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Critical questions remain about SC firing squad executions, journalist says

A photo of the execution chamber at Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. The platform on the left is used for lethal injection. The seat on the right and the two narrow gun ports on the far wall of the room are used for execution by firing squad.
Tommy Woodard
A photo of the execution chamber at Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. The platform on the left is used for lethal injection. The seat on the right and the two narrow gun ports on the far wall of the room are used for execution by firing squad.

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 12:20pm on Nov. 22

South Carolina is preparing to resume executions after a decade, now that death row inmates have the option to be executed by firing squad. The Department of Corrections is preparing protocol, equipment and staff to carry out these executions. But The State newspaper reports the department won't release critical information about its plans and is requiring those helping to carry out executions to sign confidentiality agreements. Chiara Eisner, a reporter with The State, has been looking into executions for several months. She WFAE's "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf.

Lisa Worf: First, why is adding this option of firing squads allowing South Carolina to resume executions?

Chiara Eisner
Chiara Eisner

Chiara Eisner: So, the option was added in May, and it was actually suggested by a state senator who is a Democrat. You know, one of the reasons I believe it was suggested was because the only available (death penalty) method in South Carolina right now is the electric chair. I should add it is the right of people on death row to have a choice in how they die. So the current situation in South Carolina was actually declared untenable by the South Carolina Supreme Court in June. They said that so long as South Carolina had only one method, the electric chair, executions could not continue. So until the firing squad or another method is ready, executions can't continue in South Carolina.

Worf: So what do we know about the plans the Department of Corrections has made so far to begin executing people by firing squad?

Eisner: So we have spent the past five months trying to get that answer. And what the Department of Corrections told us is that they've spent just over $53,000 in preparing the squad. You know, we obtained purchase orders that show they've bought rifles. They've bought bullets. They've bought partitions. They've bought a ballistic blanket.

\What they showed us amounts to about $30,000. There's still $20,000 of expenses that they haven't yet showed what that money went toward. They're not revealing the name of the vendors. They're not revealing the quantity of bullets purchased, the type of bullets, the caliber of rifle. All of that is kept secret, though experts we consulted told us that that was not how it should be.

Worf: And what's the Department of Corrections' explanation for not releasing this information? Why has been so hard to get it?

Eisner: They cite a couple of reasons. They cite a line in the FOIA law which states that information that is a security plan or device does not have to be released. They cite a court order from November of 2020 where a judge agreed with them on that issue and they cited a couple of others exemptions – like they’ve cited attorney-client privilege and they’ve cited confidentiality overall.

Worf: Another part of the preparations that the Department of Corrections is conducting now is, as you reported, having people who carry out executions, who help with it in some way, sign a confidentiality agreement. How far does that extend for employees?

Eisner: The confidentiality agreement shows that, you know, there's an expectation for anyone who's involved with executions in South Carolina right now to not share that information, not even with the public, but also within the agency. They're not to talk about executions with anyone who is not also working on executions in the group.

And while that does protect the identity of the executioners, which is critical and which is mandated by state law, lawyers we spoke to say that that is overly broad. Because it also seems to intimidate those workers that, we have shown through our reporting, are some of the ones most in need of support and most in need of counseling and most in need of even sometimes outside help if they want to seek counseling outside the agency.

This kind of document seems to intimidate them from accessing the government services that are provided that are supposed to help them, as well as anything outside the agency. It really seems to be putting their well-being at risk.

Worf: That's Chiara Eisner, a reporter for The State newspaper. Ms. Eisner, thank you.

Eisner: Thank you very much.

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Corrected: November 22, 2021 at 12:20 PM EST
Clarification: This interview includes a fuller response to the question of why the S.C. Department of Corrections is not releasing this information. A Department of Correction spokesperson also points to a 2015 opinion the department sought from the S.C. attorney general preventing it from releasing the names of companies that provide materials for executions by lethal injection. The opinion interprets these companies to be “a member of an execution team” and, therefore, should not be released under state law. 

A S.C. Department of Corrections spokesperson also disputes that confidentiality agreements signed by execution team members intimidate workers from accessing government services designed to help them. She says that’s a misunderstanding of what’s in place. 
Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.