So, South Carolina has not only bucked the current trend (no pun intended) by reinstating the electric chair, but is adding the firing squad to its repertoire of retribution. Despite Federal executions becoming unlikely and Virginia discarding the death penalty, South Carolina’s law-makers have decided to continue capital punishment with a decidedly retro twist. As I predicted two years ago the electric chair is making a comeback and, fittingly for tobacco country, the firing squad is on the agenda. Whether the condemned will be allowed the traditional last cigarette is open to question. The condemned will likely smoke, either way.
That could be sooner than they would like, though seemingly not soon enough for some of the state’s legislators. The questions raised about lethal injection and an international boycott on supplying execution drugs have seen states reinstate old method and South Carolina has opted to dust off its electric chair and add the option of a firing squad. At least three of its condemned are apparently out of appeals so can have their dates set relatively quickly. With their dates set they will be forced to choose whether they die from the chair or bullet if drugs are unavailable.
When Republican Governor Henry McMaster signs the bill, and has already indicated he will rather than veto it, South Carolina becomes one of only four states offering the firing squad, The others are Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah and Mississippi and Oklahoma discareded their electric chair decades ago. Only nine states still offer electrocution and South Carolina, which discarded the chair years ago, has now rejoined their ranks. Whether appeals will prevent electrocution remains undecided. Other former electrocution states including Nebraska and Georgia have seen it declared unconstitutional by their state courts.
Whether the firing squad, a relatively-simple and quick way to die by comparison, will remain lawful is also up in the air. The courts will certainly have much to say on the subject both at state and Federal level. Alabama, meanwhile, looks set to trial lethal gas, not the previous use of cyanide declared cruel and unusual in California, nut the new method of nitrogen asphyxia in which Oklahoma has indicated an interest. Alabama, too has discarded its electric chair. The chair nicknamed ‘Yellow Mama’ by Alabama’s convicts when it was installed in 1927 has been gathering dust for years.
I remarked two years ago that some states have an attitude of ‘Let us use the latest, most supposedly humane method or we’ll bring back something worse.’ It seems South Carolina has done exactly that and this is no time to be smug about being right. On the contrary the electric chair was once offered as a less inhumane method in the nineteenth century and so was lethal injection in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Neither has lived up to they billing since they were first advocated and horror stories involving both methods are so common as to be almost legion.
In fact New York’s so-called ‘Death Commission‘ that originally recommended the electric chair as a replacement for the gallows specifically discarded lethal injection for reasons similar to its critics today. It seems South Carolina has learned little from their example. Or that of a certain George Stinney.