From firing squads to gas, legislators explore ways to execute death row inmates in absence of lethal drugs


South Carolina has no way of executing its more than 30 death row inmates, and state legislators are exploring how to fix that.

A Senate panel discussed Thursday looking into alternatives to lethal injection, the method the state most commonly used until the last set of drugs expired in 2013. Since then, the state has had no way of executing any of the 38 inmates on death row unless they choose to die by electrocution.

Bryan Stirling, director of the Department of Corrections, said the agency has been unable to obtain alternative drugs, because pharmaceutical companies that compounded them in the past have received a lot of outside pressure to end the practice.

During the hearing, several alternative methods of execution – from lethal gas to firing squads to morphine – were discussed. Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, suggested using fentanyl – an illegal, synthetically produced opioid that is often laced with heroin – that is seized by police.

“We need to make sure that these products are effective and don’t cause cruel and unusual punishment,” Stirling said. “We need to be careful how we do this.”

Stirling said he has looked into having the agency compound the drugs, but the most recent estimate placed the cost at about $1 million. He suggested the legislature pass a “shield law,” which would guarantee secrecy to pharmacies that provide the state with the drugs needed for lethal injections.

Even then, the corrections department would have to count on a drug company’s willingness to accept the shield law, said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

“You’re in a difficult spot,” Hutto told Stirling. “You’ve been given a task that you can’t carry out.”

The state’s longest-serving death row inmate, Fred Singleton, cannot be executed until he is declared mentally fit to face a sentencing trial. He was initially sentenced to death in 1983 for the rape and murder of a Newberry teacher.

There are no pending orders to execute an inmate. The majority of cases involving inmates slated for execution are in litigation. The last inmate to be executed in South Carolina was 36-year-old Jeffrey Motts in 2011.

As it was in Motts’ case, any of the state’s death row inmates could “volunteer” to be executed by dropping all appeals. After that, corrections department would have no way carrying out the execution unless the inmate chooses electrocution.

If an inmate suddenly volunteers for the death chamber, Stirling said he doesn’t know what would happen without the needed drugs.

“We’re in a place that we’ve never been before with lethal injection, electrocution and death penalty,” Stirling said. “If we can’t carry it out, we can’t carry it out.”