COLUMBIA, S.C. – The South Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked the planned executions of two inmates by electrocution, saying they cannot be put to death until they truly have the choice of a firing squad option set out in the state's newly revised capital punishment law.
The high court halted this month's scheduled executions of Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens, writing that corrections officials need to put together a firing squad so that inmates can really choose between that or the electric chair. The state's plans, the court wrote in an unanimous order, are on hold “due to the statutory right of inmates to elect the manner of their execution.”
The executions were scheduled less than a month after the passage of a new law compelling the condemned to choose between electrocution or a firing squad if lethal injection drugs aren’t available. The statute is aimed at restarting executions after an involuntary 10-year pause that the state attributes to an inability to procure the drugs.
Prisons officials previously said they still can’t get hold of lethal injection drugs and have yet to put together a firing squad, leaving the 109-year-old electric chair as the only option.
“The department is moving ahead with creating policies and procedures for a firing squad,” Chrysti Shain, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Corrections, said in a statement Wednesday. “We are looking to other states for guidance through this process. We will notify the court when a firing squad becomes an option for executions.”
State prison officials have not indicated when a firing squad would be up and running.
Attorneys for the two men have argued in legal filings that death by electrocution is cruel and unusual, saying the new law moves the state toward less humane execution methods. They have also said the men have the right to die by lethal injection — the method both of them chose — and that the state hasn’t exhausted all methods to procure lethal injection drugs.
Lawyers for the state have maintained that prison officials are simply carrying out the law, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has never found electrocution to be unconstitutional.
State prisons officials had planned on Friday to electrocute Sigmon, a 63-year-old inmate who has spent nearly two decades on death row after he was convicted in 2002 of killing his ex-girlfriend’s parents with a baseball bat. The state Supreme Court also had previously scheduled the June 25 execution of Owens, a 43-year-old man who has been on and off death row since 1999 for the slaying of a convenience store clerk.
Both Sigmon and Owens have run out of traditional appeals in recent months, leaving the state Supreme Court to set and then stay their executions earlier this year after the corrections agency said it still didn’t have lethal injection drugs — and before the passage of the new law.
South Carolina is one of eight states to still use the electric chair and four to allow a firing squad, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.
South Carolina’s last execution took place in 2011, and its batch of lethal injection drugs expired two years later. There are 37 men on the state's death row.
An attorney for the two inmates had no comment on Wednesday's order.
Earlier Wednesday, death penalty opponents called for the state to toss out its capital punishment statute altogether, with a group of faith leaders, academics, organizers and others delivering a letter to Gov. Henry McMaster and the state General Assembly.
Abraham Bonowitz, director of national group Death Penalty Action and a participant in that event, said in a statement provided to The Associated Press late Wednesday that he was grateful the execution plans were blocked. But he felt greater change was still needed.
“It’s always good news when executions are put on hold, but if the conversation is only about how we kill our prisoners, rather than if the state should have this power, something is very, very wrong,” he said. “All of this is unnecessary and a costly waste of taxpayer dollars that could be better supporting the needs of all victims of violent crime.”
At Wednesday's rally, participants noted that the day marked the anniversary of the electrocution of 14-year-old George Stinney, the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. Stinney was 14 when he was sent to South Carolina’s electric chair after a one-day trial in 1944 in connection with the killings of two white girls.
A judge threw out the Black teenager’s conviction in 2014.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.