S.C. froze death penalty amid drug shortage
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Two days after the shooting deaths of nine people at a Charleston church, Republican Governor Nikki Haley made a bold public statement: The gunman “absolutely” should be put to death. But her state, though largely in favor of the death penalty, can’t secure one of the drugs needed for lethal injections and hasn’t executed an inmate since 2011.
Dylann Storm Roof, 21, is charged with nine counts of murder in Wednesday’s massacre. He appeared briefly before a judge Friday, and his next court appearance isn’t until October. Any potential execution order in the case would be years away.
Haley made her comments Friday on NBC’s “Today” show, but the governor has no power in Roof’s prosecution or sentencing.
South Carolina’s supply of pentobarbital, one of three drugs in the state’s lethal injection, expired in 2013. Bryan Stirling, head of the state correction department, has made it clear to legislators that his agency can’t buy any more. Forty-four people are on death row in the state.
All attempts to purchase more have failed — a nationwide problem. Some are trying to find new drugs and new sources for drugs because pharmaceutical companies have stopped selling them for executions and pharmacists are reluctant to expose themselves to possible harassment.
Stirling advocated this year for a bill that would keep secret the information of any company or pharmacist providing execution drugs, saying that should help secure them. But bills have stalled in both chambers, and opponents urged legislators not to vote for government secrecy.
The Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s three-drug injection, with inmates arguing it doesn’t reliably produce unconsciousness and causes pain and suffering. State House Judiciary chairman Greg Delleney, a South Carolina Republican, has said he will probably wait for that decision before asking lawmakers to vote on the bill, though Stirling notes that his state uses a different drug.
Still, Delleney said, “I don’t see any urgency to get ahead of the Supreme Court.”
Even with the dozens of inmates on South Carolina’s death row, the next execution is probably five years away, according to Emily Paavola, executive director of South Carolina’s Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center, which believes the state’s death penalty is fraught with problems and advocates for reform.
Paavola has said the only way that would speed up is if an inmate who’s sentenced to die waives all appeals — an unlikely scenario.
Death row inmates can choose electrocution, but if a prisoner doesn’t want to die that way, the prisons agency could not carry out an execution order without the necessary drugs for a lethal injection, Stirling said.
Since lethal injection became an option in 1995, only three of 39 people executed have died by electrocution.
After the bills on drugmaker secrecy stalled, Representative Joshua Putnam, a Republican, introduced a proposal that would add death by a five-member firing squad to the state’s list of approved execution methods. Putnam said while there are cases in which lethal injection drugs didn’t work properly and caused pain, “we do know by firing squad you don’t feel anything.”
But Representative Joe Neal said that makes little sense.
“I can’t think of a more hideous spectacle than gunning down someone,” said Neal, a Democrat. “Whether people suffer or not depends on the aim of an unknown marksman.”
Putnam’s measure also would allow for execution by electrocution if the state doesn’t have the lethal injection drugs. Last month, Representative Mike Pitts, a Republican and retired police officer, introduced a bill that’s more straightforward. It would eliminate all references to a lethal injection option, leaving electrocution as the only method.
No action has occurred on either bill. But they can be taken up when the second year of a two-year legislative session resumes in January.