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The South Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked scheduled electrocuted executions of two inmates, stating that they cannot be killed until they truly have a choice to choose a firing squad, as set out in the state’s newly revised Death Penalty Act.
The Supreme Court halted the scheduled executions of Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens that month, writing that correctional officers must put together a firing squad so inmates can really choose between this or the electric chair. The state’s plans, the court said unanimously, have been put on hold “due to the prisoners’ legal right to choose the method of execution”.
The executions were scheduled less than a month after a new law was passed, forcing those convicted to choose between electrocution or firing squad when lethal injections are unavailable. The law aims to resume executions after an involuntary 10-year hiatus attributed to the state’s inability to source the drugs.
Prison officials previously said they still cannot get lethal injectable drugs and still need to assemble a firing squad, leaving the 109-year-old electric chair as the only option.
“The department is working to develop guidelines and procedures for a firing squad,” said Chrysti Shain, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina law enforcement agency, in a statement Wednesday. “We’re looking in other states for guidance on this process. We’ll notify the court if a firing squad is an option for executions.”
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State prison officials have not indicated when a firing squad will be used.
The two men’s attorneys have argued in legal records that electrocution is cruel and unusual, saying the new law will encourage the state to adopt less humane methods of execution. They also said the men have the right to die by lethal injection – the method they both chose – and that the state has not exhausted all methods to obtain lethal injectable drugs.
State lawyers have claimed that prison officials are only executing the law and that the US Supreme Court never ruled the electrocution unconstitutional.
State prison officials on Friday planned to spend nearly two decades on death row Sigmon, a 63-year-old inmate who was convicted in 2002 of murdering his ex-girlfriend’s parents with a baseball bat. The state’s Supreme Court had also previously scheduled the June 25 execution of Owens, a 43-year-old man who has been on death row since 1999 for the murder of a supermarket employee.
Both Sigmon and Owens have run out of traditional appeals for the past few months, allowing the state Supreme Court to arrest and then suspend their executions earlier this year after law enforcement officials said they still had no lethal injectable drugs – and before that new law.
South Carolina is one of eight states that still use the electric chair and four that allow firing squad, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.
The last execution in South Carolina took place in 2011, and his batch of lethal injectables expired two years later. 37 men are on the state’s death row.
A lawyer for the two inmates did not comment on Wednesday’s order.
Early Wednesday, opponents of the death penalty called on the state to completely abolish its death penalty statute, with a group of religious leaders, academics, organizers and others delivering a letter to Governor Henry McMaster and the state general assembly.
Abraham Bonowitz, director of the national group Death Penalty Action and participant in the event, said in a statement to The Associated Press late Wednesday that he was grateful that the execution plans were blocked. But he felt that bigger changes were needed.
“It’s always good news when executions are suspended, but when it’s just how we kill our prisoners, rather than whether the state should have that power, something is very, very wrong,” he said. “All of this is unnecessary and a costly waste of taxpayers’ money that could better serve the needs of all victims of violent crime.”
At the rally on Wednesday, participants noted that the day marks the anniversary of the electrocution of 14-year-old George Stinney, the youngest person to be executed in the United States in the 20th century. Stinney was 14 years old when he was put on the South Carolina electric chair in 1944 after a day-long trial related to the murder of two white girls.
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A judge ruled the black teenager’s 2014 conviction.