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South Carolina Prepares To Bring Firing Squads To Death Row

 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.

Executions in South Carolina came to a stop a decade ago when pharmaceutical companies stopped providing drugs for lethal injections. In a move to restart executions, the state updated its capital punishment law to include the choice of execution by firing squad, which made South Carolina the fourth state in the nation to give death row inmates the option to be executed by firing squad.

Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah are the other states, but Utah is the only one to actually use it since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

The last execution by firing squad happened in Utah in June 2010. Sandra Yi Barker was a television reporter in Salt Lake City and witnessed the execution of convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner.

“His head was restrained so he couldn’t move his head, but I remember seeing his eyes darting around the room, and it looked like he was trying to see who was there,” Barker said.

Neither Gardner nor Barker could see the volunteers standing behind a wall with a slot cut out of it for their rifles. One of the rifles was loaded with a blank so the volunteers would never know who fired the fatal shot.

Barker says a hood was put over Gardner’s head and a target was placed over his heart.

“And all of a sudden you heard the 'boom boom' and it happened so quickly,” she said.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections is currently preparing for a firing squad now that a new state law adds it as an option along with the electric chair if lethal injection drugs are not available.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said in an email to WFAE that the firing squad will be made up of volunteers, and department officials are looking into whether they need to build a new chamber to carry out the executions.

Gov. Henry McMaster championed the law and told Fox Carolina News that it allows the death penalty to resume in the state.

“The death penalty, which has been in South Carolina for, I think, since the beginning, was not able to function because of the way our particular one (law) was written,” McMaster said. “And that has now been accomplished, has been fixed, so justice may proceed.”

Before the new law, inmates had to specifically choose the electric chair or lethal injection as a method of execution. Because the state did not have the drugs necessary to carry out lethal injections, all chose lethal injection. That effectively halted executions in South Carolina a decade ago.

Executions stopped in other states too, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"When it became clear that most states were unable to carry out executions, legislators were faced with choices,” Dunham said. “Those choices ranged from doing nothing and being satisfied, to not carrying out executions, to changing the method of execution or abolishing the death penalty.”

South Carolina lawmakers have spent the past decade seeking ways to resume executions. At one point, lawmakers considered legislation that left the electric chair as the only option if lethal injection wasn’t possible.

“South Carolina is the only state in recent times that has repeatedly issued death warrants when it knew it was incapable of carrying out the executions,” Dunham said.

Now that death row inmates have two viable execution methods to choose from — the electric chair or a firing squad — the state is poised to reopen its death penalty chamber.

There are currently 37 inmates on South Carolina’s death row. All of them are men and half of them are Black, although Black residents make up 27% of the state’s population. And when executions resume, the South Carolina ACLU’s Frank Knaack worries that more Black inmates will be put to death than white inmates.

“The fact that Black people are more likely to be stopped, arrested, convicted, incarcerated and sent to our death row should give everyone pause when we’re talking about moving forward and jump-starting our capital punishment system with the firing squad,” Knaack said.

The Department of Corrections says there’s no timeline for when a firing squad will be ready.

States grappling with how to restart executions are watching South Carolina to see how the firing squad option plays out, Dunham said.

“If South Carolina is successful with the firing squad executions, and the states that are watching believe that it’s not morally repugnant or viscerally repugnant, then some other states may move in that direction,” Dunham said.

Once the firing squad is in place, death row inmates Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens will likely be the first to have the option between the firing squad or electric chair. They were scheduled to be executed last month, but now they wait until they have that option.

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Catherine Welch is Assistant News Director at WFAE. She has led newsrooms at KUNC in Greely, CO, Rhode Island Public Radio in Providence, RI and WHQR in Wilmington, NC.