USA: Two men face execution in South Carolina

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On 14 May 2021, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster signed into law revisions to the state’s death penalty statute that allow those sentenced to die to choose between execution by firing squad or electric chair if lethal injection drugs are not available. The law was passed in response to the state’s inability to secure the drugs necessary for lethal injection, as defined under the state execution protocols. The South Carolina Supreme Court soon after scheduled two executions on 18 and 25 June, respectively. 

The new South Carolina law keeps lethal injection as the primary method of execution but states that if lethal injection is unavailable "then the manner of inflicting a death sentence must be by electrocution, unless the convicted person elects death by firing squad." The new law also maintains the provision that those under sentence of death must make their election within 14 days of their execution date "or it is waived." If the person sentenced to die does not make an election, the state's Department of Corrections will use electrocution to carry out the execution. The law previously made lethal injection the default form of execution if no choice was made. Both men were sentenced under the older version of the law that made lethal injection the default execution method, but reserved the choice for electrocution. According to media reports, the man scheduled to be executed on 18 June did not choose between electrocution or lethal injection, while the man scheduled to be executed on 25 June elected for lethal injection. The South Carolina Department of Corrections has not yet created a firing squad – so death by the 109-year-old electric chair is the only means of execution at this time. 

The USA death penalty system is deeply flawed and arbitrary. There have been more than 1,500 executions in the USA since judicial killing resumed under revised statutes in 1977, yet research and individual cases have continuously shown that race, particularly of the murder victim, plays a role in who is sentenced to death. As of 7 June 2021, 185 people have been exonerated from death row since 1977. In numerous cases, prisoners have gone to their deaths despite serious doubts about the proceedings that led to their convictions, including without adequate legal representation. People with serious mental and intellectual disabilities have been subjected to the death penalty in violation of international law.

No executions have been carried out in the state of South Carolina since May 2011. As of June 2021, 23 US states have abolished the death penalty and 13 have not carried out executions in more than 10 years – including the State of South Carolina. Figures on 2020 executions and death sentences in the USA represented the second lowest yearly totals recorded in 29 and 49 years, respectively. If these executions move forward, they would be just the second and third executions to be carried out at the state level in 2021. The Trump administration previously executed 3 individuals (2 men and 1 woman) at the federal level in January 2021. 

As of today, more than two-thirds of all countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence, or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. The organization campaigns for total abolition of the death penalty.

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