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Is electric chair cruel and unusual punishment? SC death row inmates ask judge

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Nine days before South Carolina is scheduled to carry out its first execution in nearly a decade, lawyers for two death row inmates argued before a federal judge that their upcoming “forced electrocutions” violate the Eighth Amendment.

The lawyers for inmates Freddie Owens and Brad Sigmon argued that while the Supreme Court has said in the distant past that the electric chair does not violate the Eighth Amendment, which protects from cruel and unusual punishment, the issue is “ripe to revisit at this point.”

“This is a method of execution that relies on mutilation,” attorney Gerald King said Wednesday morning in a Florence County federal court.

The lawsuit represents one of the last chances for Sigmon and Owens to delay their upcoming executions.

The lawsuit was first filed by Sigmon, a death row inmate convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend’s parents with a baseball bat. Sigmon is scheduled for execution on June 18. The suit is seeking an injunction to the executions.

Sigmon was later joined on the lawsuit by fellow death row inmate Owens, who was convicted of killing a convenience store clerk and who confessed to killing a detainee in the Greenville County Detention Center. Owens’ execution has been scheduled for June 25.

The only method the S.C. Department of Corrections has available to carry out executions is the electric chair, so it is very likely that both men will face death by electrocution.

Both have exhausted their regular appeals.

King argued there are more humane execution methods available to the inmates. While Corrections officials have long maintained they have been rejected by drug companies when seeking to purchase the three drugs needed for the lethal injection cocktail, King maintained the department had not provided proof of their efforts. King added that several other states and the federal government have been able to carry out executions by lethal injection in recent years, some using the single drug option of pentobarbitol.

“I think the balance of the evidence is that it’s available,” King said.

Daniel Plyler, the attorney representing the Department of Corrections, said department Director Bryan Stirling has submitted an affidavit in other cases saying the department is unable to purchase the drugs. He said drug companies have told the department to not even try to approach them about purchasing them.

Plyler added that getting drugs compounded for execution was not an option because compounding pharmacies required a prescription, and no doctor would write one. The state also reached out to the federal government and asked to purchase the drugs from them, but were denied, he added.

The South Carolina Legislature has also failed to pass a shield law, which would keep the name of companies that sell lethal injection drugs to the state out of the public record, Plyler said. Other states with a shield law on the books have been able to purchase lethal injection drugs.

“This isn’t a situation where we’re saying, ‘No, we don’t want to buy these drugs, they’re too expensive,’” Plyler said.

Attorneys for S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and the Department of Corrections also brought up the Supreme Court has, in the past, maintained that executions using the electric chair did not violate the Eighth Amendment. Grayson Lambert, McMaster’s attorney, said it was very unlikely that the inmates were going to succeed in this case.

“They are ultimately asking the United States Supreme Court to reverse itself, and it’s unlikely to do that,” Lambert said.

Federal Judge Robert Harwell did not immediately issue a decision Wednesday morning.

Sigmon is scheduled to be South Carolina’s first execution in about a decade. For years, state officials said they were unable to carry them out because they were unable to purchase the necessary drugs to carry out a lethal injection.

The nationwide drug shortage was caused by drug companies who wanted to crack down on how their products were being used.

A section of previous state law made the lethal injection the default method of execution in South Carolina, meaning unless inmates specifically selected to die in the electric chair, the state could not force them to die using that method. That meant that as long as inmates selected the lethal injection or didn’t make a choice at all, they could not be executed.

As a result, three inmates had their executions stayed in recent years as lawmakers worked to find a way to resume executions.

This legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that changed the default method of execution from the lethal injection to the electric chair. Inmates are, however, offered a choice between the chair, the firing squad and the lethal injection, but if a method is not currently available, the inmate loses that choice.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster signed that bill into law in mid-May.

Quickly, that law was challenged in court. Lawyers for Sigmon and Owens appeared in a Richland County court Monday to argue that the new law is unconstitutional and asked a judge to block it from taking effect, which would essentially delay their clients’ executions.

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

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