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Lethal injection could return to SC if push for drug company shield law is successful

·4 min read

South Carolina’s prisons director and a Republican lawmaker say they will renew their push next year to pass a law that would shield the identities of drug companies selling the state ingredients for the lethal injection cocktail.

If they’re successful, South Carolina could potentially buy lethal injection drugs for the first time since 2016 and start carrying out executions again for the first time in more than a decade.

Currently, South Carolina’s Department of Corrections can’t buy the necessary drugs to carry out a lethal injection, Director Bryan Stirling said. In the last decade, drug companies stopped selling the drugs necessary to carry out the lethal injection to prison systems because they didn’t want their businesses linked to executions.

In response to the shortage, the Legislature changed South Carolina’s execution law so that executions could be carried out by electric chair or firing squad. The state Supreme Court has halted all executions until the state finishes renovations to perform the first death by firing squad or until lethal injection is available.

States that have so-called “shield laws” on the books — more than a dozen so far — have been able to buy lethal injection components from drug companies, Stirling said.

South Carolina’s neighbor, Georgia, passed a shield law in 2013 and was subsequently able to buy drugs to carry out a lethal injection. Despite challenges from lawyers of an inmate scheduled for execution, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the shield law, allowing Georgia to carry out an execution using drugs from a pharmacy they did not have to name.

“That is another tool that we could use to shield the (identities of) providers of the drugs,” Stirling said.

Stirling’s push for a shield law already has some support.

Gov. Henry McMaster has advocated for the measure since 2017, and former solicitor and state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, has agreed to pre-file a bill in December for the upcoming 2022 session.

“If we’re going to have the death penalty, having all the alternatives available in something that is arguably inhumane, it’s the most humane way to approach it,” Hembree said.

Hembree, the lead sponsor of an execution bill that passed earlier this year making the electric chair the default method of executions in South Carolina, said talks of passing a shield law resurfaced during the electric chair debate. Attempts to pass a shield law in 2015, 2016 and 2018 resoundingly failed, but Hembree said the renewed interest inspired him to push the bill in the upcoming session.

Hembree said a shield law could pass the Senate. As for the House, Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, said he could see a shield law passing “fairly easily” in early 2022.

In the past, shield laws have failed to gain traction in the House. But with three executions postponed because the state doesn’t have the ability to carry them out, things have changed, Simrill said.

“It wasn’t that it was not important (before), but it wasn’t pressing,” Simrill said.

Executions could resume soon, with or without a shield law

The executions bill passed earlier this year could impact support for a new shield law.

Before, the state’s default method of execution was the lethal injection, meaning that unless an inmate specifically chose to die by electric chair, they couldn’t be put to death.

But this year, McMaster signed into law a controversial bill making the electric chair the state’s default method of execution, meaning the shortage of lethal injection drugs no longer stood in the way of carrying out executions. Lawmakers also added firing squad option as another choice for death row inmates.

Passing a shield law could have immediate and dire consequences for those on South Carolina’s death row.

The Supreme Court ordered all executions halted this summer until state prisons officials could offer more than one method of execution. Currently, the only method available is the electric chair.

If the shield law legislation fails again, executions could resume should Stirling’s agency be able to carry out the firing squad option.

For months, state prison officials have been working to retrofit their death chamber to carry out executions by firing squad. There currently is no timeline for when the work will be finished, but Stirling said the firing squad will be a viable method of execution soon.

Once a second method of execution is available — whether by firing squad because death chamber upgrades are finished or the lethal injection should the Legislature pass a shield law — South Carolina will be able to carry out executions once again.

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