Even though South Carolina has the death penalty, and 44 men on death row, it has no way to carry out an execution right now, unless an inmate were to choose the electric chair. The state’s supply of the drugs used for lethal injections expired in 2013 and drug companies have been unwilling to sell the state more. “Once we tell them that we’re the Department of Corrections, they stop the conversations,” says Bryan Stirling, director of the SC Department of Corrections.
State senators are working on a bill they hope will change that. The bill would shield pharmaceutical companies’ names from being released for selling lethal injection drugs to the state. “There’s not a guarantee that these companies would sell,” Stirling says. “No one has come to me and said, ‘If you have this shield law we will sell.’ We’ve asked the attorney general’s office for an opinion. They said that companies are included in the current law, but just out of an abundance of caution we want to go forward and go to the companies and say, ‘There’s a law on the books that will protect you.'”
He says companies are worried about death penalty opponents protesting against the companies or harassing them. The department even looked into becoming its own compounding pharmacy to make the drugs but that was too expensive.
State law states that executions will be carried out by lethal injection unless an inmate chooses the electric chair.
There is opposition to the bill, with Justice 360, a Columbia-based group that works to ensure that the death penalty is carried out in a fair and equitable way, saying it’s a secrecy bill, not a shield bill. Executive director Mandy Medlock says, “It would make all of it a secret, a state secret, so that the purchasing of the drugs, how much the drugs cost, how they’re compounded, where they’re compounded, all of it would be unavailable, so that nobody, once this law was passed, nobody would have access to those records–not the governor, not the legislature, not the general public, not the lawyers that work on the case, not the defendant or his family, not the victims and their families.”
She says an example of why that could be a problem is if an execution were botched, no one would be able to find out if there had been a problem with the drug or how it was made, to prevent future problems. “If our government is going to take the life of anybody on our behalf it should be done within full oversight of all of us. Nothing should be hidden from us,” she says. “And, of course, there’s always that fear–if the government starts keeping secrets from us in one area, then what’s next?”
Senators Mike Fair, R-Greenville, and Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, have proposed an amendment to the bill to give the state another option. Under their amendment, the state could carry out executions using nitrogen gas. Stirling says the department’s lawyers are researching that to make sure it wouldn’t be a Constitutional violation of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.