S.C. lawmaker proposes firing squad as death penalty option 

With lethal-injection drugs in short supply, convicts could choose a five-man firing squad over the electric chair

click to enlarge A bill in the S.C. House of Representatives could introduce firing squad as an option for executions in the state. This photo shows a firing squad executing a revolutionary during the Cuban Revolution.

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A bill in the S.C. House of Representatives could introduce firing squad as an option for executions in the state. This photo shows a firing squad executing a revolutionary during the Cuban Revolution.

State Rep. Joshua A. Putnam (R-Anderson) introduced a bill today that would allow South Carolina to administer the death penalty by firing squad if lethal injection drugs are not available.

"You would have three options compared to two right now. That would be electric chair, lethal injection, or firing squad," Putnam says. "And then, if you were to have picked lethal injection, and for some reason the drugs or whatever substance we use for that is not available to the state, then instead of defaulting back to the electric chair, you would at least have another option to pick." The state of Utah enacted a similar piece of legislation in March.

According to the Post and Courier, S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told the House Judiciary Constitutional Laws Subcommittee earlier this month that the state's last set of lethal injection drugs had expired in September 2013 and that the state had no way of executing death-row inmates unless an inmate chose the electric chair. There are currently 44 inmates on death row in South Carolina.

Originally, counties administered the death penalty by hanging in South Carolina. The electric chair became available in 1912, and lethal injection became an option in 1995. Currently, convicts on death row are allowed to choose between lethal injection and electrocution, which are both carried out in the death chamber at the Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia. The state has carried out 282 executions since 1912, according to the S.C. Department of Corrections. All but three of the 39 executions since 1995 have been by lethal injection.

Putnam's bill comes as state governments nationwide deal with an ongoing shortage of drugs including sodium thiopental, an anaesthetic that is often used first in lethal-injection cocktails. The pharmaceutical company Hospira Inc., which was the only U.S. manufacturer of the drug, ceased production in January 2011 following pressure by worldwide opponents of the death penalty. The European Union banned the export of the drug for lethal injections the same year.

The most recent execution in South Carolina took place in May 2011. In that execution, for the first time, the state replaced sodium thiopental with pentobarbital as the first drug in a three-drug process. The Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck announced in June 2011 that it would no longer sell pentobarbital for the purpose of executions, and states including Texas have since announced shortages of the drug.

Rep. Putnam says he introduced his bill because death by firing squad is "probably the most humane way [of execution], above even lethal injection and the electric chair." (As the Washington Post recently pointed out, some evidence suggests that death by firing squad could be quicker and less painful than lethal injection, particularly in cases where the injected drugs do not work as intended.)

Putnam's bill would authorize the Department of Corrections to "promulgate regulations related to procedures that must be followed in administering the death penalty by firing squad," but Putnam says he does intend to include a few procedures in the bill.

"What would happen is it would be five people, trained marksmen, the best and most precise marksmen within the state we have," Putnam says. "Four of their rifles would have blanks in them; only one rifle would have a live round. I'm sure it would be a very high-caliber type of rifle." Blank cartridges have traditionally been used in firing squads to prevent individual members of a firing squad from knowing whether they fired the fatal shot.

Putnam's bill, H. 4038, was introduced and referred to the House Judiciary Committee today. Putnam is the only listed sponsor of the bill. Tyler Jones, spokesman for the S.C. House Democrats, has already come out against Putnam's bill. "Since Republicans are always in a time warp, we're wondering if Rep. Putnam will offer a death by guillotine option as well," Jones says.

Ron Kaz, a James Island resident and member of the advocacy group South Carolinians Abolishing the Death Penalty, says he was unaware of Putnam's proposal before it was introduced today.

"It's obviously unnecessary, and I'd like to think it's unlikely to go anywhere, but given the nature of some of the strange things that come out of our legislature, we'll never know for sure," Kaz says.

Putnam says he is not going to try to change anyone's mind on whether the death penalty is right or wrong.

"I know people that are against capital punishment altogether, and I understand where they come from, and I'm not trying to change their beliefs," Putnam says. "We currently have capital punishment on the books, we currently do capital punishment, and I'm trying to No. 1 find a solution to the problem the state faces right now, and also find a more humane way of doing it."

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