Firing squads are a 'humane' alternative to lethal injection following shortage of drugs, says expert
A shortage of drugs is forcing South Carolina to turn to alternative methods of execution. The question is, will these methods be more humane?
Lawmakers in South Carolina are actively considering legislation which would add firing squads and the electric chair as execution options in the state. The proposal for the same has already been passed by the state Senate by a 26-13 vote this past January, with its fate now in the hands of the House.
The legislation has been catching traction over the past few years because of a continued problem that prison officials in the state are facing: they do not have the drugs needed to carry out the primary method of execution, which is the lethal injection.
Drug companies have been refusing to sell drugs such as pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride, which are crucial elements of the cocktail of chemicals which comprise the lethal injection, because of a fear that they will be met with legal challenges and bad publicity.
It was something that was publicly confirmed by Gov. Henry McMaster in the wake of the debacle surrounding the execution of 54-year-old Bobby Wayne Stone. Having been on death row for 20 years for the murder of a sheriff's sergeant, Stone was scheduled to be executed in December 2017, only for a shortage of drugs, as well as other legal roadblocks, preventing it from going through.
"They are afraid their names will be made known and they don't want to have anything to do with it for fear of retribution," McMaster revealed. "We're at a dead stop and we can't do anything about it."
It's not for lack of effort either. Human Rights organizations have accused Bryan Stirling, the Director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, of making misleading statements in an attempt to force the General Assembly to pass a "secrecy" bill that would allow the drug companies to be shielded from the public.
Those measures failed, prompting the House Criminal Laws Subcommittee to approve a Senate proposal to change the state's default execution method to the electric chair, as well as this recent push to include firing squads as an alternative execution option.
The decision to pass the latter policy rests in the hands of the House Judiciary Committee. All the signs seem to indicate that it has support from either side of the aisle, meaning it could pass and become law before the Legislature adjourns on May 9.
But is this development a humane one? Experts seem to think so. MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) asked Evan Lee, a Professor of Law Emeritus at Hastings College of the Law, about the change, and he said prisoners demanding an alternative method to the lethal injection was "inevitable".
"The many critiques of lethal injection, focusing on its dangers of unintentional suffering for those being executed, were bound to scare some prisoners on death row," he said. "Some of them were bound to prefer something instantaneous, such as the firing squad, even if it seems more brutal and primitive to the public. Some condemned people were always going to understand what happens with gunfire better than what happens with a cocktail of chemicals."
Indeed, the problems and criticisms of the lethal injection are now well-documented. Numerous death row inmates have challenged the method, claiming the practice violates the ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" enshrined in the Eighth Amendment of the constitution. Courts have even found that the lethal injection practiced in California, Florida, and Tennessee is unconstitutional in past years.
More recently, an attorney for a group of death row inmates challenged Arkansas' use of a sedative called midazolam in the lethal injection process which reportedly made the inmates feel as if they're being lit on fire because it did not render them fully unconscious. Even in that case, it was argued that the prisoners would be better served if they were given an option of a firing squad.
The biggest perceived problem with the firing squad, however, is as Lee suggested, a view that it is "primitive". While they were in extensive use during the civil war — 433 of the 573 men executed during the war were shot by a firing squad — since 1960, there have been just three executions by firing squad. All of them in Utah.
It was almost all but phased out in the 21st century, and by 2009, Oklahoma was the only state in the union utilizing this method of execution, and even then only as a secondary method. But the reluctance of drug companies has seen it come back into the fore of late. In March 2015, Utah enacted legislation once again allowing for execution by firing squad if the drugs they use are unavailable, and several other states, including South Carolina, are also exploring a return.
Are there even other options? Lee says he's not sure. "The 'humanization' of the death penalty has gone through a long road," he told us. "Military war criminals often demanded to be shot rather than hung because of their view that 'common thieves' are hung, while soldiers are shot."
"California went through the gas chamber, and many states went through electrocution. A few executions by these methods were botched, leading to lethal injection," he continued. "As far as I know, that exhausts the methods of execution under consideration."
Rory Little, the Joseph W. Cotchett Professor of Law at U.C. Hastings College of the Law, shared that view, "Who knows what is 'more humane', in terms of methods of execution?" he told MEAWW. "All methods can be 'botched'."