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South Carolina close to allowing execution by firing squad: How would that work?

FILE (Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP, File) (Source: Kinard...
FILE (Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP, File) (Source: Kinard Lisbon)
Published: Apr. 29, 2021 at 9:42 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina is close to legalizing firing squads as an alternative to the electric chair and lethal injection for executions.

The bill has already made it through the state Senate and is now on the House floor for debate.

If passed, death row inmates would have a choice to die by the electric chair or by firing squad if the drugs used in lethal injections are unavailable.

Lawmakers say this bill can end South Carolina’s 10-year pause on executions. Under current law, inmates on death row are sentenced to die by lethal injection unless they choose the electric chair. But there is a nationwide shortage of the drugs required for lethal injection.

Of the inmates currently on death row two have had their executions stayed, one recently received their death order, according to the Department of Corrections.

Here’s how an execution by firing squad would work

University of South Carolina Criminology Professor Hayden Smith said that in the current bill, there are no specifics. He looked at the execution of Gary Gilmore in Salt Lake City in 1977.

“And what they did there is they had six police officers who were on the firing squad, five of whom had live rounds and one had a blank round, and they stood about 20 to 25 feet away from Gary Gilmore and they had small holes in like a curtain,” he said.

The director for the non-profit and non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center, Robert Dunham, said when done properly, the firing squad involves a shot to the heart, which produces almost instantaneous death.

“It may be done differently depending on what state you’re in,” Dunham agreed. He explained said the most recent execution by firing squad was in 2010 in Salt Lake County.

“In Utah, when they carried out the execution, they had six, six sharpshooters who were volunteers who participated in the execution. Five of them were provided rifles with bullets. One had a blank, and that is because of the psychological impact of knowing that you’re killing a human being,” Dunham said.

He said the inmate is strapped to a chair and would usually be blindfolded.

“Sometimes there is a round target right over the chest so the sharpshooters have something to aim for the sharpshooters are hidden behind either a veil, or in a different room with a cutout that they can stick their guns through,” he said. “And then, at the appropriate time. They are told to fire. They all fire simultaneously.”

He said if the execution goes properly, five bullets strike the prisoner in the target range, causing an immediate death.

“So when it comes to painfulness is considered among the less painful methods of execution,” Dunham says.

Democratic State Sen. Dick Harpootlian proposed the firing squad amendment after it became apparent to him that under this bill an inmate would have no choice but to die by the electric chair.

“It’s an extraordinarily, gruesome, horrendous process, where they essentially catch on fire and don’t die immediately,” he said.

Harpootlian explained no method of execution is without faults, but said a firing squad is more preferable to hanging or the electric chair.

“There have been numerous instances in which the first jolt of electricity did not kill the prisoner, and so a second jolt was required,” Dunham said. “And most people who observe the electric chair executions, say it is something that they are unable to eliminate from their memory. And the question with the firing squad is, ‘Does the state want to be known as a state that shoots its citizens to death?’”

Harpootlian says he will leave it up to the Department of Corrections and the agency’s director Bryan Stirling to decide how the firing squad would be carried out in South Carolina if the bill were to pass.

“I don’t think we need to micromanage it,” Harpootlian said. “It’s a tough process but I have faith Bryan Stirling will get it done…he’s a compassionate guy, he’s a bright guy, he’ll find something that works both for the person to be executed and his personal who have to participate.”

He said it’s complicated whether to allow volunteers to be a part of the firing squad or drafting people to do it.

Harpootlian said he hopes it will be done by trained marksmen who are not seeking revenge against the inmate. However, he said he knows working on cases that have resulted in the death penalty being carried out that trauma can come from participating in this process.

“I can’t tell you it’s something that has not affected me, it has affected me. And I think about it. As bad as the guy was, anyone who would relish the idea of killing another human being hasn’t participated in this process…it is haunting,” he said.

According to the death penalty research nonprofit, Utah, Mississippi, and Oklahoma are the only other states that allow the use of a firing squad.

The state’s usual injection protocol calls for three drugs: the sedative pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. But the South Carolina Department of Corrections said it hasn’t had the drugs in stock since 2013, when its last supplies expired.

The manufacturers of those drugs don’t want to sell them to the state without a shield law that would prevent their names from being made public and, thereby, their companies being publicly associated with capital punishment.

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