Pictured: A bright orange, wooden electric chair with leather straps, facing the camera. It sits on a boarded, brown, wooden floor. A red brick wall, light green door, and light green, framed mirror - or possibly a one-way glass window - are in the background. A harsh light casts the sharp shadow of the chair against the floor and wall.

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COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina’s House of Representatives, as reported by multiple outlets, has passed a bill that may make South Carolina the fourth state to allow executions by firing squad. If this bill becomes law, death row inmates will have a third option to choose from when considering how they’d like to die, the other two being lethal injection or electrocution.

But what it really amounts to is a cruel illusion of choice – nearly all paths lead to the electric chair.

The bill – proposed by State Senators Hembree, Martin, Kimbrell, Shealy, Gustafson, and Turner – was passed as as a way to “jump-start” executions in the state. According to U.S. News, “South Carolina can’t put anyone to death now because its supply of lethal injection drugs expired and it has not been able to buy anymore.” Of course, because of this, inmates have chosen injection over the electric chair.

With this new bill however, this loophole would no longer exist. Worse yet, if you make the wrong choice, or can’t navigate the bureaucracy, tough luck – the chair is waiting for you.

Several stipulations included in the bill make it more difficult for inmates to get a fair choice of execution method. Among them is that death row inmates must elect their choice of execution in writing at least 14 days before their scheduled execution date. If they don’t, the default method of execution is electrocution. If they get a stay of execution or – for whatever reason – their execution date passes, “then the [elected choice] expires and must be renewed in writing [14] days before a new execution date.” And if they don’t? The means of their death, again, defaults to electrocution. If lethal injection is unavailable or deemed unconstitutional by a local appellate court, “then the manner of inflicting a death sentence must be by electrocution, unless the convicted person elects death by firing squad.” With this last stipulation, it is unclear whether or not the inmate can switch to death by firing squad if their initial choice of lethal injection is unavailable, or the inmate has to choose the firing squad-method to begin with. The only thing that seems to be absolutely certain is that electrocution will always be available.

All of the above have been passed by the House, but there were several other amendments that were proposed by opponents to the bill.

Among the amendments that were “tabled” for further discussion:

  • A requirement for the Department of Corrections (DOC) to “allow for members of the public to observe all executions in person and to make the execution available for live viewing on the internet.” (Rep. Bamberg)
  • A requirement for members of the General Assembly to be present for every execution that occurs while they are in office. (Rep. J. L. Johnson)
  • A requirement for the DOC to tell the executioner, in writing, that they have a right to refuse to perform an execution without losing their job. (Rep. Matthews)

Among the amendments that were rejected:

  • The ability for the family of the executed person to sue the South Carolina DOC if a court determines too late that the death sentence was “improper.” (Rep. Bamberg)
  • A requirement for the condemned person to be psychologically evaluated to confirm that “the inmate is competent to understand the execution.” (Rep. Bamberg)
  • “No execution may be carried out if the convicting jury consisted solely of a race or ethnicity different from that of the convicted person.” (Rep. Bamberg)

During deliberations, Rep. Justin Bamberg explained the graphic details of what electrocution entails. According to The State, a daily South Carolina newspaper, Bamberg “had staff put photos of botched executions on a projector screen in the House chamber.”

Bamberg, and other opponents to the death penalty, also pointed to the case of George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old African American boy who was executed in South Carolina in 1944, after he was falsely accused of killing two white girls. He was killed by method of electrocution, after a jury of 12 white men found him guilty within 10 minutes of deliberation. He was too small to fit in the chair and had to sit on a phone book to fit into the electrodes.

The bill has yet to be ratified or signed by the governor. There are currently 37 people on death row in the state. Three of them are no longer able to appeal or stay their sentence. 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 12% of people (1 out of 8.3) sentenced to death have been exonerated since the re-instatement of the death penalty in 1976.

Find the full text of the bill here, and a timeline of the bill’s passage through the state legislature here.

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