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Federal judge asked to halt 2 South Carolina electrocutions

Published: Jun. 9, 2021 at 8:04 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 9, 2021 at 2:39 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. - A federal judge in South Carolina is considering a bid to block the upcoming electrocutions of two prisoners under the state’s recently revised capital punishment law.

U.S. District Judge Bryan Harwell heard arguments Wednesday on whether he should halt the executions of Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens later this month.

Earlier this month, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law a bill forcing inmates to choose death by firing squad or electric chair, if lethal injection drugs aren’t available.

It came about because lack of availability of lethal injection has hindered executions across the country.

Attorneys for the men say the state hasn’t exhausted all avenues to obtain lethal injection drugs.

A lawsuit filed by attorneys for both Owens and Sigmon earlier this month argue they can’t be electrocuted or shot because he was sentenced under an old law that made lethal injection the default execution method.

The new law forces inmates to choose to die by electrocution or gunshot if lethal injection drugs aren’t available, but prison officials haven’t yet put together a firing squad.

Owens and Sigmon turned to the federal court after a Richland County Circuit Court judge denied their attempts to stop their executions.

Their lawyers are arguing the electric chair is cruel.

One question in this case is: Is it OK to make inmates die by electric chair, even if they don’t want to?

“No other state has electrocution as the primary method of execution where they can execute you over your objection in the electric chair,” said John Blume, professor with the Cornell Death Penalty Project and a former South Carolina lawyer.

Blume says a dozen other states have been able to execute people by lethal injection in recent years.

And one of the inmates; attorney’s arguments in this federal case is that the state hasn’t done enough to try and get the drugs needed to kill someone by lethal injection.

“Other states like Texas and Arizona have lethal injections scheduled coming up, and they carried out executions,” Blume said.

Lawyers for Sigmon and Owens argue the electric itself is cruel and unusual writing the electric chair puts these men “to a substantial risk of excruciating pain, terror, and certain bodily mutilation,” Blume said.

State lawyers argued there is no reason to stop these scheduled executions as these men were sentenced to death.

While the judge didn’t decide yes or no whether these inmates should die this month, Blume says the judge could choose the third option

“There’s a better than average chance that someone will say, ‘Well you know, look what’s a couple months to work out if this law is constitutional or not these men have been on death row for 20 years?” Blume said.

According to the reporters in the room, the judge said he understands the gravity of this decision.

Sigmon is scheduled to be executed June 18 and Owens is set to be executed June 25, court documents show.

Owens was sentenced to death in 1999 for the murder of Irene Graves on Halloween night in 1997.

Sigmon was convicted in 2002 of beating the parents of his estranged girlfriend to death with a baseball bat.

A Richland County Circuit Court judge denied the inmates’ court filing on Tuesday, saying the “plaintiffs have little likelihood of success on the merits of their claim.”

From reports by WIS, WCSC and The Associated Press