Judge denies SC inmates’ challenge to electric chair, attempt to stall executions

·3 min read

A federal judge denied two South Carolina death row inmates’ request for an injunction, which would delay their upcoming executions.

In his order issued Friday, Judge Robert Bryan Harwell said the inmates failed to prove that their claims that the electric chair violates the Eighth Amendment — which protects against cruel and unusual punishment — are unlikely to succeed in court, and therefore, he could not give them an injunction.

“Legal precedent and the weight of legal authority are against them,” Harwell wrote. “The United States Supreme Court has never held that a State’s chosen method of execution qualifies as cruel and unusual.”

Harwell’s decision comes just days before the first of the two inmates, Brad Sigmon, is scheduled to be executed. Sigmon, who was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend’s parents with a baseball bat, was scheduled to be executed in the electric chair June 18.

The other inmate, Freddie Owens, is scheduled to be executed in the electric chair the following week on June 25. Owens was convicted of murdering a convenience store clerk and confessed to another murder of a fellow detainee at the Greenville County Detention Center.

In federal court Wednesday in Florence, attorneys for Owens and Sigmon argued that the electric chair, the only method of execution available to the inmates, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, which protects from cruel and unusual punishment. While the Supreme Court has said in years past that the electric chair is a permissible method of execution, lawyers argued that they have not done so recently and the issue is “ripe to revisit at this point.”

The attorneys argued there are more humane methods available to the inmates, despite the S.C. Department of Corrections’ insistence that it is unable to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out an execution by lethal injection. The lawyers pointed to other states that have been able to purchase the drugs in recent years.

Attorneys for the corrections department and S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster maintained in court that, despite the department’s best efforts, officials were unable to obtain either the three drug cocktail South Carolina traditionally uses for the lethal injection or the single drug option, pentobarbitol, used by the federal government and some other states.

They added that the inmates’ lawyers were unlikely to get the Supreme Court to rule against itself when it comes to the legality of the electric chair.

South Carolina’s employment of the death penalty came under the spotlight as lawmakers pushed to change the state’s existing execution law this year.

Under the states old laws, the lethal injection was the default method of execution, and unless an inmate specifically chose to die in the electric chair, the state could not force them to do so. After drug companies decided to crack down on how their products were being used, South Carolina officials struggled to purchase the necessary drugs for a lethal injection, they said, meaning inmates could not be put to death.

As a result, three inmates received stays of execution because the state did not have the means to put them to death.

In May, state lawmakers changed the execution laws so South Carolina could resume putting inmates to death. Under the new law, the electric chair is the default method of execution, but if the state has the ability to carry out an execution by firing squad or lethal injection, the death row inmate can choose one of those options.

Currently, the state Department of Corrections can only offer death by electrocution. The state is still developing protocols for carrying out a death by firing squad, an option only recently added to state law by legislators.

Sigmon and Owens’ earlier efforts to delay their execution have failed. The pair asked a circuit court judge in Richland County to block the new law from taking affect, arguing that it’s unconstitutional.

Late Tuesday afternoon, circuit court judge Jocelyn Newman did not grant an injunction to the inmates, saying their claims had “little likelihood of success.”

The inmates have appealed their case to the state Supreme Court.