Photo from Unsplash by Hedi Benyounes

Abolition is the Fix 

Last week, state solicitors and the director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) asked legislators to bring back the electric chair as the default method of execution in South Carolina. Their argument was about process.  

First, they presented their problem. The state has condemned humans to die, but it cannot get its hands on the drugs needed to kill. They even mentioned the reason that they can’t get the drugs is because drug manufacturers don’t want their drugs used as lethal cocktails to be injected into people. 

Second, they presented their solution. The legislature can bring back the electric chair as the default method of execution. This, they argue, will get the machinery of death rolling again.

Knaack

A few solicitors even threw in the old “the death penalty is a deterrent” argument. 

To support this argument, you have to assume that South Carolina’s death penalty system is fair and accurate. News flash: It’s not. 

Public policy decisions should be based on facts and evidence. Here are the facts surrounding South Carolina’s death penalty system. 

Let’s start with the deterrent argument, which can be quickly dismissed by the facts. If their claim were true, we would see lower homicide rates in death penalty states compared with non-death penalty states. In reality, the opposite is true.  

Murder rates are substantially lower in non-death penalty states. Between 2000 and 2018, the murder rate was over 30% lower in non-death penalty states compared to death penalty states. During the height of the “tough on crime” era, a national poll of police chiefs found the death penalty ranked as the least effective tool for reducing violent crime.  

Now to the real issue. We do not have a fair and accurate death penalty system in South Carolina. It is unconscionable that we are debating the method of execution when we have a death penalty system that is both unreliable and arbitrary.  

South Carolina’s capital punishment system makes mistakes, yet capital punishment is irreversible. Since 1973, 174 people who were sentenced to death in our country have been exonerated, including at least two people in South Carolina. In addition, South Carolina courts have wrongly convicted at least nine additional people since 1989 alone, including five for murder. To say that these wrongful convictions were “mistakes” is charitable. Three of these wrongful convictions involved official misconduct by the government, including law enforcement hiding evidence of innocence. When talking about the power of the state to kill, one mistake is unacceptable — in South Carolina we have had multiple.

Capital punishment is applied arbitrarily in our country, and South Carolina is no exception. Contrary to popular belief, capital punishment is not reserved for the “worst of the worst.” In reality, the likelihood of receiving a death sentence in South Carolina is not primarily based on the facts in your case, but rather on the race and gender of the victim, the location of the offense, and the solicitor in office at the time of the offense. When the outcome of a capital case is driven by these arbitrary factors, equal justice under law, the cornerstone of our legal system, becomes a meaningless phrase. 

The arbitrary and unreliable nature of capital punishment in South Carolina is only part of the problem. Capital punishment evolved from lynchings and racial terror, and South Carolina has failed to divorce its modern capital punishment system from this racist history. It remains a racist system. 

Today in South Carolina, Black people make up more than half of South Carolina’s death row despite being only 27% of the state’s population. This staggering disparity becomes clear when you look at the role race plays in capital sentencing. People convicted of a capital offense are substantially more likely to receive a death sentence if the victim was white rather than Black. For example, a Black male is 18 times more likely to receive a death sentence if the victim was white versus Black. This disparity against Black people exists across all categories of capital sentencing. The death penalty is modern-day lynching.  

Unfortunately, our state legislature seems ready to ignore the reality of capital punishment in South Carolina and resurrect the electric chair as the state’s default method of execution. H.3755 and S.200 may get South Carolina’s machinery of death moving again, though the barbaric nature of the state intentionally electrocuting someone to death would certainly bring a new and justified set of court challenges. Either way, this is not a good thing.  

Let’s stop pretending that we can fix a system that is broken beyond repair. This isn’t about process. This is about ending a deeply flawed and harmful system. Let’s finally abolish the death penalty in South Carolina.

Frank Knaack is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.