While South Carolina legislators scrambled to find the next-easiest way to kill people sentenced to death by the state, Virginia lawmakers voted Monday to abolish capital punishment.
South Carolina has not executed an inmate in nearly a decade, as the drugs used to perform lethal injections have expired and become difficult for the state to buy. Pharmacists and pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to prescribe or supply states with the drugs needed to perform lethal injections. South Carolina was one of several states that reportedly had illegally imported drugs used in lethal injections seized by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency as of 2011.
Since then, politicians have tried, but struggled, to find ways to restart executions. A bill filed in the S.C. House in 2018 and Republican candidate for governor Catherine Templeton supported the idea of using a firing squad to kill inmates sentenced to death.
Now, a bill advanced by the House Judiciary Committee on Monday would make electrocution the default method of state-sanctioned execution.
South Carolina criminals sentenced to death can choose to die by lethal injection or electrocution. The state’s “death chamber” is located at Broad River Correctional Institution, about a 13-minute drive from the Statehouse. There are 37 people currently on South Carolina death row. The longest-serving, Fred Singleton, has been on death row for nearly 40 years and reportedly believes a genie is protecting him from execution, his lawyer told The Marshall Project recently.
In Virginia, a state that has executed 113 people — second only to Texas since 1976 and more than twice as many as South Carolina — the Democratically controlled legislature passed a bill to ban capital punishment on Monday. Gov. Ralph Northam, also a Democrat, is expected to sign it, making Virginia the 23rd state to the halt executions.
As lawmakers in the cradle of the Confederacy abolish capital punishment, racial disparities in the state where the Civil War began show Black people are disproportionately likely to receive the death penalty.
“The arbitrary and unreliable nature of capital punishment in South Carolina is only part of the problem,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of ACLU of South Carolina, in a City Paper op-ed published Wednesday. “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.”
Over the last 11 years, the prison population in South Carolina has dropped by 30% as the use of parole and alternate sentencing programs have increased. The S.C. death row population has also dropped over that time.
The only South Carolina Republican to vote against advancing the bill when it came before a House committee this week said the racial disparities are too severe to consider expediting more executions.
“You just can’t get past these statistics,” S.C. Rep. Neal Collins, R-Easley, told the Associated Press.