Proposal to bring back electric chair in South Carolina clears crucial hurdle

A proposal to bring back the electric chair for South Carolina’s death row executions has cleared a key hurdle, passing the state Senate Tuesday by a 26-12 vote that split mostly along party lines.

The bill now heads to the faster-moving House, having survived a lengthy, sometimes-philosophical Senate debate over how and whether the Palmetto State should execute its worst criminals.

“There is an attempt by our civilization to be more humane when meting out the ultimate punishment,” said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw. “What I regret seeing is us moving backward.”

The proposal, authored and backed by Senate Republicans, is meant to address the S.C. Corrections Department’s inability to carry out the death penalty because it lacks the chemicals needed for lethal injection. Drug companies won’t sell the state those chemicals, fearing legal challenges, protests and bad publicity.

Now, the state’s 36 current death row inmates legally can insist on lethal injection, effectively delaying their own executions. So state Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, earlier this year proposed allowing the Corrections Department to electrocute death row inmates when lethal injection is unavailable.

The bill survived a three-hour debate Tuesday that touched on its constitutionality, the effectiveness of the death penalty and racial disparities in South Carolina’s criminal justice system.

Of the 282 S.C. inmates executed since 1912, 208 were black. Nineteen of the state’s 36 current death row inmates are black. But just a third of South Carolina’s population is black.

State Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, said she could not understand why pro-life Republicans, such as Timmons, support the death penalty.

“The question is good and evil, innocence and guilt,” said Timmons, a former assistant solicitor who is running to succeed U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, in Congress. “An unborn child is innocent. A murderer that has committed heinous crimes is guilty.”

State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, argued the debate was taking up valuable time that could be spent addressing South Carolina’s nuclear fiasco or a litany of other problems. “Here we are wasting time again, for what reason?”

State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, suggested also bringing back firing squads, saying he wanted to give inmates more choices. That idea quickly was shot down.

The Corrections Department hasn’t executed any death row inmates since March 2011. The last of the state’s lethal injection chemicals expired in 2013.

As a result, some S.C. prosecutors have declined to pursue the death penalty, publicly citing the state’s inability to carry it out.

The proposal now heads to the House, where state Reps. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, and Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, already have filed a similar bill.

Lethal injection is widely thought to be a more humane method of execution, though S.C. law now allows a death row inmate to opt for the electric chair. However, only three inmates have done so since 1995, the year the Corrections Department began using lethal injection.

The last prisoner to pick the electric chair was James Earl Reed in June 2008. The 49 year old was convicted in 1996 of the execution-style murder of his ex-girlfriend’s parents. He previously had fired his own attorney and unsuccessfully defended himself.

A separate proposal to address the Corrections Department’s inability to obtain lethal-injection chemicals likely will get little, if any, debate this year.

That proposal would have made secret the identities of the companies that sell the chemicals to South Carolina. But that bill is seen as both redundant and too controversial now that the electric-chair proposal has passed the Senate.

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