

The inequities also arise depending on what part of the state you’re in, Collins said. Seven of the people on death row were sentenced in Lexington County, and the bulk of death penalty convictions stem from the same four counties, Collins said.

“At best, what we’re talking about is sending a guilty person (to death) that doesn’t have the same ability, who does not have the same due process rights across the state,” Collins said.

Some Democrats jabbed at Republicans for passing a “pro-life” fetal heartbeat abortion ban bill less than a week earlier.

“I’m having a hard time with this and I’ll tell you why: this past week we were doing the fetal heartbeat and we were talking about pro-birth or pro-life,” S.C. Rep. Pat Henegan, D-Marlboro, said. “Now we’re talking about pro-death.”

After the bill passed the committee, it will head to the House floor, where it likely has enough support to pass this session.

Republicans have tried to pass similar legislation in previous years and failed. Last session, the bill managed to pass the Senate by a vote of 26 to 13 and made it through the House Judiciary Committee before it stalled out when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the legislative session.

Republicans are much better situated to pass the bill this year. In November, the GOP won seats in both the House and the Senate, strengthening their ability to derail any Democratic effort to stop the bill.

The bill also has the strong support of S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, who has called for its passage for the last three years as the state struggled to carry out scheduled executions.