South Carolina Court Rules Electrocution, Firing Squad Are Unconstitutional

court ruled last week that both electrocution and the firing squad violate the South Carolina Constitution.
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A Richland County court ruled last week that both electrocution and the firing squad violate the South Carolina Constitution.

The state constitution bars methods of execution that are cruel, unusual, or corporal, and the court found both methods are cruel, unusual, and corporal.

Firing Squad Constitutes “Torture”

Less than 1% of executions in the U.S. have been carried out by firing squad, the court found, with only 34 such executions since 1900—all but one of which were in Utah.

South Carolina has never used a firing squad to carry out an execution, even though the method has existed for decades, leading the court to conclude it is unusual.

The use of a firing squad is also cruel, the court found, because it causes death by damaging the person’s heart and surrounding bone and tissue. This is extremely painful unless the person is unconscious, and experts testified the person is likely to be conscious for at least 10 seconds after impact—more if the ammunition does not fully incapacitate the heart.

The court concluded that the excruciating pain resulting from the gunshot wounds and broken bones constitutes “torture, a possibly lingering death, and pain beyond that necessary for the mere extinguishment of death, making the punishment cruel.”

And, because it clearly causes destruction to the human body, the firing squad also violates the state constitution’s bar against “corporal” punishments that mutilate the human body.

Electrocution Is Like “Being Burned Alive”

Contrary to early assumptions about the electric chair, there is no evidence that electrocution produces an instantaneous or painless death, the court found.

South Carolina has electrocuted seven people since 1976, using a protocol that causes severe damage to the human body but does not immediately incapacitate the heart and brain. That creates a risk that the person will remain conscious while they are burned, bruised, and suffocated, the court found.

Even if an inmate survived only fifteen or thirty seconds, he would suffer the experience of being burned alive—a punishment that has “long been recognized as ‘manifestly cruel and unusual.’”

“There is evidence,” the court continued, that people “executed by electrocution continue to move, breathe and even scream after the shock is administered.”

At a minimum, the court observed that the electric chair is “no longer viewed as a reliable method of administering a painless death, and the underlying assumptions upon which the electric chair is based, dating back to the 1800s, have since been disproven.”

Morever, the court found that electrocution is “inconsistent with both the concepts of evolving standards of decency and the dignity of man.” After more than a century of use, the court concluded, it is time to retire South Carolina’s electric chair as a violation of the state’s constitution.

Permanent Injunction Against Executions by Electric Chair or Firing Squad

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by people sentenced to death in South Carolina arguing that the state’s new law forces them to choose between two unconstitutional methods of execution.

In 2021, South Carolina passed a new law providing that, if the department of corrections determines that lethal injection is not available, the person will be electrocuted in South Carolina’s 110-year-old electric chair unless they elect death by firing squad.

Or, as the court put it, “In 2021, South Carolina turned back the clock and became the only state in the country in which a person may be forced into the electric chair if he refuses to elect how he will die.”

Because the court agreed with the plaintiffs that both electrocution and firing squad are unconstitutional, it permanently enjoined the state from forcing the plaintiffs to be executed by either method.

The court also agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the statute unconstitutionally gave the director of the state’s corrections department “unbridled discretion” to decide what methods of execution are available. It further held that changing the statutory method of execution from lethal injection to the greater punishment of execution by electric chair or firing squad violated the Ex Post Facto Clause.

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