2 SC death row inmates ask court not to schedule executions

Posted at 4:02 PM, March 23, 2022 and last updated 3:16 PM, July 14, 2023

By MICHELLE LIU Associated Press/Report for America

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Lawyers for two men on South Carolina’s death row have asked the state’s Supreme Court to hold off on setting execution dates while they challenge a new law allowing executions by firing squad.

The Monday request by attorneys for Brad Keith Sigmon and Freddie Eugene Owens comes after the state Corrections Department said last week that the agency is now prepared to carry out firing-squad executions.

The prisoners’ attorneys said their clients should not be executed while a lower court considers whether the state’s available execution methods are constitutional. A hearing in that litigation is scheduled for April 4, according to the attorneys.

Prisons officials began preparing for a firing squad after legislators altered the state’s capital punishment law in an effort to work around a decade-long pause in executions, attributed to the corrections agency’s inability to procure lethal injection drugs. Legislation that went into effect in May made the electric chair the state’s primary means of execution while giving prisoners the option of choosing death by firing squad or lethal injection, if those methods are available.

Attorneys for the condemned men have argued in legal filings that death by electrocution or firing squad is cruel and unusual, saying the new law moves the state toward less humane execution methods. They have also said the men have the right to die by lethal injection and that the state has not exhausted all methods to procure lethal injection drugs.

“Firing squad mutilates the body by exploding the chest with high-powered rifles, leaving holes in the corpse, exposing internal tissue, destroying internal organs, and soaking the prisoner’s clothing, the sand bags that surround it, and the ground with blood,” attorney Emily Paavola wrote in the Monday filing.

Lawyers for the state have maintained that prisons officials are simply carrying out the law, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has never found electrocution or firing squads to be unconstitutional.

The state corrections agency notified South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson on Friday that it had developed protocols for firing squad executions and completed $53,600 in renovations on the death chamber in Columbia, installing a metal chair with restraints that faces a wall with a rectangular opening 15 feet (4.6 meters) away.

In the case of a firing squad execution, three volunteer shooters — all Corrections Department employees — will have rifles loaded with live ammunition, with their weapons trained on the inmate’s heart. A hood will be placed over the head of the inmate, who will be given the opportunity to make a last statement.

State prisons officials had planned in June 2021 to electrocute Sigmon, a 64-year-old who has spent nearly two decades on death row after he was convicted in 2002 of killing his ex-girlfriend’s parents with a baseball bat. The state Supreme Court also had previously scheduled an execution that same month for Owens, a 44-year-old man who has been on and off death row since 1999 for the killing of a convenience store clerk.

The executions for the men, both of whom have run out of traditional appeals, were scheduled less than a month after the passage of the new law. Prisons officials said at the time they still could not obtain lethal injection drugs and had yet to put together a firing squad, leaving the 109-year-old electric chair as the only option.

The high court put those executions on hold, saying the two prisoners needed to have a choice between the electric chair and the firing squad, as established in the new capital punishment law. The state Supreme Court will need to issue a new order for any execution to be carried out.

South Carolina is one of eight states to still use the electric chair and one of four to allow a firing squad, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

The state’s last execution took place in 2011, and its batch of lethal injection drugs expired two years later. South Carolina currently has 37 men on death row.