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Judge rules South Carolina’s firing squad and electrocution execution methods are unconstitutional

A judge in South Carolina has halted execution methods the state has approved — electrocution and firing squad — saying they are cruel and unusual. (Fernando Gregory/Dreamstime/TNS)

A state judge has ruled South Carolina’s execution methods of electrocution and the newly installed firing squad are cruel and unusual, therefore both violate the state Constitution.

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“In 2021, South Carolina turned back the clock and became the only state in the country in which a person may be forced into the electric chair if he refuses to elect how he will die. In doing so, the General Assembly ignored advances in scientific research and evolving standards of humanity and decency,” Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman wrote in a multipage opinion published Tuesday.

Newman’s 39-page ruling means the state is permanently enjoined from carrying out executions by either method, at least for the time being.

The case is likely to be appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

“We are very pleased with the result and are reviewing the Court’s Order. We anticipate SCDC and the Governor’s Office will appeal the decision,” said attorneys for the death row inmates who sued over the execution methods.

“We will assess the order and determine the next step,” said Chrysti Shain, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, which along with Corrections Director Bryan Stirling is a defendant in the case..

Gov. Henry McMaster is the other defendant, and his spokespeople could not be reached for an immediate comment.

The state has been unable to carry out an execution for more than a decade because prison officials say they are unable to get the necessary chemicals to carry out an execution by lethal injection. To restart executions, the Legislature in 2021 passed a law that adds the electric chair and the firing squad as execution methods should lethal injection be unavailable.

“Lethal injection is the least severe of the three statutorily authorized punishments, and the amended statute effectively revokes that lesser punishment,” Newman wrote. “When Plaintiffs committed their crimes and received their death sentences, the default method of execution was lethal injection,which is according to the Supreme Court of the United States is “believed to be the most humane (execution method) available.”

The case before Newman focused on inmates sentenced to death who challenged the state’s execution methods, arguing South Carolina had not done enough to get lethal injection drugs and the electric chair and firing squad violates the Constitution.

“What this case is, is ensuring that we don’t inflict cruel, unusual, corporal punishments by electrocuting inmates with an antique contraption or shooting them to death,” attorney Josh Kendrick — who, with attorneys from Justice360 is represented inmates Richard Moore, Freddie Owens and Brad Sigmon — told the court in early August.

Plaintiffs attorneys included Hannah Freedman, Josh Kendrick, Christopher Mills and Lindsey Vann. The defense attorneys for the corrections department are Grayson Lambert, Thomas Limeouse, Daniel Plyler and Austin Reed.


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