Speed Reads

Dark Ages

South Carolina can't electrocute death row inmates who opt for nonexistent firing squad, court rules

South Carolina, like many U.S. states, has been unable to obtain lethal injection drugs, so in May lawmakers passed and Gov. Henry McMaster (R) signed a law giving death row inmates a choice: the electric chair or a firing squad. Brad Keith Sigmon, scheduled to be executed on Friday, chose the firing squad, but because South Carolina doesn't yet have a firing squad set up, the state Supreme Court on Wednesday halted all executions until South Carolina can give prisoners the bleak choice it promised them, CNN reports.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections said a "firing squad is currently unavailable" because it has "yet to complete its development and implementation of necessary protocols and policies." The state Supreme Court responded by vacating the execution orders for Sigmon and Freddie Owen, scheduled to be put to death on June 25, until "the Department of Corrections, in addition to maintaining the availability of electrocution, has developed and implemented appropriate protocols and policies to carry out executions by firing squad." South Carolina hasn't executed an inmate since 2011.

Meanwhile, Arizona has secretly refurbished its gas chamber, even though it has lethal injection drugs. Arizona prison officials bought materials in December to make hydrogen cyanide gas, the same gas the Nazis used to murder 865,000 Jews in the Auschwitz concentration camp alone. "Whether or not one supports the death penalty as a general matter, there is general agreement in American society that a gas devised as a pesticide, and used to eliminate Jews, has no place in the administration of criminal justice," the American Jewish Committee said last week.

The U.S. lethally gassed 594 prisoners between 1924, when the world's first gas chamber was used in Nevada, and 1999, when Arizona executed Walter LaGrand, who gasped and writhed for 18 minutes, says Scott Christianson, author of a book on "the Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber." Arizona halted executions in 2014 after Joseph Wood took two gasping hours and 15 doses of a two-drug lethal injection cocktail to die. Arizona has scheduled two executions for August and September. It's not clear if the gas chamber could be used.

"You have to wonder what they were thinking to seriously believe that executing a prisoner with cyanide gas is morally acceptable in 2021," the Death Penalty Information Center's Robert Dunham told The Associated Press. Arizona officials say they're following the state constitution.