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Firing squad bill headed to South Carolina governor’s desk

This March 2019, file photo, provided by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows the...
This March 2019, file photo, provided by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows the state's electric chair in Columbia, S.C.(Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP, File)
Updated: May. 12, 2021 at 4:21 PM MDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Legislation adding a firing squad to South Carolina’s execution methods amid a lack of lethal-injection drugs is headed to the desk of Gov. Henry McMaster.

On a routine vote Wednesday, the state Senate concurred with a version of the legislation, approved last week by House lawmakers. McMaster has not yet said when he will sign the bill into law, although his office said it would happen as soon as the bill was ratified, which could happen in a matter of days.

The measure, intended to jump-start executions in a state that once had one of the busiest death chambers in the nation, will require condemned inmates to choose either being shot or electrocuted if lethal injection drugs aren’t available. The state is one of only nine to still use the electric chair and will become only the fourth to allow a firing squad.

South Carolina last executed a death row inmate 10 years ago.

The Senate already had approved the bill in March, by a vote of 32-11. The House made technical changes to that version; had the Senate not accepted them, both versions could have gone to a conference committee.

Before Wednesday’s vote, Sen. Gerald Malloy offered several amendments, including one that would prohibit a number of other execution methods from being added to the state’s options in the future, such as drowning, dismemberment or keelhauling, a centuries-old form of punishment in which a sailor is thrown overboard and dragged under a ship.

“It lets us know where we have been, and where we should not go,” the Hartsville Democrat said, before the amendment was tabled.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Greg Hembree, said he had witnessed a handful of executions during his time as a prosecutor, adding that he appreciated the gravity of the debate.

“It’s heavy, it’s hard, and it’s gruesome,” the Horry County Republican said, also acknowledging he felt the law was sure to be litigated.

There are several South Carolina prisoners in line to be executed, but lawsuits against the new death penalty rules are likely. Corrections officials have said that three of the state’s 37 death row inmates are out of appeals.

South Carolina first began using the electric chair in 1912 after taking over the death penalty from individual counties, which usually hanged prisoners. The other three states that allow a firing squad are Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Three inmates, all in Utah, have been killed by firing squad since the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Nineteen inmates have died in the electric chair this century, including a South Carolina inmate in 2008.

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 any more. Currently, inmates can choose between the electric chair and lethal injection; since the drugs are not available, they choose injection, therefore avoiding execution.

The bill retains lethal injection as the primary method of execution if the state has the drugs, but requires prison officials to use the electric chair or firing squad if it doesn’t.

Some prosecutors have been willing to accept life sentences in recent cases because of the state’s inability to carry out executions by lethal injection. Prosecutor Barry Barnette said in 2017 he told the families of the seven people murdered by serial killer Todd Kohlhepp that he couldn’t guarantee Kohlhepp could be executed if he were convicted because South Carolina “doesn’t have a functioning death penalty.” Kohlhepp instead received seven life sentences without parole.

The lack of drugs, and decisions by prosecutors to seek guilty pleas with guaranteed life sentences over death penalty trials, have cut the state’s death row population nearly in half — from 60 to 37 inmates — since the last execution was carried out in 2011. From 2000 to 2010, the state averaged just under two executions a year.

The reduction also has come from natural deaths, and prisoners winning appeals and being resentenced to life without parole. Prosecutors have sent just three new inmates to death row in the past decade.

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Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.