The South Carolina Department of Corrections announced March 18 that it will now organize executions by firing squad, which was legalized last year after a decadelong halt in carrying out any death sentences. The law, adopted last May, makes South Carolina’s 109-year-old electric chair the state’s primary means of execution, while granting inmates the “right” to be killed by firing squad or lethal injection instead. There are 37 prisoners on the state’s death row.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated use of the death penalty in 1976, only three people have been executed by firing squad.
During the debate in the legislature, Democratic state Sen. Richard Harpootlian argued the firing squad was the “least painful” way for people to be killed. This reflected a number of instances of pain and suffering by inmates during botched executions by questionable chemical cocktails and instances of fires breaking out when electric chairs were used.
State authorities spent the next nine months and over $53,000 to refurbish their death chamber in Columbia to accomodate a firing squad. According to prison officials, the inmate will be strapped into a metal chair with a hood over their head. Three sharpshooters will be stationed 15 feet away, firing their weapons through an opening in a wall. Three other states — Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah — permit execution by firing squad, but only South Carolina makes inmates choose how they should be killed. The last execution there took place in 2011 and its last remaining batch of lethal injection drugs expired two years later, with drug companies increasingly reluctant to supply them for use in executions.
Last June, the South Carolina Supreme Court halted electrocutions scheduled to put prisoners Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens to death, ruling that officials had to carry through on preparations for a firing squad so the inmates could have the option to choose between that or the electric chair. Both men had earlier chosen to be put to death by lethal injection.
Sigmon, 64, has spent nearly two decades on death row after a 2002 conviction for killing his ex-girlfriend’s parents. Owens, 44, has been on and off death row since 1999 for killing a convenience-store clerk.
Lawyers for the two inmates have asked the state’s high court to delay new execution orders until a lower court can decide whether use of the electric chair or firing squad are constitutional. That hearing is scheduled for April 4.
“The death penalty is a weapon in the hands of the capitalist rulers to intimidate and threaten working people. As the class struggle heats up, the death penalty is the ultimate weapon in capitalism’s criminal ‘justice’ system — its cops, courts and executioners — used to intimidate and silence working people,” Osborne Hart, Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, told the Militant. “It has been used against militant fighters involved in strike battles and other struggles against boss and government attacks on our rights and living and working conditions. The death penalty is certainly ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment and should be abolished.”
Support among working people for use of the death penalty has been on the decline in recent years, and juries are increasingly unwilling to impose it. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have abolished executions, the latest being Virginia in 2021. Three others — California, Oregon and Pennsylvania — have moratoriums on its use.