‘Cooking’ and heart-stopping bullets: Death row inmates are fighting to control how they die

No legislation has been proposed to add nitrogen gas, which was used to kill inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith last month

Ap
Tuesday 06 February 2024 09:45 GMT
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This photo provided by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows the state’s death chamber in Columbia
This photo provided by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows the state’s death chamber in Columbia (South Carolina Department of Corrections)

Death row inmates who have run out of appeals will argue to the Supreme Court that the state’s old electric chair and new firing squad are cruel and unusual punishments.

Attorneys for the South Carolina inmates also plan to argue that a 2023 law meant to allow lethal injections to restart keeps secret too many details about the new drug and protocol used to kill prisoners.

The options for the inmates are “cooking” by 2,000 volts of electricity in the chair, built in 1912, or their hearts were stopped by bullets — assuming the three shooters were on target — from the firing squad.

Lawmakers allowed a firing squad to be added in 2021. No legislation has been proposed in South Carolina to add nitrogen gas, which was used for the first time to kill inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith last month in Alabama.

In the balance are the death sentences of 33 inmates who are on South Carolina’s death row.

Kenneth Eugene Smith
Kenneth Eugene Smith (AP)

While there hasn’t been a formal moratorium, the state hasn’t performed an execution in nearly 13 years after the drugs it used for lethal injection expired and companies refused to sell more to prison officials unless they could hide their identities from the public.

South Carolina says all three methods fit existing protocols.

“Courts have never held the death has to be instantaneous or painless,” wrote Grayson Lambert, a lawyer for Gov. Henry McMaster’s office.

If the Supreme Court justices allow executions to restart and any additional appeals are unsuccessful, South Carolina’s death chamber, unused since May 2011, could suddenly get quite busy.

Four inmates are suing, but four more have also run out of appeals, although two of them face a competency hearing before they could be executed, according to Justice 360, a group that describes itself as fighting for the inmates and for fairness and transparency in death penalty and other major criminal cases.

The state asked the Supreme Court to toss out a lower court ruling after a 2022 trial that the electric chair and the firing squad are cruel and unusual punishments. The justices added questions about last year’s shield law to the appeal and Tuesday’s arguments.

FILE - Anti-death penalty signs placed by activists stand along the road heading to Holman Correctional Facility
FILE - Anti-death penalty signs placed by activists stand along the road heading to Holman Correctional Facility (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Circuit Judge Jocelyn Newman sided with the inmates whose experts testified prisoners would feel terrible pain whether their bodies were “cooking” by 2,000 volts of electricity in the chair, built in 1912, or if their hearts were stopped by bullets — assuming the three shooters were on target — from the yet-to-be used firing squad.

South Carolina’s current execution law requires inmates to be sent to the electric chair unless they choose a different method.

On the shield law, attorneys for the inmates argue South Carolina’s law is more secretive than any other state. They said prison officials should not be allowed to hide the identities of drug companies, the names of anyone helping with an execution and the exact procedure followed.

In September, prison officials announced they now have the sedative pentobarbital and changed the method of lethal injection execution from using three drugs to just one. They released few other details other than saying South Carolina’s method is similar to the protocol followed by the federal government and six other states.

The inmates argue pentobarbital, compounded and mixed, has a shelf life of about 45 days. They want to know if there is a regular supplier for the drug and what guidelines are in place to make sure the potency is right.

FILE - The exterior of the South Carolina Supreme Court building in Columbia
FILE - The exterior of the South Carolina Supreme Court building in Columbia

Too weak, and inmates may suffer without dying. Too strong, and the drug molecules can form tiny clumps that would cause intense pain when injected, according to court papers.“No inmate in the country has ever been put to death with such little transparency about how he or she would be executed,” Justice 360 lawyer Lindsey Vann wrote.

Lawyers for the state said the inmates want the information so they can piece together who is supplying the drugs and put them under public pressure to stop.“Each additional piece of information is a puzzle piece, and with enough of them, Respondents (or anyone else) may put them together to identify an individual or entity protected by the Shield Statute,” Lambert wrote.

South Carolina used to carry out an average of three executions a year and had more than 60 inmates on death row when the last execution was carried out in 2011. Since then, successful appeals and deaths have lowered the number to 33.

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