On Friday, March 18, 2022, the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC), through Attorney General Alan Wilson, notified the Supreme Court of South Carolina that it is now able to carry out executions by electrocution or firing squad. By adopting the firing squad, South Carolina has become an outlier, reverting to an execution method previously abandoned by most jurisdictions as barbaric.
Indeed, only three people in the United States have been executed by firing squad since the return of the American death penalty in 1976, a tiny fraction of the more than 1,500 total executions in the same period. If executions proceed by firing squad, South Carolina will join China, Iran, North Korea as one of the few jurisdictions in the world carrying out executions by firing squad. SCDC’s announcement follows the May 2021 amendment to South Carolina’s execution methods statute that made electrocution the default method of execution. S.C. Code Ann. § 24-3.530 (2021).
From 1995 until the amendment, lethal injection was the default method of execution, and an individual could only be executed by electrocution if he chose that method. The 2021 amendment retains lethal injection as an optional method of execution and added firing squad as a third option, but both only if SCDC determines those methods are available. SCDC says the change to South Carolina’s execution methods was necessary because it is unable to obtain drugs to carry out lethal injection, widely recognized by the United States Supreme Court as the most humane method of execution.
See Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 62 (2008). However, SCDC has steadfastly refused to provide any information about the efforts it has made to obtain lethal injection drugs. Because other states and the federal government have been carrying out executions by lethal injection—27 in the past two years—it appears SCDC has failed to put forth any serious efforts to make lethal injection available as a method of execution.
The legislative change and SCDC’s unwillingness to make lethal injection available makes South Carolina an outlier, reverting from the most humane method of execution—lethal injection—to two antiquated, barbarous methods. South Carolina has never carried out an execution by firing squad and now proposes to use only three volunteer shooters with an undisclosed caliber rifle, thus increasing the risk of error.
Alternately, SCDC intends to use the state’s over 100-year-old electric chair, a method with more than a century-long record of horrifically botched executions. In May 2021, Attorneys from Justice 360 filed a lawsuit seeking judicial review of the new statute and SCDC’s efforts to make lethal injection available. That lawsuit remains pending before the Richland County Circuit Court.
It would be inappropriate to carry out executions while that suit remains pending and before the novel statute is reviewed by the courts.