COLUMBIA - As judges decide if the electric chair or a firing squad are legal execution methods in South Carolina, lawmakers are trying to figure out how 14 other states have managed to get the drugs for lethal injections.
The state's latest attempt to end nearly 12 years without an execution is to pass a law shielding the identities of the company that provides the drugs and any pharmacist or prison employees involved.
A state Senate subcommittee approved the proposed shield law's first legislative step on Thursday, voting 3-1 to advance it to the full committee.
The Republican-dominated South Carolina General Assembly has joined the GOP governor in trying to restart executions. About 30 inmates are on death row and four of the condemned are out of appeals, but South Carolina's last lethal injection drugs expired about 2013, and there's no legal way to carry out their sentences.
Two years ago, the Legislature passed a law creating a firing squad and giving inmates a choice between dying by bullets to the heart or in the state's electric chair, which was first used to kill an inmate in 1913. The death chamber in Columbia last used it in 2008.
But that law is on hold, challenged by death row inmates who say both the firing squad and electric chair are constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishments.
Their lawyers agreed in oral arguments this month that lethal injection is, however, legal. And that led the justices to the same question posed by lawmakers and death penalty supporters - why can't South Carolina get the drugs?
Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told the five senators Thursday that the shield law would go a long way toward obtaining the drugs, but "even if we pass this - I want to be clear - this is not a guarantee that we're going to get the drugs. It's just another tool we can use to talk to these companies."
States with the death penalty started passing shield laws after pharmaceutical companies refused to sell them drugs, knowing they would be used to kill people. The states also worry that prison employees and others won't want to handle executions if their names are made public.
Fourteen states have carried out nearly 90 lethal-injection executions in the past five years. Many have shield laws. Some do not.
"They're not out there bragging about where they are getting their drugs from. The conversations we have at these meetings is, 'Yes we can do it, but I'm really not going to tell you where we get these drugs from,'" said Stirling, who has run the state prison system for a decade.
Without help from major pharmaceutical companies, the system would still need to find someone in the state willing to mix the drugs from other ingredients.
"Do you have a compounding pharmacy willing to sell you the drugs? In South Carolina, we'll find out if this passes," Stirling said.
Republican Senate subcommittee chairman Greg Hembree said the bill's goal wasn't to debate the legality of the death penalty, but deep moral issues inevitably arose in the discussion.
Transparency and respect for due process are hallmarks of American government, "but when we're talking about someone actually killed by the government, what is being used to kill, where this drug comes from, whether it is safe, whether it has been regulated - you and everyone else here will have no access to that information," warned Allie Menegakis, founder of South Carolina for Criminal Justice Reform.
Victim advocate Laura Hudson read off a few sentences detailing each crime which got the men sent to death row - killing wives or children, fatal robberies, shooting police officers. She said the state's inability to execute them is an affront to victims, because they "have a contract with the state for the murderer of their loved one to receive the death penalty."
The bill now goes on to the full Senate Corrections and Penology Committee.
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