South Carolina Dilemma: How to Organize a Firing Squad

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Shooting targets, photo by Darryl Snow via Flickr.

Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court blocked the pre-planned executions of two inmates by electrocution, saying they could not be put to death until they have the ability to choose between being electrocuted or having a death by firing squad — an option that has never been offered in the state before, leaving many to wonder what such an execution would look like, the Associated Press reports. 

The executions of the two inmates were scheduled less than a month after the passage of a new law, compelling that the “inmates elect the manner of their execution” if lethal injection drugs aren’t available. 

Prison officials in the South Carolina Department of Corrections previously said they couldn’t get access to lethal injection drugs, and have yet to put together a group of individuals willing to be a firing squad, leaving the 109-year-old electric chair as the only option to carry out capital punishment sentences, the Associated Press reports. 

Attorneys for the two men sentenced to death have argued in legal filings that the electric chair is “cruel and unusual,” noting that from 1890 to 2010, 84 executions in the electric chair were botched.  

The attorneys noted further that the men have the right to die by lethal injection considering it’s the method both of them chose, and that the State of South Carolina hasn’t exhausted all possible methods to obtain the lethal injection drugs, the Associated Press details.  

Other states across the country have found it difficult to procure lethal injection drugs over the past few years as pharmaceutical companies have refused to offer the drugs to any prison system. 

Moreover, other correctional facilities have stopped using the lethal injection cocktails altogether as the three-drug protocol can fail to render someone unconscious — resulting in an excruciating death, according to the Death Penalty Information Center  (DPIC), a nonprofit advocacy group.

See Also: Doubts About Lethal Injection Drugs Reignite Capital Punishment Debate

“The department is moving ahead with creating policies and procedures for a firing squad,” Chrysti Shain, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Corrections, said in a statement Wednesday, as quoted by the Associated Press. “We are looking to other states for guidance through this process.”

Shain concluded, saying, “We will notify the court when a firing squad becomes an option for executions.”

Visualizing Death by Firing Squad

South Carolina is only one of four states to offer the firing squad as a method of death for inmates on death row. South Carolina is joined by Utah, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, according to the DPIC. 

Even though other states have a firing squad, how the execution would be carried out in South Carolina specifically isn’t exactly clear, The State details. 

Utah is the only state to have carried out executions by firing squad since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976, according to DPIC and The State. 

Taking some notes from how Utah has carried out this method of the death penalty, many are interested to see what rules and regulations South Carolina would implement. 

In Utah, convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner was put to death in 2010 after he chose to die by firing squad. Gardner was strapped to an execution chair, and a black hood slipped over his head, according to The State. 

After Gardner could no longer see, a target was attached to his shirt to indicate the location of his heart. The chair was also surrounded by sandbags so that the bullets fired wouldn’t ricochet. 

To carry out the execution, The State describes how five anonymous marksmen — either volunteers from the Department of Corrections or law enforcement — were armed with .30-caliber rifles. The men stood 25 feet away behind a wall with a gun port. One of the shooters was given a rifle with a blank round so no one would know who fired the shot to kill Gardner, The State explains.

S.C. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Shain said the department is still working on developing procedures to carry out an execution by firing squad. 

That work can be complicated, Shain said, because “creating a new method of execution is multi-faceted and demands deliberate and intentional work to ensure the policies, procedures, and infrastructure are proper,” as quoted by The State.

Shain also told the state that there are several challenges officials are considering, mainly whether or not to build an entirely new facility to safely carry out firing squad executions. 

Shain said one thing is abundantly clear though: the team that would carry out the executions will consist of volunteers from the Department of Corrections. 

Additional Reading: The Link Between Capital Punishment, Race and Police Brutality: Report

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