Only three times has a prisoner been executed by firing squad in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, but one of South Carolina’s 37 death row inmates could very well be the fourth. The Palmetto State’s Senate passed a bill to allow firing squad as a method of execution by a 32-11 vote. Now it’s up to the House to decide, as Governor Henry McMaster has already said he’ll sign it if it lands on his desk.
Looking for Options
It was Gov. McMaster who asked the state’s legislature for a way to sort the nearly decade-long break from executions. The state hasn’t been able to get the drugs for lethal injections. Since inmates under the current law can choose between lethal injection and electric chair and inmates know about the lack of drugs, folks have been picking the poison – bringing the execution process to a halt. The South Carolina Senate and House of Representatives were both working on bills that would remove the choice of lethal injection whenever the state can’t use that particular method. In the Senate version, two former prosecutors turned state senators – Democrat Dick Harpootlian and Republican Greg Hembree – proposed adding firing squad as an option as well.
Several Democrats joined with the Republicans and passed the bill through the state Senate, 32-11. While the House version doesn’t include fusillading, there’s a good chance they’ll adopt the Senate version now that it has passed and the governor has shown his support.
Death by firing squad was once a fairly common execution method, but since the United States reinstated the death penalty, only three states have allowed it, and only one has actually used it. The state of Utah has shot three prisoners, the last being in John Albert Taylor in 1996. If the House passes the bill, South Carolina will become the fourth state, behind Utah, Oklahoma, and Mississippi, to offer it as an option.
A Humane Choice?
State Sens. Harpootlian and Hembree both alluded to the firing squad as a humane option, but those who oppose say it’s barbaric. Who’s right? Somehow, both sides are both right and wrong. When done right, lethal injection is fairly quick – but it isn’t instant. Neither is the electric chair. If done right, several .30 caliber bullets directly into the heart of the condemned from a relatively close range is about as instant as it gets. Despite all the sound and fury of gunfire – especially inside an enclosed space – this option ensures a quick death with far less potential for pain than the other legal methods.
Of course, the marksmen could miss. That has happened in the past, in less regulated settings. But then, there are stories of executions by electric chair, lethal injection, gas chamber, hanging, and even beheading going horribly awry as well.
In the end, it depends on how one chooses to define “humane” for the purpose of this debate. According to Merriam-Webster, humane means “marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals.” One could make a solid argument that a mercy killing – quickly and efficiently ending the pain of someone with no chance of survival – fits this definition, as it could be done out of compassion and sympathy. Applying the term to ending the life of a prisoner who isn’t otherwise dying and would rather just go home, or even just stay in prison, is a bit of a stretch, no matter how quick and painless.
In short: Taking someone’s life by force isn’t humane by any stretch of the definition – but, so long as it’s effective and the prisoner’s choice, no available method is really any more or less humane than the next. Of course, calling it humane is a political requirement for those who hope to keep the death penalty and their positions of power at the same time.
Regardless of whether capital punishment is just, or just a necessary evil, it is the law in many states. Might as well give the condemned some options on how they go out.
Read more from James Fite.