South Carolina has completed preparations to execute the state’s death-row prisoners by firing squad.

In a news release issued on March 18, 2022, the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) announced that it had notified the state attorney general’s office that SCDC “is now able to carry out an execution by firing squad as required by law.” The announcement removed a major hurdle in South Carolina’s efforts to restart executions. The state has not carried out any executions since 2011, saying that it had been unable to obtain the drugs required under its prior lethal-injection execution protocol.

In May 2021, Governor Henry McMaster signed into law a bill that made the electric chair the state’s default method of execution and added the firing squad as an alternative method. The law gives death-row prisoners the right to designate which of the three methods will be used. If lethal injection is deemed unavailable, the prisoners must designate death by firing squad or be electrocuted.

Previously, South Carolina law authorized executions by lethal injection or the electric chair, with lethal injection the default unless a prisoner specifically chose electrocution. The bill as originally drafted made the electric chair the default method. However, State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who as a former prosecutor witnessed an electric-chair execution, introduced an amendment to make the firing squad available as a less painful alternative. Prisoners executed in the electric chair “are burned to death,” Harpootlian said. “It’s tragic that a civilized society should eliminate anybody, … [but i]f you’ve got to do it, this is a better way,” he said.

Electrocution and firing squad “are execution methods that previously were replaced by lethal injection, which is considered more humane,” said Lindsey Vann, Executive Director of the nonprofit legal services organization, Justice 360, which represents South Carolina death-row prisoners. The new law, she said, “makes South Carolina the only state going back to the less humane execution methods.”

South Carolina has repeatedly used failed death warrants over the past five years as a device to pressure the state legislature to change state law to facilitate executions.

In November 2017, Governor Henry McMaster and Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling held a press conference outside barbed-wire fences at the Broad River Capital Punishment Facility in Columbia, South Carolina, falsely claiming that the lack of lethal-injection drugs was preventing the state from executing death-row prisoner Bobby Wayne Stone. At the press conference, McMaster urged the legislature to act quickly to adopt a secrecy statute to prevent the public from learning the identity of execution-drug suppliers. In fact, Stone’s case was still in the courts and the death warrant was never going to be carried out.

A secrecy bill and a bill to make the electric chair the default method of execution were introduced in the state legislature in January 2018 and again in the 2019–2020 legislative session but failed to pass.

On November 6, 2020, the state scheduled the execution of Richard Moore for December 4, 2020. SCDC, however, refused to tell Moore how it intended to carry it out the execution. “Never before has SCDC denied a condemned inmate and his counsel access to the execution protocols in advance of an imminent execution,” Moore’s lawyers wrote in his application for stay of execution. “Indeed, no other state in the country has executed someone under such an extreme veil of secrecy.”

In an order issued November 30, 2020, the South Carolina Supreme Court stayed Moore’s execution, writing that it had “been advised the South Carolina Department of Corrections does not have, and will not be able to obtain, the drugs required for execution by lethal injection.” Because of that, the court said, it stayed Moore’s execution “until the South Carolina Department of Corrections advises the Court it has the ability to perform the execution as required by the law.”

With a new methods-of-execution bill prefiled in the state senate, prosecutors sought an execution date for Brad Sigmon even though they still had no drugs to carry out an execution. On January 21, 2021, the Clerk of the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a notice of execution that scheduled Sigmon’s execution for February 12. The court vacated that notice on February 4, finding that “the execution is currently impossible” because South Carolina had no lethal injection drugs on hand. It then directed the clerk “not to issue another execution notice in this case until the State notifies this Court that the Department of Corrections has the ability to carry out the execution by lethal injection, that the petitioner has made an election to be electrocuted, or that there has been some change in the law which will allow the execution to take place.”

Then on April 22, as the bill was advancing in the state legislature, the clerk issued a notice scheduling the execution of Freddie Owens for May 14. Owens elected lethal injection as the method of execution, and on May 4, 2021, the court stayed the execution on similar grounds. It wrote: “Because the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) lacks the means to conduct an execution by lethal injection at this time, we … stay Petitioner’s execution until SCDC advises the Court it has the ability to perform the execution as required by the law.”

The legislature gave final approval to the bill on May 5 and Governor McMaster signed it on the day Owens was to be executed.

Shortly thereafter, South Carolina notified the state court that the law had changed and the executions could move forward, prompting the clerk to issue two new death warrants. However, after Sigmon filed a motion to stay his June 18 execution, SCDC submitted an affidavit to the court “certifying that, as of June 3, 2021, the only statutorily approved method of execution available in South Carolina is electrocution.” It submitted a similar certification in response to Owens’ motion to stay his scheduled June 25 execution. Questioned by the clerk, SCDC advised the court that lethal injection was “unavailable due to circumstances outside of the control of the Department of Corrections, and firing squad is currently unavailable due to the Department of Corrections having yet to complete its development and implementation of necessary protocols and policies.”

In separate orders issued on June 16, 2021, the court again halted Sigmon’s and Owens’ executions, ruling that SCDC’s attempt to execute the men by electrocution without offering them the alternative of lethal injection or firing squad violated the “statutory right of inmates to elect the manner of their execution.” Both orders also directed the court’s clerk “not to issue another execution notice until the State notifies the Court that the Department of Corrections, in addition to maintaining the availability of electrocution, has developed and implemented appropriate protocols and policies to carry out executions by firing squad.”

SCDC’s announcement March 18, 2022 suggests that the department is close to doing so.


Seanna Adcox, SC pris­ons agency says it can car­ry out an exe­cu­tion by fir­ing squad now, Post and Courier, March 18, 2022; John Monk, Firing squad ready to be car­ried out for inmate exe­cu­tions, SC’s prison sys­tem, The State, March 18, 2022; Caitlin Herrington, SC is now pre­pared to use a fir­ing squad for exe­cu­tions as Greenville men wait for death, Greenville News, March 18, 2022; Meg Kinnard, Firing-squad exe­cu­tions get the green­light in South Carolina, Associated Press, March 18, 2022; Jaclyn Diaz, Death row exe­cu­tions by fir­ing squad can now be car­ried out in South Carolina, NPR, March 18, 2022; Shawna Mizelle and Jamiel Lynch, South Carolina can now car­ry out fir­ing-squad exe­cu­tions, CNN, March 18, 2022; Jeffrey Collins, South Carolina House adds fir­ing squad to exe­cu­tion meth­ods, Associated Press, May 52021

Read the news release from the South Carolina Department of Corrections announc­ing its readi­ness to begin exe­cu­tions by fir­ing squad.