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South Carolina House members voted Wednesday to bring back the electric chair and introduce the firing squad as methods of execution.
After a lengthy debate — one that included a clash between Republican abortion opponents who debated whether killing a death row inmate was the same as ending a pregnancy — lawmakers voted 66-43 to give the bill second reading. The bill, which the House tweaked, now must go back to the Senate to see if the chamber agrees.
If the Senate agrees, the bill will go to the governor, who has vowed to sign it into law.
The bill opens the door for South Carolina to resume executions for the first time in a decade. The state has had to postpone three executions due to a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs, caused by drug companies who wanted to crack down on how their products are being used.
Under current South Carolina law, lethal injections are the default mode of execution, meaning that unless an inmate chooses another method of execution, they cannot be forced to die by any other means.
The bill passed Wednesday would make the electric chair the default mode of execution, meaning that if no other method were available, an inmate would have to die in the chair. Inmates will be offered the choice to die by firing squad if that method is available as well.
Proponents of the bill say changing current law is the only way to carry out capital sentences within the state. Very few Republicans stood up to advocate for the bill Wednesday.
Opponents, however, say the bill is cruel and that the death penalty itself is flawed.
On the House floor Wednesday, S.C. Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, called Republicans who support the bill hypocrites for supporting a “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban earlier this year while professing to support life, while also supporting capital punishment.
“Somehow, here today we find ourselves in the position in this body to once again give a voice to that belief system that in this state, we’re a state about life, while simultaneously taking up a bill that’s not about life, that doesn’t cater to the ‘belief system’ in our state that its a state of life,” Bamberg said. “This is about death.”
S.C. Rep. Gil Gatch, R-Dorchester, said he had a hard time reconciling his belief in the sanctity of life with the enforcement of the death penalty. Gatch urged his fellow Republicans to vote against the bill to be philosophically consistent. He also criticized some of the methods of execution proposed in the bill.
“Some of this that we’re talking about borderlines carnival,” Gatch said, referring to the implementation of the electric chair and the firing squad as methods of execution.
S.C. Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson, said the death penalty couldn’t be fairly given out until the state could be 100% certain that the accused person is guilty. One in ten people sentenced to death across the country are eventually exonerated.
Hill called the killing of an innocent person on death row “100% just as heinous, 100% just as unjust as taking an unborn human out of a mother’s womb.”
Hill called on his colleagues to hold off on passing a bill that could resume executions until the state could pass criminal justice reform to cut down on wrongful application of capital sentences.
“In reality, we have to ask ourselves if there is any possibility that we could be wrong in handing out a death penalty verdict,” Hill said. “Doesn’t the death penalty make injustice permanent.”
Another abortion opponent in the House, Rep. Josiah Magnuson, R-Spartanburg, tried to explain his support for the bill, saying he thinks someone forfeits their right to life when they take another life.
Ahead of the vote on the bill, Bamberg reminded his colleagues that if they moved to pass the bill, they would directly be sending three men to death. As of Wednesday, three inmates had received stays of execution due to the state’s lack of lethal injection drugs. Bamberg questioned whether House members knew their names or their crimes.
“If you push the green button at the end of the day … you may as well be throwing the switch yourself,” Bamberg said. “That is how real this is.”
Bamberg gave a graphic description of what happens to the inmates body during an electrocution, including smoking, jerking and defecating. Later, the Bamberg Democrat had staff put photos of botched executions on a projector screen in the House chamber.
“This is the reality of what we’re voting on today,” Bamberg said.
Bamberg pushed to get a number of amendments added to the bill, including ones that would require a mental health examination ahead of the execution, a public broadcast of all executions and would allow families of those wrongly executed to sue the Department of Corrections. S.C. Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, accused Bamberg of trying to tack amendments on the bill to make it fail.
All Bamberg’s amendments ultimately failed.
Democrats also proposed two amendments to ban the death penalty outright, though they were both easily defeated by Republicans. If the amendment were to pass, South Carolina would have followed the suit of the Virginia legislature, which voted to abolish the death penalty in March.
S.C. Rep. Leola Robinson, D-Greenville, was the sponsor of one of the amendments to abolish the death penalty. She said passing the bill would mean taking a step backward for South Carolina.
“These are things that should remain in those dark days of the past,” Robinson said.