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COLOMBIA, SC – South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster has signed a bill urging death row inmates to choose between the electric chair or a newly formed firing squad in hopes that the state will resume executions after an involuntary 10-year hiatus can.
South Carolina had been one of the most productive states of its size when it came to killing inmates. But a shortage of lethal injection drugs brought the executions to a halt.
According to the legislature’s website, McMaster signed the bill on Friday without ceremony or fanfare. It’s the first bill the governor is looking at after nearly 50 hit his desk Thursday.
Last week, the state legislature gave its final approval to the bill, which will keep lethal injection as the primary method of execution when the state has the drugs, but will ask prison officials to use the electric chair or the firing squad when not .
Prosecutors said three inmates had exhausted all of their normal appeals but could not be killed, as the previous law meant that inmates who did not automatically opt for the state’s 109-year-old electric chair would die by lethal injection. You have all chosen the method that cannot be done.
How quickly executions can begin is up in the air. The electric chair is ready to use. Prison officials have made preliminary investigations into how execution squads conduct executions in other states, but aren’t sure how long it will be before one is used in South Carolina. The other three states that allow firing squad are Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
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Three inmates, all in Utah, have been killed by firing squad since the US reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Nineteen inmates have died in the electric chair this century, and South Carolina is one of eight states where inmates can still be electrocuted at the center.
Lawyers for men with potentially imminent death dates are considering filing over the new law, saying the state is going back.
“These are methods of execution that have previously been replaced by lethal injection that is believed to be more humane. That makes South Carolina the only state that goes back to the less humane methods of execution,” said Lindsey Vann of Justice 360, a nonprofit that many of them represents the men on South Carolina death row.
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From 1996 to 2009, nearly three inmates were executed in South Carolina each year. Death row inmates took a break several years later when drug companies refused to sell states the drugs needed to calm inmates, relax their muscles, and stop their hearts.
The last South Carolina execution occurred in May 2010, and the batch of lethal injection drugs expired in 2013.
Proponents of the law said the death penalty was still legal in South Carolina and the state owed it to the victims’ families to find a way to carry out the punishment.
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House Democrats proposed several changes to the bill that were not approved, including live-streaming online executions and requiring lawmakers to attend executions.
“We must be ready to look at the faces of the people we are voting on today to kill,” said Rep. Jermaine Johnson, a Hopkins Democrat.
Opponents also brought up the case of 14-year-old George Stinney, who was sent to the electric chair in 1944 after a one-day trial for the death of two white girls. He was the youngest person to be executed in the United States in the 20th century. A judge overturned the black teenager’s conviction in 2014.
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Seven Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against the bill, most saying there was no moral sense in authorizing the posting of people to their death, when three months ago many of those lawmakers approved a bill that banned almost all abortions and said all life be holy.
“If you’re cool with the electric chair, you can be cool burning at the stake,” said Rep. Jonathon Hill, a Republican from Townville.