Forcing death row inmates to the electric chair if drugs are unavailable moves forward

Death row inmates would have to die by electrocution if lethal injection drugs aren't available under legislation approved Tuesday by the Senate.

Currently, inmates sentenced to death have a choice. But if a prisoner doesn't want to die on the electric chair, the state's prison agency can't carry out an execution order because the state's supply of all three drugs used in lethal injection has expired, and pharmaceutical companies will no longer sell them for executions. It's a national problem.

Thirty five inmates sit on death row in South Carolina. Another man sentenced to death in South Carolina is currently in a California prison.

The state promised their victims' families a "certain type of justice we're unable to deliver through a loophole in the system," said Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, the bill's sponsor. "This changes the default. ... They can choose whichever, and if that isn't available, the electric chair will be used."

South Carolina has executed 282 people since 1912. Lethal injection became an option in 1995. Only three of 39 people executed since then have died by electrocution, most recently in 2008. The last execution occurred in 2011, according to the S.C. Department of Corrections.

For opponents, the debate was about the death penalty itself.

"These are bad people who did some bad things, but who are you? Are you going to be a killer too?" asked Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville.

Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Columbia, asked Timmons to reconcile being staunchly "pro-life" when it comes to abortion and "pro-death" on the death penalty.

Timmons said he sees no inconsistency between the two stances, saying it's about good versus evil.

"An unborn child is innocent," he said. "A murderer who has committed heinous crimes is guilty."

So far, the shortage of drugs has not prevented an execution in South Carolina. In December, the state Supreme Court ordered the execution of Bobby Wayne Stone, who was convicted in 1997 of killing a Sumter County Sheriff's sergeant. But the execution was put on hold pending a federal appeal that could take years.

The shortage has, however, changed how solicitors prosecute cases. They're pursuing life in prison instead of a death sentence, Timmons said.

"They have to tell the victims' families they can pursue the death penalty, but the state can't carry it out," the former prosecutor said.

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, unsuccessfully proposed giving inmates the option of dying by firing squad.

"I think it's humane to offer choices," he said, adding this state will never have to worry about running out of bullets or guns.

Another vote is needed in the Senate to send the bill to the House, where similar legislation has been introduced since 2015.

State Corrections Director Bryan Stirling has advocated legislation keeping secret the information of any company or pharmacist providing execution drugs, saying that should help secure them. A separate bill to do that has advanced to the Senate floor for debate.

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