The Oklahoman (Sunday)
Electric chair may replace lethal injection in South Carolina
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Injection or electrocution? For about 26 years, South Carolina has asked its death row inmates to pick how they die.
Most choose lethal injection.
A more modern method than the electric chair, lethal injection is often perceived as more humane and perhaps less painful. And it's the default means of execution in South Carolina, as it is in all 27 states with the death penalty.
But that might not be the case moving forward for the Palmetto State.
Two bills moving through the state legislature, one of which is headed to the House chamber after passing 14-7 in committee on Tuesday, would make the electric chair South Carolina's de-facto tool for capital punishment, The State reported.
Some say the change is necessary because the drugs used in lethal injections are so scarce the state has had to delay two scheduled executions.
But critics argue the electric chair is much too harsh, even for people convicted of heinous crimes. The highest courts in two states — Georgia and Nebraska — have ruled in the past two decades “that the use of the electric chair violates their state constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The last time South Carolina executed an inmate was in 2011, using lethal injection. The last electrocution was carried out in 2008, according to the S.C. Department of Corrections.
South Carolina is one of a small number of states that list the electric chair as way to execute people convicted of serious crimes. The seven others, all in the South, are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
All but two of those
— Florida and Kentucky — say the electric chair can be considered as an alternative method if other methods, such as lethal injection, are unavailable or “impractical,” according to the center, a nonprofit that analyzes data and issues regarding capital punishment.
Rules vary among states. Arkansas allows for electrocution only if an inmate was sentenced prior to 1983. In Kentucky and Tennessee, sentencing must have been handed down before 1998, according to Fox News.
Virginia used to list electrocution as an option, but on Monday it became the first Southern state to outlaw the death penalty, and the 23rd state to do so in the U.S., The Associated Press reported.
Facing the same drug shortage and rising costs as other death-penalty states, Virginia in 2016 considered doing what South Carolina is proposing now.
From 2014 to 2016, the cost of the drug cocktail used in lethal injections jumped from about $250 to $16,500 in Virginia, The Associated Press reported.
But then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe shot down the idea of using the electric chair.
“I personally find it reprehensible,” McAuliffe said in 2016, The Roanoke Times reported. “We take human beings, we strap them into a chair and then we flood their bodies with 1,800 volts of electricity, subjecting them to unspeakable pain until they die.”
The Oklahoma House of Representatives voted to do away with the electric chair in 2017, The Associated Press reported, while keeping lethal injection, firing squad, and nitrogen hypoxia as options.
The primary concern for Oklahoma lawmakers was also cost. The state's only electric chair was built in 1915 and was last used in 1966, according to the AP. Some doubted the device still worked and said it would be too expensive to build a new one.
The bill was never brought to the state Senate for a vote, records show, leaving electrocution as a potential method of execution in Oklahoma death penalty cases.
Many states began using lethal injection in the 1980s and 1990s, saying it was the most humane option. But botched injections in recent years — resulting in drawn out and agonizing deaths — have changed the perception for some.
Drug combinations vary somewhat by state, but most use a trio of chemicals such as sodium thiopental, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. They include a sedative, a paralyzing agent and a drug that stops the heart.
In federal executions, one drug — pentobarbital — was used as of 2019, NPR reported. (In the final months of former President Donald Trump's time in office, his administration oversaw 13 federal executions, the most under a single administration in 120 years, The Associated Press reports.)
Some critics of lethal injection say it is a brutal way to die. In Tennessee, some inmates have opted for the electric chair because they are afraid of the effects during lethal injection, The New York Times reported last year.
“When everything works perfectly, (lethal injection) is about 14 minutes of pain and horror,” Stephen Kissinger, an assistant federal community defender who represented an inmate on Tennessee's death row, told The Times. “Then, they look at electrocution, and how long does it take?”
Virginia last executed someone using the electric chair in 2013, at the request of the inmate, the Bristol Herald Courier reported.
Robert C. Gleason Jr. was declared dead eight minutes after he entered the execution chamber, was strapped onto a chair, hooded and jolted with two 90-second cycles of electricity, according to the publication. He died “with fists partially clenched and smoke rising from his body.”
Supporters of the proposed South Carolina legislation say justice is being delayed due to the nationwide shortage of the drugs needed for lethal injection, largely caused by manufacturers clamping down on the use of their drugs for executions, The State reported.
Under current South Carolina law, an inmate who chooses lethal injection can only be executed using that method.