South Carolina’s 109-year history with the electric chair is clouded in controversy

·5 min read

Two Greenville men were scheduled to be executed this month, marking the state’s first use of the electric chair in 13 years.

But the chair’s return was halted Wednesday when the S.C. Supreme Court granted stays to Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens until the state can offer the firing squad as an alternative to its infamous electric chair.

The oak chair, purchased by the state more than 100 years ago, has sat idle at Columbia’s Broad River Correctional Institution since 2008, occasionally being tested to ensure it’s still operational, according to S.C. Department of Corrections spokesperson Chrysti Shain. In recent weeks, those drills became more frequent as the state prepared to execute Sigmon on Friday and Owens on June 25.

Electric chair deaths have a long history in South Carolina, serving as its primary execution method for most of the 20th century. Lethal injection, considered by many to be a more humane execution method, was introduced in 1995 and became death row inmates’ preferred choice.

But for the past decade, South Carolina has not been able to acquire drugs for lethal injection. That led lawmakers in May to change state law, once again making the controversial electric chair the default method when drugs are unavailable.

It’s a troubling development, some say.

“No state has really sort of ever gone back. In other words, gone from what is generally understood to be a more humane method to a less humane method of execution,” said John Blume, the director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, which conducts research on capital punishment and gives students the opportunity to assist in representing capital defendants.

All seven of the other states where electrocution is an optional execution method consider lethal injection as the primary one. While Tennessee allows for the use of the electric chair when drugs are unavailable, it has not yet faced that situation.

South Carolina’s electric chair, purchased in 1912 from New Jersey-based Adams Electric Company, is made of oak and copper and is “about the size of an ordinary rocker,” according to a 1912 article in The State newspaper. It cost the state $2,800, or about $77,000 adjusted for inflation, and was part of an $8,000 project to construct a new “death house” in Columbia, according to the paper.

The electrical components have been updated “as needed,” according to Shain, but the wooden chair has remained the same since 1912. Two women and 246 men have taken their final breaths while strapped to it, including the oldest inmate, 66-year-old Charles T. Smith in 1946, and the youngest, 14-year-old George Stinney Jr in 1944.

Stinney’s case was vacated in 2014, albeit posthumously, due to errors in the trial that violated his constitutional rights. This week marks the 77th anniversary of his execution.

George Stinney Jr., 14, who was executed in South Carolina in 1944, was the youngest person legally executed in the United States in the 20th century.
George Stinney Jr., 14, who was executed in South Carolina in 1944, was the youngest person legally executed in the United States in the 20th century.

The electric chair’s introduction was a false promise of a better way to execute, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that educates the public on capital punishment. It does not take a position on the death penalty, but Dunham said it is “critical of the way in which it is administered.”

“This seems like a new technological development, and it is billed as something that will be fast and should be relatively painless,” Dunham said of the chair’s introduction in America. “That, of course, turns out not to be true.”

In South Carolina, it was a proposed improvement to hanging. By Blume’s estimates, hanging only worked as intended about 10-15% of the time. The rest were botched.

“A botch is when something produces an unintended result,” Dunham said. “With electrocution, the torturous nature of the execution comes with the process. So that’s not a botch. That happens even when the process works the way it’s supposed to.”

The electric chair still produces botched executions, though at a lower rate than other methods. Six electrocutions or 2 percent of the state’s electrocutions since 1912 have been botched, according to Amherst College professor Austin Sarat’s book, “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.” That compares to an estimated nationwide botched execution rate of 3.15% across all methods.

Botched electrocutions can take different forms. In the 1947 S.C. execution of Ernest Willis, his heart continued to beat after the initial jolt, requiring an additional series of shocks that resulted in a nearly six-minute electrocution, according to Charles Kelly’s book, “Next Stop, Eternity” and reporting by The Columbia Record. In other cases, inmates have caught fire or given off smoke.

While South Carolina no longer releases details about how it performs executions, information from other states reveal that inmates are typically strapped into the chair at their wrists, waists and ankles and electricity flows through electrodes located at the inmate’s head and leg . Executioners send an electric jolt between 500 and 2,000 volts through the electrodes for about 30 seconds, repeating the process until the inmate’s heart has stopped beating, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Even when executions go as planned, Blume and Dunham said the chair has a history of racial disparity. About three out of four S.C. inmates executed since 1912 have been Black, according to numbers provided by the S.C. Department of Corrections.

For crimes that did not result in victims’ deaths, the death penalty was “almost exclusively” used against Black people in the 20th century, according to Dunham, and South Carolina’s death penalty continues to be used more often in cases with white victims.

The chair’s well-known nickname, Old Sparky, also has ties to racial power dynamics, according to Dunham, dating back to the era of lynching.

“You would have nicknames for the trees from which people were hanged. It ties into the notion of execution as a means of social control as opposed to as a means of dispensing a just punishment,” Dunham said.

“[The nickname] signifies that we have this machine, and it’s going to get you,” he added.

Nobody in the S.C. Department of Corrections uses the nickname, according to Shain, the spokesperson. The facility is a “serious, somber place,” she said, and nicknames are not appropriate.

SC Executions

If you or someone you know has worked for the S.C. Department of Corrections and has information to share about executions or the state’s prison system, call reporter Nick Sullivan at 513-484-5791.

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