COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina has 38 men on death right now but no way to carry out the death penalty. State law makes lethal injection the default method of execution but the state’s lethal injection drugs expired several years ago and pharmaceutical companies have refused to sell the state any more. While lethal injection is the default method, an inmate can choose the electric chair.
State Department of Corrections director Bryan Stirling appeared before a special Senate Study Subcommittee on Corrections Thursday to talk about the problem and possible solutions. He first told lawmakers about the problem two years ago and asked them to pass a shield law, which would prevent the public release of the names of any pharmaceutical companies that sell the drugs to the state. But the bill did not pass. Death penalty opponents are against any kind of secrecy surrounding the state carrying out the death penalty.
Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, asked director Stirling how states like Texas are able to carry out executions using lethal injection. He asked, “Why can they do it and we can’t?”
“They won’t say,” Stirling said. “I don’t know if they have a compounding pharmacy themselves. I don’t know if they’ve found a compounding pharmacy. I don’t know if they’ve found a company that will sell it to them. I know that they have somewhat of a shield law also.”
A compounding pharmacy would be able to manufacture the drugs needed for lethal injections. Stirling said he looked into the department setting up its own compounding pharmacy but found out it would cost about $1 million.
Senators also asked if it would be possible to use some other drug, since people die every day from lethal overdoses. Sen. Timmons asked, “What happens if use seized fentanyl? You get sued? It’s cruel and unusual punishment? What? What happens?”
Stirling replied, “Well, I’d point you to Oklahoma, where there were some problems. I think it was Oklahoma, where there were some problems with an execution where someone writhed on the table for I think it was 30 minutes. So we need to make sure that these products are, I know this is ironic for me to say this, but effective and don’t cause cruel and unusual punishment as directed by our Bill of Rights in the Constitution.”
Senators also asked about other options like a firing squad or poisonous gas. Any change would require lawmakers to take action. They could pass a shield law, which might allow the state to buy the lethal injection drugs. They could change the law to make the electric chair the default method of execution. Or they could adopt an additional method, like firing squad or gas chamber. Stirling said any change would likely lead to a lengthy court fight.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, told Stirling, “You’re in a difficult spot. You’ve been given a task that you can’t carry out and it’s not your fault. You’re asking us for help.”