South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill on Friday adding firing squads to the list of execution methods used to kill people sentenced with the death penalty.
The bill passed the state legislature with vast support from Republican lawmakers earlier this month. South Carolina is now the fourth state in the country to allow execution by firing squad, joining Mississippi, Utah and Oklahoma.
The new bill allows executions to resume in the state after a temporary hiatus brought about by a shortage of lethal injection drugs, which was the execution method chosen by all of the people in South Carolina’s death row currently slated for execution. The new bill makes electrocution the default method of execution, and the three people slated for execution next will be given the grisly option of choosing between a firing squad and electrocution for their means of death. South Carolina currently has a total of 37 people on death row.
Lawyers for the men slated for execution are considering a lawsuit to dispute the bill, claiming that the new law is regressive, the Associated Press reports. Opponents have decried the law as inhumane in a time when many progressives and Democrats are advocating for the elimination of the death penalty altogether.
South Carolina state Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Democrat, had fiercely criticized the bill before it passed the legislature, telling his fellow lawmakers that they “may as well be throwing the switch yourself” if they voted for the bill. “Three living, breathing human beings with a heartbeat that this bill is aimed at killing,” he said.
Democrats had suggested amendments to the bill aimed at highlighting the inhumanity of the death penalty — among them livestreaming the executions on the internet and forcing lawmakers to attend executions. The amendments were not passed.
Progressive and Democratic advocates have pointed out the racist history of the death penalty in the U.S. and the backwards nature of giving the government the license to kill. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 77 percent of people currently awaiting execution from the federal government and 55 percent of people awaiting execution from states are people of color.
One of the most egregious examples of the misuse and racist targeting of the death penalty, in fact, comes from South Carolina. In 1944, a 14-year-old Black boy named George Stinney Jr. was executed for the murder of two young white girls after a jury deliberated for just 10 minutes following a short trial barely lasting two hours.
But Stinney was innocent, and didn’t even get exonerated of the crime until 70 years later in 2014. He remains the youngest person in modern times to be put to death.
“The state’s execution history is a perfect microcosm of the racist nature of the entire criminal justice system,” wrote Mother Jones’s Nathalie Baptiste. “It’s impossible to ignore the racial disparities in who is chosen for capital punishment. Though they only make up one quarter of the state’s population, Black people make up more than half of death row inmates. The majority of the victims were white.”
Many members of the public mistakenly believe that lethal injection is more humane than a firing squad. But the history of death by lethal injection shows that it can be a prolonged and excruciating process for people subjected to it and many spend their last moments screaming with pain. In some cases, the process of death by lethal injection can last over an hour.
Proponents of death by firing squad make the claim that it does not prolong the process for the victim, however, opponents of the death penalty are quick to point out that it is no less cruel or gruesome and damaging to those involved in carrying it out. While Utah claims that it has never experienced a dearth of officers eager to volunteer for the firing squad, it has set up a process where one of the executioners unknowingly fires a blank — apparently in an attempt to give an executioner a means to assuage their conscience with the belief that they were not responsible for firing the fatal shot.
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